Following weeks of negotiations, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in mid December that the US was withdrawing its proposed package deal with Israel for another moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements lasting 90 days. Israel never rejected the deal – which offered Israel a fleet of advanced F-35 fighter jets plus some further security and political promises in exchange for the construction freeze – but the Israeli Cabinet did ask for the terms in writing following contradictory signals from Washington on crucial details of the offer. If such written terms had been forthcoming, reports indicate the deal probably would have received cabinet approval.
Why did the US withdraw the offer? According to a senior US official quoted in the New York Times, the administration simply “concluded that even if Mr. Netanyahu persuaded his cabinet to accept a freeze… the 90-day negotiating period would not have produced the progress on core issues that the United States originally had sought.”
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley explained that discussions on settlement moratoriums had become too much of a focus of the negotiations, saying “We thought that this had, in a sense, become an end in itself rather than a means to an end.”
Both these statements are not only correct, they hopefully indicate a long-overdue course correction in US Middle East policy.
There is no reason to believe that a second moratorium on construction in settlements would have led to a breakthrough. The Palestinian Authority (PA) repeatedly asserted that it would not agree to resume talks for a mere extension of the previous freeze, which ended in September. In that phase, the PA wasted nine months of the ten-month moratorium before even agreeing to talk.
And if negotiations did resume, what then? The Obama Administration was reportedly hoping that 90 days would be enough to produce agreement on borders for a future Palestinian state. However, virtually no observer thought this was likely to be achievable – meaning a new crisis would occur the moment the 90 days expired.
The US Administration’s initial focus on settlements and moratoriums was a mistake. It resulted in the fact that the last 22 months of intense US efforts have been spent discussing whether and under what circumstances talks would resume, even though 15 years of near continuous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had previously occurred without any such construction freeze.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas has publicly admitted that it was America’s push for a complete settlement freeze which forced him to also insist on one.
Nor is it true, as often claimed, that Israeli building in settlements is taking additional land and thus foreclosing Palestinian statehood. Israel has been abiding by an agreement reached with the US in 2003 not to build any new settlements nor take any additional land to expand existing West Bank settlements. Further, the vast majority of construction occurring inside existing settlement boundaries is in settlement blocs near the Green Line that everyone knowledgeable expects Israel will retain in any final arrangement, which would include land exchanges (see p. 6).
With the US Administration finally resetting its unhelpful focus, hopefully more productive avenues will now be pursued. As Robert Satloff notes (p. 21), this should include US mediators exploring substantive hypotheticals with both parties in order to attempt jump-starting future direct talks; serious efforts to focus more heavily on “bottom-up” state-building efforts; and trying to convince Arab states to be positively involved.
One highly dangerous “solution” that is unfortunately gaining traction is for the PA to renounce the Oslo Accords and declare Palestinian statehood unilaterally. The PA tried such a declaration once before, in 1988, and Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad and President Abbas keep threatening to do so again – with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay recently jumping on the bandwagon and EU states threatening to follow suit. This would not be in the interests of Israel nor even the PA. A “solution” without reconciliation or agreement between the two sides would only lead to increased conflict over the unresolved issues – particularly the fate of settlements, refugees and Jerusalem.
There is also a very real probability that, without security arrangements with Israel, Hamas would oust the PA and take over the West Bank, as it did in Gaza following Israel’s withdrawal. This would mean a hostile Islamist regime, armed and funded by Iran, within range of Israel’s main airport and major population centres, able to employ rockets to shut down daily life for the vast majority of Israelis. Armed conflict would then be inevitable.
For these reasons, it is to be anticipated that the US and other prudent actors will absolutely oppose any destructive unilateralism in violation of the Oslo agreements.
However, one constructive strategy might be to explore a kind of “coordinated unilateralism” – arrangements allowing the Palestinians to claim to have “unilaterally” declared independence while in actual fact reaching agreement on the provisions and parameters for doing so with Israel. This could in effect be what would otherwise be called an “interim agreement” – negotiated Palestinian statehood with provisional borders and security safeguards for Israel, but with some currently outstanding final status issues left to be resolved later. The Palestinians have repeatedly rejected even discussing interim agreements, but “coordinated unilateralism” could be a way to finesse this impasse.
In many ways, the time has never been better to reach such an agreement. Economic and security progress in the West Bank is unprecedented, as is security cooperation between Israel and the PA. Moreover, for the first time ever, Israel is at one with both the PA and the wider Arab world confronting common enemies – Hamas and Iran, respectively. Hopefully US policymakers have learned from their mistakes and can capitalise on the current unique opportunities to promote genuine advances toward peace, even if their dreams of a dramatic breakthrough or final resolution in the short term look totally illusory.