Last Friday's drive from Washington, D.C. was especially torturous. Pulling onto I-95 South for the trip to Fredericksburg, your humble correspondent was greeted with nothing but mile after mile of brake lights. Residents of New York, LA (or any other major city) might disagree, but it's hard to beat the nation's capital for perpetual gridlock. Over the next three hours, I covered less than 40 miles, before finally reaching my exit. I'm eternally thankful that my current job takes me to D.C. only four or five days out of the month.
And, the radio was no companion, either. I was listening to WTOP, the all-news outlet, because their afternoon traffic reporter (Bob Marbourg) is one of the best. Unfortunately, his colleagues at the anchor desk were all atwitter about the latest, supposed "breakthrough" in the Middle East process. In case you haven't heard, the Israelis and Palestinians will resume negotiations in Washington next month, and President Obama hopes to have a final deal ironed out by the fall of 2011. Judging from the commentary by WTOP reporters (and during hourly newscasts from CBS), this was the biggest diplomatic news of the year--maybe the decade.
Pardon our lack of enthusiasm, but haven't we been down this road before? At the Wye River summit in 1998, the Israelis offered the Palestinians everything they wanted--and then some--but (predictably) Yasser Arafat refused to live up to the bargain. The agreement died two years later, when the PLO gave the green light Al-Aqsa Intifada. Since then, talks between the two sides have continued periodically, but they've been officially suspended for the past two years.
Which brings us to an essential question: why will things be any different this time? The Obama Administration believes that both PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu need a deal, but there are too many factors working against them. For starters, Mr. Abbas controls only the West Bank, territory that was supposed to be part of the Palestinian State. The other major parcel, the Gaza Strip, is in the hands of Hamas. The terrorist organization won't be a part of the talks in Washington, since it remains committed to the destruction of Israel.
As for Mr. Netanyahu, he's got plenty on his plate beyond the peace talks. There's the matter of Iran and its nuclear program, and whether Israel will launch a military strike before Tehran can build a bomb. Closer to home, the Syrian military (and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon) are arming themselves to the teeth, raising the specter of a possible multi-front war in the very near future. Whatever the upcoming talks yield, Mr. Netanyahu has no assurances that the PA wouldn't join a conflict against Israel and even if he reaches an uneasy truce with Abbas, there are greater threats to worry about. At this juncture, "peace" with a shaky PA government does little to enhance Israel's overall security.
And the talks will do little to help Mr. Abbas. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton, writing in today's New York Daily News, notes that Obama's insistence on talks will actually weaken the PA leader:
"...Ironically, the Obama administration, by forcing the talks into being, has undercut Abbas, weakening its own designated Palestinian leader. Many believe that the Palestinian Authority has neither the legitimacy nor the capability to make hard concessions to Israel, or to carry through with its commitments and obligations even if a peace agreement could be achieved. Abbas' failure in the coming talks will only reinforce this perception, and may well be a death blow to the remaining shreds of his leadership. Moreover, while the talks' collapse may not immediately or directly strengthen the Hamas terrorists, that is almost inevitably one of the most serious long-term consequences.
More importantly, as Mr. Bolton observes, renewed focus on the peace process diverts U.S. attention (and resources) away from more pressing issues, including Iran's nuclear program:
The human and political resources already invested in Obama's ceaseless effort to resume direct negotiations also represent an enormous "opportunity cost," as the economists say. By diverting U.S. time and attention from more pressing Middle East problems, particularly Iran's nuclear weapons program and its worldwide support for terrorism, peace process diplomacy allows graver threats to grow.
That brings us to essential question #2: with Iran in a final sprint towards attaining a nuclear weapons capability, why aren't we focused on that issue? The answer, sadly, can be found in the administration's approach to the nuclear crisis. For almost two years, Mr. Obama and his team have offered Tehran a series of carrots, hoping to bring the Iranians to the bargaining table. In response, the Mullahs have repeatedly thumbed their noses, judging (correctly) that the current President has all-but-ruled out military action against Iran. With nothing to fear--and a nuclear weapons program to gain--Tehran is focused on getting the bomb.
Indeed, if we're reading the administration correctly, they seem to have given up on deterring Iran's nuclear ambitions. Realizing that Ahmadinejad will soon announce his nation's entry into the nuclear club, the White House is casting about for a public relations "counterweight"--a policy "success" in the Middle East that Mr. Obama can tout in the run-up to the 2012 elections.
We realize the notion seems rather bizarre; against the backdrop of a nuclear Iran, no one really cares if Israel and the PA reach an agreement that will quickly collapse. But the president's friends in the media are still willing to carry his water. If he can broker an even temporary agreement between the two sides, the mainstream press will hail it as a foreign policy "triumph," with Mr. Obama getting credit for solving the fundamental disagreement between Arabs and Israelis. Why, give that man another Nobel Peace Prize!
With extreme pressure on Tel Aviv, Mr. Obama figures he can work something out by next summer, slightly ahead of Iran's big announcement. That will give him a flood of favorable publicity and (presumably) something he can show to Tehran as the key to a wider peace agreement. Not that Ahmadinejad will pay any attention--his plans are focused squarely on enriched uranium, weapons design and delivery platforms.
President Obama, it seems, is a poor student of history. He apparently believes that with a little work on the Israeli-Palestinian problem, he can solve the entire issue of Middle East peace. It's vaguely reminiscent of the euphoria that accompanied Neville Chamberlain's infamous meeting with Hitler in September 1938, which was supposedly give us "Peace for our time."
The euphoria evaporated a year later when German Panzers rolled into Poland and Europe plunged into World War II. Back then, a few journalists who understood the Nazi menace recognized Chamberlain's mission for what it was--a fool's errand that merely set the stage for the conflict that followed.
Seventy years later, we can only wonder how the reporters and pundits at WTOP (and their buddies at CBS) will react when the latest round of peace talks fail, and we emerge from that process confronting a nuclear-armed Iran. At that point, will someone ask Mr. Obama if we "took our eyes off the ball" during the rush to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?