The absence of results-producing American leadership in the Israel-Palestine mess has led both the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as stakeholders around the Middle East and world, to doubt the seriousness of the US effort. Why invest in something when the US seems so willing to fold on many of its own proposals?
There are two envoys — perhaps working at cross-purposes though it’s tough to tell — in the efforts of Dennis Ross who is now in Israel trying to move Netanyahu and George Mitchell who is now the Jim Jones of the administration with constant DC cocktail party chatter wondering when he is leaving his post.
Whether the portfolio was shoved her way by the President or she wanted it herself, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now owns Israel/Palestine. It’s a defining challenge for her — and her only pathway at the moment to earning a Nobel Peace Prize, which she has never said she covets but probably wouldn’t mind receiving.
The bottom line is that Clinton has a mess on her hands. Dennis Ross, working out of the National Security Council office in the White House, has the most direct conduit to Bibi Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s decision to communicate delicate political issues and realities through Dennis Ross to the President, rather than using George Mitchell, got Dennis his NSC desk and immediately undermined Mitchell.
Now that Clinton is investing her political capital into the negotiations, what does she do about the competing Dennis Ross franchise?
And then Hillary Clinton has a problem in George Mitchell and how he is running the show. At Richard Holbrooke’s Memorial Service, I overheard one senior administration official comment, “With Mitchell talking about 41 years, I want to know if we are in year one or year 40. Sometimes when he talks, I just want to punch a pencil through my head.”
I have no idea what the 41 years refers to, but the frustration this official expressed was palpable — and it is telling that cocktail chatter in at least one part of the power crowd at Richard Holbrooke’s services was not about Af/Pak, China, not about Iran, not about North Korea, not about Wikileaks, but rather about the resolution on Israeli settlements then bubbling up at the UN Security Council.
Hillary Clinton can keep Mitchell to hold a scapegoat close if the Israel/Palestine franchise blows up in disaster. Or she can jettison him, own the whole franchise more directly, double down in attaching her own personal credibility to a positive outcome, and get a better franchise manager in place who will be her key overseer and implement her vision.
But the Israel/Palestine standoff is getting messy. The Palestinians have tabled a resolution at the UN Security Council condemning Israeli settlements, and the US is loathe to vote on it in fear of poking Bibi Netanyahu but also doesn’t want to backtrack on its own stated positions that the Israeli settlements in Occupied Territory are illegal.
Thus, the push back at the moment by the State Department — which has not said that the US will veto the pending resolution — is about the “venue” for this discussion. The US is trying to say it doesn’t believe the UN Security Council is the right spot to debate the matter.
This begs the question of what is the right spot — when clearly the Palestinians and Israelis are using every leverage point they can muster outside the neat but unproductive box that George Mitchell has put together to pursue their interests and claims.
When there is no American vision, no US leadership, no serious deep investment by the President and Hillary Clinton in making recalcitrants on both sides of the issue pay heavily for unconstructive positions, there will be “messiness” and those who want a deal on both the Palestine side — and also Israel’s (i.e., Livni) — will not stay inside the parameters Hillary Clinton wants.
(for those interested, here is link to an open letter from a variety of policy practitioners and commentators, former government officials and academics to President Obama asking him to support the pending UN Resolution mentioned above.)
– Steve Clemons