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Obama and the Middle East – A Mediator’s Perspective

I knew Obama’s Middle East speech last Thursday was a bombshell when my 19 year old daughter called me in a panic, “Mom, did you hear Obama’s speech on Israel?” Having spent all day in Atlanta with Israeli family that was in town for medical treatment, I had to confess that I hadn’t. Even though I knew about it, I had planned to catch the gist at my hotel room that night. “Mom,” she said, nearly in tears, “Obama wants Israel to go back to the pre-1967 borders.” I must confess a little pride at that moment that my 19 year old understood the full ramifications of that statement better than most American Jewish adults, let alone typically apathetic college students. I told her I would call her back after I had a chance to look at the speech and digest it.

Though I couldn’t get the video right away, I read enough to confirm her worst fears; an American President did indeed demand that Israel to return to the 1948 armistice lines. In reading the administration’s protests that Obama merely confirmed publically what had always been discussed privately, it occurred to me that if the US administration’s role is a neutral facilitator of the negotiation, then Obama’s failure in the Middle East can be explained through the paradigm of mediation.

Mediation is an alternate dispute resolution method that invokes the skills of a trained neutral who facilitates a dialogue between adversarial parties to help them craft their own agreement. Unlike a judge or arbitrator, a mediator can not impose an agreement on the parties. In a sense, Obama holds himself out as such a neutral, purporting to facilitate the Middle East peace talks as an outsider. When evaluating Obama’s recent conduct using mediation methodology, however, Obama shows that he is anything but neutral.

In order to understand why Obama’s strategy is failing, one must understand the mediation process. A mediation usually begins with all parties together so that each side can hear the other’s point of view directly from them, unfiltered by attorneys and lawsuits, or in this case of international relations- diplomats and negotiators. Each party will hopefully become more realistic about what parts of their position are achievable and what parts are not (think President Clinton’s Camp David). The process is confidential and barring very limited exceptions including agreement of all the parties, neither the parties nor the mediator may discuss what happened during the mediation with outsiders after it is over. The rational is that the parties must be comfortable enough to speak freely, without worrying that what they say will be used against them in subsequent litigation, or in our case, in the UN and world public opinion.

More often than not, mediators will also speak to the parties privately in order to learn more about a party’s position, understand issues a party may want to keep confidential, and push a party to be more realistic in their evaluation of their own position. This private meeting, called a caucus, is also confidential to the extent the party wishes it to be. In other words, the mediator may only share the parts of a caucus discussion that the party gives permission to share. In successive private or joint meetings, the mediator will present each party’s position to the other in an effort to inch them closer to an agreement. (For those old enough- and it pains me to admit that I am old enough-think Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy). One cardinal rule of this process; the mediator must only negotiate each party’s position- no more and no less. The mediator may never demand something the party him/herself did not ask for. To do so crosses the line from neutral mediator to advocate for one party over the other.

So how well has Obama done as a mediator of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? In a word; abysmally. First, he disclosed confidential discussions with parties, not just to the other party, but to the world. Claiming that he needed to jump start the process, Obama violated the pact of confidentiality required for any successful mediation. If, as Obama claimed, Israel discussed the return to pre-1967 borders behind closed doors, Israel certainly did not give Obama permission to disclose this publically. To the contrary, US administration officials assured Netanyahu as late as days before the speech, that Obama would not mention pre-1967 borders. Not only was the disclosure made without Israel’s permission, it was made while Netanyahu was on a flight bound for the US and unable to respond. Sandbagging a party in this manner destroys trust between the party and mediator, rendering any future dialogue all but impossible.

Second, not only did Obama disclose Israel’s bargaining position without permission, he misrepresented it as well. He stated that Israel should return to pre-1967 borders* as a starting position, without mentioning Israel’s condition for such a move; that the Palestinian refugees and their descendants give up the Right of Return into Israel in favor of a Right of Return to the newly created Palestinian state. Obama demanded Israel’s bottom line from Israel, without pressuring the Palestinians for Israel’s condition, thus leaving Israel with no bargaining chip. Only Jerusalem, which Israel has always stated is not negotiable, remains as leverage against a flood of refugees that will turn the Jewish state into a Palestinian one. Thus, Obama has fundamentally changed the equation long understood between the parties: from land concessions in exchange for giving up the right of return, to land concessions to start, and Jerusalem in exchange for the right of return.

Third, Obama asked for more than the parties themselves did on two occasions. The first time was during the Cairo speech in 2009 when Obama demanded that Israel freeze settlement development as a precondition of continued peace talks. He made a demand of Israel that the Palestinians themselves had never asked for; and once Obama asked for it, the Palestinians would certainly accept nothing less. In this instance, Obama crossed the line from neutral mediator to advocating the position of the Palestinians over that of the Israelis. Even so, Netanyahu froze settlement construction for ten months (paying a huge domestic political price in the process) but the Palestinians never stepped up and refused to return to the negotiating table.

In his May 19 speech, once again, Obama asked for something the Palestinians themselves never did; retreat to pre-1967 borders as a starting point with no concession in return. Once Obama put himself out in front of Palestinian demands, there is no reason for the Palestinians to return to the negotiation table with anything less. Rather than being a neutral and impartial facilitator of a discussion between the parties, Obama began advocating the Palestinian position better than the Palestinians.

Even Netanyahu’s conduct in the Oval office, which has been both criticized and praised, can be explained through the paradigm of mediation. Once a party’s position is undermined, the party will usually respond by becoming defensive, rude, or even leaving the negotiation entirely. To his credit, Netanyahu did none of these. Instead, he masterfully reframed the dialogue from what Israel must do to help create a Palestinian state to what the Palestinians must do to recognize a Jewish one.

Before Obama’s mediator missteps, Israeli and Palestinian officials were meeting on a regular basis to coordinate anti-terror investigations and lay the groundwork for so called final status talks. Since Obama has taken office, however, the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians has never been more distant. By betraying Israel’s confidences, undermining Israel’s bargaining position, and asking more from Israel than the Palestinians themselves had asked, Obama has forced the parties to harden their respective positions. Moreover, he has shown bias toward one party over the other and any claim he is a neutral and impartial facilitator of the peace process is no longer credible. Add Hamas, a terror organization whose sworn purpose is the destruction of the Jewish State, as a new party to the negotiation and it is clear that no productive dialogue will occur any time soon.

My analysis complete, I called my daughter back to try to calm her down. My assurances to her that Israel was under no obligation to do what Obama demanded, that Israel would always do what was best for Israel no matter what the world said, that Israel was strong enough to take care of herself, all suddenly rang hollow in the face of losing the support of her staunchest ally. I don’t believe those assurances any more than my daughter did, and for the first time since 1973, I fear for Israel’s future.

* Though Obama also included mutually agreed land swaps, this condition is fallacious as such swaps were rejected by the Palestinians at Camp David 2000, Taba in 2001, and the 2008 Olmert-Abbas negotiations.


Denise Tamir

Denise Tamir, JD founded The Fair Divorce, a group of caring professionals who guide couples through the confusing divorce process in an atmosphere of mutual respect and dignity.  We specialize in providing divorce mediation and document preparation services to couples who choose to represent themselves so that they can maintain control over their divorce.    MORE >

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