No-one could doubt the sincere commitment to Middle East peacemaking displayed by US President Barack Obama from the day he took office. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that mistakes made by the Obama Administration have contributed to the current Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic impasse.
Except for a brief token meeting in September, no Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are occurring, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is threatening not to seek re-election and the Palestinians have placed unprecedented preconditions on resuming negotiations with Israel. Meanwhile, senior officials in the Palestinian Authority threaten to unilaterally declare statehood, in profound violation of the Oslo Accords.
Happily, with the US and EU making it clear that they will not back any such unilateral move, Palestinian officials behind this rhetoric are now retreating, reconfirming Palestinian commitment to a negotiated solution.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this change of heart was the realisation that Palestinians would have difficulty establishing a viable regime.
The West Bank and Gaza are still hopelessly divided between Fatah and Hamas, with no short-term rapprochement apparent. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, many experts believe Fatah control there relies in large part on Israel’s continued military presence to prevent a Hamas takeover. Further, vital infrastructure needed to successfully manage a state is missing, due to 16 years of international aid being largely wasted on corruption and violence.
It is for this reason that PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s two-year plan to establish a Palestinian state – unilaterally if necessary – could be step in the right direction. Despite the problematic unilateralism, Fayyad’s proposal is ironically quite similar to Zionist plans in the first half of last century – incrementally building as much physical, political and economic infrastructure as possible, so when the international community recognises that the time has come for independence, the people and institutions can cope.
The Fayyad plan could dovetail well with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ideas of building an “economic peace” with the Palestinians, combining top-down negotiations with bottom-up state-building. Israel has been reducing impediments to the movement of West Bank people and goods in exchange for increased security cooperation. US-trained Palestinian security forces have been reclaiming West Bank towns from crime and Hamas’ influence. The result has been a stunning economic resurgence.
Unfortunately, the “top-down negotiations” are currently being blocked in part because of misguided efforts by the Obama Administration to leapfrog this slow but vital nation building phase, pushing for major public concessions from Israel as ‘confidence building measures’.
Washington demanded of Israel a total freeze on all Jewish construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including “natural growth”, something no Israeli government could deliver and remain in office. The Americans eventually realised their mistake, and a compromise was struck – on top of existing Israeli policies which ban new West Bank settlements and the geographic expansion of settlements, Israel is offering to temporarily refrain from all new West Bank construction, without stopping building now in progress. None of this, however, applies to Jerusalem. It is virtually impossible to conceive of any Israeli government agreeing to halt all construction there, given the near unanimity of Israeli opinion that Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, cannot be re-divided like it was between 1948 and 1967 (though this need not rule out a Palestinian capital there, with some diplomatic creativity).
Sensible as this compromise was, by the time it arose, the damage was done.
When Obama demanded a no-exceptions total freeze, the PA backed him to the hilt, announcing it would not negotiate with Israel unless Israel complied. This is unprecedented – no such precondition was ever imposed during the previous 15 years of negotiations. When the Administration agreed to accept a more feasible option, a politically embarrassed and weakened PA President Mahmoud Abbas refused to do so, and stuck by his demands.
In the ensuing diplomatic chaos, statements were made threatening unilateral declarations of statehood, and Abbas threatened not to run in the election. (However, this last point may be moot because, with Hamas refusing to cooperate, no election looks likely in the near future.)
So, what is the way forward?
Mahmoud Abbas must realise that he cannot outflank Hamas when it comes to anti-Israel intransigence and rhetoric.
The only way Abbas can re-claim and retain political credibility is to revert to a negotiated two-state process, and deliver his people the fruits of that process. Fayyad’s state-building, without unilateralist threats, should proceed apace. And the way this can best occur today is in coordination with Israel, not in confrontation with it.
Further, the Palestinians have to be disabused of a long-standing fallacy in their approach to the conflict, which the US government’s missteps this year helped re-ignite. Neither Washington, nor the UN, nor the “international community” is going to “deliver” statehood to them without their own efforts to reach a compromise agreement with Israel.
This is why it was disappointing that Australia changed its vote at the UN General Assembly in mid-November to support a one-sided, unbalanced resolution on Palestinian self-determination. Such resolutions help feed the Palestinian illusion that statehood can be achieved unilaterally or be imposed from outside, as well as damage the UN’s ability to play a more constructive role in the peace process. Thus, they actually make self-determination for the Palestinians, under a two-state peace, more remote.
Israelis are overwhelmingly in favour of a negotiated two-state resolution, on condition Israel’s security is not jeopardised as a result. Israelis want Palestinians to have a viable state. But the only way that’s going to happen is a process of negotiated mutual concessions, and not by Palestinian – or American – diktat or brinkmanship.