American foreign policy Americans for Peace Now Israel Mahmoud Abbas Palestinian Authority Palestinians

Questions about the “p-word” (pressure)

I’ve been on a blogging hiatus, in part because of work commitments, in part because I have nothing original to say, in part because of utter despair about The Situation.

When poking my head out and reading the musings of friends and fellow travellers, I sensed the gloves slowly being taken off when it comes to Obama and his team. That is good. A reliance on the hope that Obama, Mitchell, Clinton et. al know what they are doing has not been rewarded, to say the least.

MJ Rosenberg opines that “Obama needs to either engage seriously — and that means pressure on both sides to negotiate honestly — or he should call George Mitchell home.” Americans for Peace Now wants Obama to get much tougher and “play hardball” with both sides, although it carefully avoids articulating the precise nature of the “real costs” it wants Obama to impose:

This is not a call for the US to threaten aid to Israel or the PA. Playing hardball should not and must not mean taking steps that threaten Israel’s security or further hurt the Palestinian humanitarian situation. To the contrary: the US must assure both sides that as they move toward peace, America and the international community would work tirelessly to enhance their security, international legitimacy and well-being.

At the same time, the US has other forms of leverage which it can to bring to bear. This includes diplomatic signals of displeasure and shifts in tone on sensitive policy areas. The Obama Administration also has the ability to impose real costs on the parties, without cutting US assistance, both with and without Congressional approval. The Obama Administration should make a comprehensive assessment of its leverage options vis-à-vis all parties, and it should make clear to the parties that it is ready to use this leverage, if required.

The idea that Obama needs the political wiggleroom to lean on both sides rather than just one side was an article of faith in my book. I interviewed Israelis who provided examples of diplomatic leverage that the U.S. could bring to bear with Israel, short of cutting aid. For example, the U.S. need not automatically veto every UN resolution that castigates Israel. The U.S. could express its displeasure with arms deals Israel makes with other countries (like India), which have little to do with Israeli security and everything to do with supporting Israel’s military industrial complex. There are economic agreements with Israel that can be called into question.

But I hereby confess that I dodged an important question: “What can the U.S. do to “pressure” the Palestinians? It has already handed out plenty of economic and political carrots to Abbas and Fatah in the West Bank, bolstering their relative moderation with both economic aid and security training. Of course the U.S. could threaten to withhold it. But the prospect of losing currently available carrots has not prompted Abbas to climb down from his counter-productive position that no negotiations can commence until there is a total settlement freeze.

What more pressure could the U.S. exert? What “real costs” could the U.S. impose? Make Palestinian lives even more miserable than they are now? The Israelis have tried that with their cruel boycott of the Gaza Strip and it has not dislodged Hamas from power. When there is such an assymetry of both economic resources and military power, the U.S. actually has little leverage with the weaker party and a great deal with the powerful one.

Saying there must be “pressure on both sides” is the politically correct mantra of my political camp. But how can it be put into place with the Palestinians? Beats me.

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