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April 17, 2014 11:18 am

Opinion: Lessons Learned From Obama’s Middle East ‘Peace Process’

avatar by John Bolton

PA Negotiator Erekat Addresses Reporters With Secretary Kerry. Photo: State Depatment.

Barack Obama has announced a “pause” for a “reality check” in his Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, although no one is really deceived by this euphemism. His “peace process” is verging on collapse, despite a year’s investment of U.S. diplomatic time and effort. Not only will the negotiations’ impending failure leave Israelis and Palestinians even further from resolving their disputes than before but America’s worldwide prestige will be significantly diminished.

Our competence and influence are again under question, Israel has been undermined and by misallocating our diplomatic priorities, we have impaired our ability to resolve international crises and problems elsewhere, such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

All of this was entirely predictable and therefore entirely avoidable. What sustained the administration’s effort this past year was the world of illusions that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry inhabit, a world unfortunately populated with many leading figures in the American and European political, academic and media elites.

While any U.S. failure internationally is disheartening — especially as we confront a rising tide of isolationist sentiment domestically — we should at least try to learn from the debacle. And while the list of lessons is unfortunately long, two in particular merit immediate attention.

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First, U.S. foreign policy cannot rest effectively on illusions about an ideal global order. In the Israeli-Palestinian case, the sustaining myth for decades has been that a lasting solution rests on creating a Palestinian state. Under this view, one wholly embraced by Obama and both Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, a sufficient amount of American pressure on Israel would produce such a state and peace would break out in the region. To the contrary, however, the gravest threat to Middle Eastern peace has long been Iran’s nuclear-weapons program and its financial support for terrorism.

Pursuing an ideological fixation with Palestinian statehood ignores the unpleasant reality that no Palestinian institutions possess democratic legitimacy (or any other justifiable claim to legitimacy), nor, sadly, do they have any discernible capacity for sustained adherence to difficult commitments and compromises, which Israel rightly insists upon.

Moreover, Obama never grasped that what matters most is not a new Palestinian state’s precise borders but the kind of state it would be — a terrorist regime like Hamas, an aging kleptocracy like Fatah or a truly representative Palestinian government. Until the third alternative becomes possible, Israel cannot safely settle with a “Palestine” that would simply resume its assault on Israel’s very existence at the earliest opportunity.

A second, equally pernicious delusion is the idea that diplomacy always is cost and risk free, that we should “give peace a chance” and that negotiation always is in America’s interest. This is simply nonsense. But it commands incredible support within the aforementioned political, academic and media elites. While negotiation is eminently suited for resolving the vast preponderance of international disputes, its utility in the most serious conflicts always requires judgment and strategy (or “cost-benefit” analysis, as the economists say).

In the early Cold War, for example, Secretary of State Dean Acheson resolutely rejected pressure from the U.S. left to negotiate with Moscow until Washington was able to do so from “a position of strength.” Acheson recognized that the conditions, timing and scope of negotiations all involve complex strategic and tactical considerations. None of it is cost or risk free.

Moreover, for America, entering into a fraught, potentially doomed negotiation incurs enormous costs, now being demonstrated throughout the Middle East as all of Obama’s major diplomatic initiatives (Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; Syria’s civil war; and Iran’s nuclear weapons program) crash and burn. Our failures have consequences. Both U.S. friends and adversaries will analyze the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and make judgments about advancing their own interests in light of the perception (and the reality) of a weaker, less-effective, less-competent U.S. presidency.

Today, for example, foreign governments understand far more clearly than Americans the potential implications of three more years of continued U.S. weakness under Obama.

Finally, the “opportunity costs” always are critical. While Obama and Kerry have been fiddling over Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Ukraine has been splintered; other former Soviet republics are at risk of the same; NATO is in disarray; Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programs proceed unhindered; Beijing’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas go unanswered; and the global threat of terrorism continues to metastasize. And that’s just a partial list.

It is simply not possible for mere human beings to invest as much time and energy as Obama and Kerry did in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and not thereby divert their attention from other problems and opportunities.

Whether the Obama administration is capable of correcting its errors is highly doubtful. But as American citizens consider who should succeed Obama, they must urgently consider whether the various prospective candidates live in the real world or in a world of illusion.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was originally published The Pittsburgh Tribune.

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