If you’re getting a little uneasy about President Obama reprising Bush Administration policies with new gloss — my personal favorite being his decision to continue the policy of ‘rendition’, under which terror suspects are sent to third countries where the rules governing interrogation are more permissive, but Obama promises to do it “with greater oversight” — his Middle East peace plan is unlikely to make you feel much better.
As I wrote here, Obama’s Mideast peace plan appears to be a hybrid between President Bush’s “roadmap” and his “Annpolis” initiative — Roadmapolis, if you like.
President Bush’s “road map” first emerged as the US began preparing to invade Iraq. Key Arab regimes had long made clear to Washington that the price of even tacit support for the war was American willingness to address a conflict that generated immense hostility towards the US on the Arab street. The “road map” read like a crack of the whip, outlining a timetable that promised a provisional Palestinian state by the end of 2003 and a resolution of all final status issues by the beginning of 2005. But the Bush administration gave the Israelis and Palestinians no reason to take it seriously; its purely symbolic purpose was plain to see.
The Bush administration made a second high-profile stab at the peace process in the form of the Annapolis Conference held in November 2007, which drew in not only the Israelis and Palestinians, but also a range of Arab states – in what it portrayed as a symbolic affirmation of the administration’s policy of building an alliance of Arab moderates with the US and Israel against the region’s radicals, namely Hamas, Hizbollah, Syria and Iran. Again, there was little reason for the Israelis or Palestinians to take the process seriously. Annapolis simply invited them to talk among themselves about what a peace agreement could look like. The conversation went nowhere, of course, but the fact that it was happening at all was the point for the Bush administration, whose new priority had become rallying Arab support against Iran and its allies.
Despite the Israelis giving him a no-but answer on his demand for a settlement freeze, Obama will soon unveil a plan for a resumption of final-status talks between the two sides, on a two-year time frame. The initiative will be launched with a high-profile summit.
As jaded as this may seem, it’s hard not to label the new process “roadmapolis”. While it would mimic the high-profile launch of Annapolis, it will avoid the mistakes of leaving them to talk among themselves by putting US officials in the room. And like the road map, it will provide a strict timeline and a detailed set of benchmarks. The US is unlikely at this stage to outline proposals of its own for resolving final status issues.
But the roadmap set strict timelines, which were ignored — and the Israelis are already making clear that they plan to ignore much of what Obama is demanding of them — and Annapolis actually proved the futility of relying on bilateral talks to resolve a conflict in which the balance of power between the adversaries is so hopelessly unequal.
In the best-case scenario, Obama is kicking the can down the road. A gloomier explanation might hold that like Bush before him, he’s simply going through the motions in the hope of rallying Arab support against Iran.