Sixty-five years ago, Friedrich Hayek asked whether there was “a greater tragedy imaginable than that, in our endeavor consciously to shape our future in accordance with high ideals, we should in fact unwittingly produce the very opposite of what we have been striving for?” Sadly, the Obama administration’s Middle East policy is a Hayekian tragedy in the making. The administration’s attempt to pressure Palestinians and Israelis into negotiations — undertaken, no doubt, in pursuit of peace — may well cause another outbreak of violence in the Holy Land.
Next week’s summit meeting — which will be hosted by President Barack Obama and attended by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah — will mark the resumption of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Almost a year ago, President Obama told Netanyahu and Abbas that “it is past time to start talking about negotiations.” After many months of pressuring both sides, the administration has finally been able to bring both sides to the table. But in spite of the administration’s insistence, it is too early, not too late, to begin negotiations on a final peace accord.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plan to establish a de-facto state by August of next year has been gaining ground. The timeline might be unrealistic, but the plan represents a major and necessary shift in the Palestinian approach. From Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the Palestinian national movement in the 1920s, to Yasser Arafat, Palestinian leaders have focused solely on liberation and left the important task of state-building for later. Fayyad broke with that tradition and reversed the order: state-like institutions first, a state later.
That is the right order. The liberation-only approach has failed Palestinians time and again. The nation-building approach, on the other hand, was practiced successfully by the Zionist movement well before the establishment of Israel in 1948. The overwhelming disparity between Israelis and Palestinians today results largely from the opposite paths they have chosen.
Netanyahu, while not endorsing Fayyad’s plan, accepts its premise when he emphasizes economic development and rule-of-law reforms as steps toward peace. His removal of road blocks and bureaucratic impediments to economic growth in the West Bank shows that he is serious about what he calls “economic peace.” The West Bank economy, which grew by seven percent last year, will likely grow even faster in 2010, showing that such policies can produce quick dividends.
Both sides, then, are moving in the right direction. But American pressure to return to the negotiating table prematurely risks killing the Palestinian state in the cradle. A focus on a final-status agreement will divert Palestinian attention from the hard tasks ahead. If the US pressures Israel to accept a Palestinian state without Fayyad’s reforms, it will not be worthwhile for the Palestinian leader to pursue them at a high political cost. Israel too will not take steps to accommodate economic development and reforms, as those steps would involve security risks and concessions that the Israelis want to save for a final-status deal.
Of course, unsuccessful American involvement in Middle East peace negotiations is hardly new. As Leon Hadar of the Cato Institute explains in his book “Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East,” such involvement “not only raises expectations that cannot be fulfilled,” but also “produces disincentives for the players involved to do what they need to do…The Israelis and Palestinians assume that they should be rewarded by Washington for making concessions that are perceived as ‘favors’ to the Americans. At the same time, the Arab and European governments refrain from assuming responsibility for trying to help resolve the conflict.”
When the alternative is stagnation and violence, outside pressure, even when it has little chance of success, may not be bad policy. But when both sides finally begin taking the steps necessary for progress, there can be no worse policy than pressuring them to “seal the deal.”
A Palestinian state, if established, will have to live side by side with Israel. Peace demands that it will be a functioning state. A failed one will not do. Efforts to establish a state before it can function will only lead to another Gaza. Surely that is not what Nobel peace laureate Barack Obama is striving for.