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Obama’s March Madness in the Middle East

President Barack Obama will realize on his trip this week that Israeli and Palestinian leaders do not have an interest in a peace process, writes Alon Pinkas.
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York September 21, 2011. Netanyahu said Wednesday that direct negotiation was the only way to achieve a stable Middle East peace and the Palestinian effort to secure U.N. recognition of statehood ''will not succeed.''    REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque  (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) FOR BEST QUALITY IMAGE ALSO SEE: GM1E8BQ1LQZ01 - RTR2RMH8

When President Barack Obama is done with his NCAA March Madness bracket predictions, he's likely to look at a different set of brackets, one already filled for his convenience by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: the brackets representing the new Israeli government, the 33rd government since 1948-49 (yes, the average life span is less than two years).

Unlike the NCAA brackets, the Israeli government doesn't offer any potential for riveting upsets, breathtaking surprises, pretty Cinderellas or last-second clutch performances.

What Obama will see is what he will get in the near future: A right-wing government with unprecedented power and influence in the hands of settlers and their supporters.

A collection of ministers from Likud and "The Jewish Home" who are all on record as opposing the two-state model, a settlement-building freeze, the "Clinton Parameters" of 2000-2001 and the Olmert-Abbas understandings of 2008 as terms of reference for any kind of negotiations.

Not for nothing did a settler leader characterize the new government as nothing short of "a wet dream" for the settler movement. Who knew that some people define "wet dreams" that way?

If a peace process is what the United States wants it will have to seek one elsewhere, preferably an easy place like, say, the Korean peninsula.

A weakened Netanyahu, both electorally and politically, left at the mercy of his coalition partners represents the only possible quasi-drama that Obama may witness: another Israeli election cycle before he leaves the White House in January 2017 — not something to predicate foreign policy on.

Yes, the Israeli electorate demanded changes, but domestic socio-economic changes. Peace? Palestinians? Demography? Iran? Oh, please, just get the ultra-Orthodox out of the government and into the military, cut mortgage rates and lower the price of cottage cheese. Then let's go to the beach and have lunch. Let the next generation deal with those nasty issues.

Yes, the electorate expressed its disgust with cesspool politics-as-usual culture, and indeed the government may cosmetically look different, certainly with Yair Lapid as finance minister. But when it comes to foreign policy and security issues, or the maligned "peace process," nothing is appealing, even cosmetically, about this government.

It is true that Lapid, Tzipi Livni (the justice minister) and Jacob Peri, former head of the General Security Service and the new minister of science (from Lapid's party), would all advocate and push for some kind of a process. It's equally true that the government acutely lacks a pro-peace process center of gravity. Its only center of gravity projects disdain for a peace process that involves an actual commitment to the two-state model and the presentation of a map. A map — any map that would be acceptable as a reference involves dismantling settlements — something a Netanyahu government will not do, nor do its voters expect it to do.

Internal re-prioritization is what the voters wanted. In and of itself this is good and long overdue, but these are not Obama's concerns nor where the U.S. foreign policy interests in the region lie.

Effectively, there will be two Israeli governments: One dealing with security and foreign policy issues, led by Netanyahu, Avigdor Liberman (if and when he is exonerated in his trial) and new Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. It will be supported by an extremely right-wing Likud and the "Jewish Home" party, a national-religious-settler party headed by Naftali Bennett who recently announced that there would never be a Palestinian state.

The second government is the reform-minded, socio-economic issues, ultra-Orthodox conscription government. It will be headed by Lapid and Bennett. This is the government that may precipitate the fall of the Netanyahu government.

It is highly doubtful that Obama, embarking Air Force One en route to Israel and the Middle East, harbors any illusions on the feasibility, viability or even likelihood of a renewed Israeli-Palestinian "peace process." Obama is too shrewd, too savvy, too much of a realist to entertain such futile thoughts.

There are a multitude of reasons a "peace process" cannot seriously and sustainably be launched or "relaunched," as the professionals like to point out.

Some are substantive and pertain to the currently insurmountable gap between Israel and the Palestinians about what exactly constitutes the beginning of a process. What seems logical, reasonable and imperative to outside observers (say the "Clinton Parameters") is anything but these three to Israelis and Palestinians. Some are political, relating to the right-wing core of the Israeli government and to the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank-Gaza divide between Fatah and radical-terrorist Hamas.

Another reason is the abject absence of visionary and courageous leadership willing and capable of making bold decisions and shaping the future. Some reasons are regional: an increasingly unstable Middle East, an imploding Syria, a failed state in Egypt, an Iran intent on militarizing its nuclear program and the rise of Muslim Brotherhood political parties and sentiments is hardly a hospitable environment or a compelling incentive to take risks for the uncertainties of a peace agreement.

In essence, the reasons there is no political process between Israel and the Palestinians can be diluted and reduced to two: Israelis and Palestinians.

They just don't want to, or in colloquial political jargon, "there is nothing in it for them," certainly not under existing conditions.

Netanyahu does not fundamentally believe in the viability of the two-state model. The Palestinians cannot consent to anything less than guaranteeing them a state along the June 4, 1967, borders.

As goes the cliche, the Palestinians want a state without a real process and Israel wants a process without a real agreement. And as goes the sister-cliche, the maximum Israel can offer does not meet the minimum the Palestinians demand.

So simple, so tragic.

This is not some line from The Idiot's Guide to Middle East Pessimism (third edition). This has been reality for the last four years.

Both cling to a self-delusional concept that "time is on our side." Both endorse the misleading perception that the other side "is not a real partner." Both, effectively, have not been asked to pay a price for the absence of a process, so why interfere with the status quo? Both are driven by fears (understandable), mistrust (nurtured) and a self-defeating calculus of cost-effectiveness of engaging in a process.

The composition of the new government is such that it precludes a real process, as do Palestinian demands. It is incumbent on Israel and the Palestinians to come up with some game-changing, paradigm-shifting formula that would satisfy both and allow the United States to provide diplomatic assurances and cover, as well as deliver other countries.

Obama definitely will say all the right things about the need, inevitability and urgency of the two-state model as the only guarantee of Israel remaining a Jewish democracy and the Palestinian fulfilling their aspirations.

But he knows he cannot come up with a plan unless the two sides decide they want one; right now, they may not want one.

Ambassador Alon Pinkas was Israel's consul general in New York, adviser to Shimon Peres and chief of staff to Ehud Barak and Shlomo Ben Ami. He is currently a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum (IPF).

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