Which Knot Needs to Be Unraveled First — Israel-Palestine or Iran’s Nuclear Program?

This week’s award for most counterintuitive opinion piece goes to New York Times contributing writer Noah Feldman. The best-selling author, Harvard Law professor, and member of the group that wrote the post-Saddam Iraqi constitution, Feldman has never been one to shy away from controversy. Indeed, he has willingly waded into thickets of stormy debate on numerous occasions—usually on issues surrounding the role of religion in public life both at home and abroad.

Feldman’s latest piece in the Times magazine takes a look at what might reasonably be achieved by President Barack Obama during the remainder of his first term (and possibly a second), and finds little cause for hope on the domestic front given the conservative thumping handed out to Congressional Dems in the midterm elections earlier this month. It should come as no surprise then, that

Historically, presidents thwarted by the loss of a Congressional majority have turned their attention to foreign policy — no doubt the reason that Obama left for Asia within a few days of the election. The explanation for the shift in focus is constitutional as much as tactical. The founding fathers, convinced that diplomacy could not be conducted by committee, gave the executive substantial discretion in conducting foreign affairs. Although Congress can ask questions and conduct oversight hearings, a president who wants to have an impact internationally can act more or less on his own.

Even here, though, prospects for major achievements are on the foreign policy front are few and far between. (As a quick aside, it’s interesting to note that Iraq doesn’t show up on Feldman’s radar whatsoever as an issue to which the president should devote special attention.)

The Afghan war has its own internal timing; the United States’ relationship with China is too complex for major breakthroughs; and, as Obama discovered at the G-20 summit, divergent economic interests can make even allies reluctant to compromise. Thus far, the Obama administration’s chief foreign-policy achievement has simply been to remind the world that the United States can be cooperative.

So, scanning the entire menu of US international affairs, where does Feldman see the best possibilities for success? You got it: the Middle East peace process! “Can Obama succeed where so many others have not?” Feldman asks. You might think, given the discouraging signs thus far in renewed efforts at getting the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down and negotiate that the answer is a no brainer, with emphasis on the “no.” But Feldman sees a glimmer of hope.

To be sure, Feldman—a knowledgeable analyst of Middle Eastern affairs—isn’t sporting a new pair of rose-colored glasses. Significant roadblocks to a lasting peace surely remain:

Israel and the Palestinian Authority will not, of course, make things easy. No sooner had direct peace talks begun in September — itself a victory for the Obama team — than the Palestinian side discontinued them over Israel’s refusal to renew a 10-month partial ban on building in the West Bank. Earlier this month, Israel announced that more than a thousand new housing units would be built in the Har Homa suburb of Jerusalem — a community that is outside the West Bank according to Israel, but inside the West Bank to Palestinians and the international community.

But, as Feldman rightly points out, “neither side has given up on the talks, and the Obama administration has continued its behind-the-scenes efforts to restart them.”

So then, what does Feldman believe to be the most productive way forward? In order to make his case, he begins with the actors involved. On the Palestinian side, things are a mess:

The Palestinian Authority is congenitally weak. Hamas controls Gaza, which has a Palestinian population approaching that of the West Bank. Dealing with Israel can be seen as a last-ditch attempt by President Mahmoud Abbas to stave off a permanent split of Palestine into two different subcountries. Although they are not prepared to negotiate with Israel, senior Hamas leaders have implied that they would provisionally accept a Palestinian state reuniting Gaza and the West Bank with 1967 borders. Of course, their motivation is presumably that they believe that Hamas could then take power democratically — hardly a reassuring thought for Abbas or the Israelis.

On the Israeli side of the equation,

most of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government is profoundly skeptical of any territorial compromise; Netanyahu would not pay a domestic price if the negotiations fail. Why, then, has he not scuttled them outright? Many Israelis consider Iran’s nuclear capacity an existential threat. Yet both the Bush and Obama administrations have discouraged Israel from attacking Iran and starting a regional war. Netanyahu appears to believe that if he cooperates to some degree with the Obama administration’s request that he negotiate, he can — eventually — demand in return U.S. cooperation (or at least acquiescence) in an Israeli move against Iran. In the meantime, Netanyahu’s goal is to satisfy his coalition partners by showing resistance to the United States on settlement building without wholly alienating Obama. No doubt he hopes that Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives will protect him from any pressure brought to bear by Obama and keep up the drumbeat on the Iranian threat.

And then of course, there’s Hezbollah. Interestingly, Feldman notes that

At the moment, Hezbollah is especially nervous about its impending indictment by a United Nations tribunal investigating the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Faced with a loss of credibility for killing Hariri, a Sunni who is widely seen as a martyr, Hezbollah hopes to discredit the tribunal. It has tried blaming Israel and hinting that its militia might take to the streets. Provoking an Israeli attack would be the riskiest strategy, but it cannot be ruled out. In both Israel and Lebanon, many people speak about such a war in terms of when, not if — and both Iran and Hezbollah might prefer it to occur according to their timing rather than Israel’s. Needless to say, such a war would be disastrous not only for Lebanese and Israelis, but also for Palestinians, whose hopes for a state of their own would be crushed if Israel were attacked by Iranian missiles lobbed on their behalf but without their consent.

Amidst this crazy quilt of power, interests, and worry, Feldman sees an interesting pattern emerge: all the involved parties are acting from a position of weakness. And “overlapping weakness,” Feldman asserts, “has been a good basis for peacemaking in the region ever since the Camp David accords.”

What Feldman doesn’t address—and what would have made for a more interesting, and ultimately more important contribution—is what role, if any, the president himself should play in these negotiations. Does Obama have enough political capital to personally direct traffic through these proceedings, or does his weakness at home allow Netanyahu a free pass to continue walking all over the White House? And what about Hillary Clinton? If the time is as ripe as Feldman believes, should Clinton be considering some shuttle diplomacy to rescue what have been disappointingly flaccid results from the previously unassailable uber-diplomat George Mitchell? On these basic tactical issues, Feldman is silent.

Instead, he concludes by charting the possibilities for numerous domino effects that might result from an Israeli-Palestinian deal, everything from the emergence of a more moderate Hamas, to an Israeli-led alliance of largely Arab states against Iran. His closing remarks suggest that Feldman, unsure how to tidily wrap-up his analysis, decided to run a Hail Mary pass of best case scenarios that appeal more to wishful thinking than sober reason.

This is especially the case with the respect to potential war with Tehran. Thus far, the push to bomb Iran is winning its race against the push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As a result, it may be worth asking if Feldman has his priorities, and timetable of possible futures, reversed. If Washington is suckered into attacking the Persian heartland, or if Israel itself marched to war against Iran, peace with the Palestinians will be the least of Middle East concerns.

On the other hand, if Iranian-US/Israeli tensions are quelled, Washington might be able to focus more of its attention on devising a solution to the Palestinian question. It wouldn’t be easy, let alone guaranteed. But if Feldman is correct to suggest that fears of a nuclear Iran contribute to the continuing mischief frustrating a lasting settlement, perhaps Obama should get serious about tackling Washington’s Iran problem before playing peace-monger with the Palestinians and Israelis.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.