Unsettling Peace: Palestine & Israel

Between barks and bites in Obama’s push for peace

In his June 2009 speech at Cairo University, U.S. President Barack Obama, like many presidents before him, declared his commitment to Mideast peace. Peace, he said, required the realization of two states, Israel and Palestine. To get to this point, Palestinians and Israelis were going to have to do a few things. First, Obama claimed that Palestinians were going to have to abandon violence. Second, he reminded Israelis that the “right to exist” also applied to Palestinians. In no uncertain terms, the president affirmed Palestinians’ right to their own state, describing Israeli settlements as illegitimate and a violation of previous peace agreements. Third, he called for the end of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian life. The president said that ensuring peace in Israel required progress in Palestine in terms of work in the West Bank and a solution to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Delivered in an Arab capital, the president’s speech was an important gesture reflecting renewed U.S. interest in promoting peace and a willingness to move slightly beyond the usual script and suggest new possibilities. Indeed, Obama’s words signaled a new tone in U.S. discourse that came remarkably close to a less pro-Israel approach to the conflict and a more empathetic account of Palestinians’ struggle. In the president’s words, Palestinians endured the “pain of dislocation,” “suffered in pursuit of a homeland” and experienced “daily humiliations” under occupation. Moreover, Obama described the Palestinian situation as intolerable and promised U.S. support for Palestinians’ “legitimate” aspirations. Although unremarkable for their obviousness – why else would the U.S. try to end the conflict if both parties didn’t have legitimate aspirations? – such statements nevertheless indicated that the president understood and was willing to acknowledge Palestinians’ situation and that ending the conflict was about much more than establishing peace.

Yet for all the president’s empathy for the Palestinians (they “suffered” and experienced the “pain” of dislocation) and reminders for the Israelis (Palestine has a “right to exist” and settlements are “illegitimate”), the year 2010 has been all but a reflection of the president’s words in Cairo. Little has been accomplished and one problem in particular has presented a major challenge to the president’s pursuit of peace: settlements.

The first signs of trouble emerged in March 2010 during Joe Biden’s vice presidential trip to Israel. Shortly after Biden publicly expressed the U.S.’s unyielding support for Israeli security, Israel’s interior minister announced construction plans for 1,600 new Jewish-only settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. Biden condemned the plans and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reassured the vice president that he was firmly committed to negotiations with the Palestinians. Just a few days later, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Netanyahu and demanded that Israel show it was still committed to peace talks. In what news reports described as a 45-minute phone call between a frustrated secretary and an embarrassed minister, Clinton rebuked Israel for its settlement plans and requested specific actions to correct the fiasco.

Despite Biden’s disappointment and Clinton’s phone call, the disagreement revealed a significant crack in the wall of commitment that Obama expressed in Cairo. First, neither Biden nor Clinton told Netanyahu to abolish the settlement plans. Instead, they confined themselves to condemnations using words such as “undermining trust” and “unhelpful.” Considering the timing of the announcement and the widespread support for the president’s push for peace, a stronger reprimand could have strengthened U.S. credibility in the peace process and showed the region and the world that Obama meant business. More importantly, demanding an immediate end to settlement building would have been a first step toward actually promoting peace since the establishment of settlements prejudices one of the most important issues of negotiations: land.

Second, the U.S. response deviated from the president’s position on settlements as articulated in Cairo. During his speech, Obama was unequivocal on the settlement issue: they were illegitimate and a violation of previous peace agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians. Yet in their response, Biden and Clinton avoided using the president’s language. Doing so not only weakened their reaction but also sent a message to the world that Israel can get away with settlements so as long as it shows, in other ways, that it is still committed to peace. Such an idea poses obvious complications for a president committed to solving a conflict that is, in no small measure, a direct result of Israeli settlements.

What Biden and Clinton failed to do, the president himself attempted to correct. During a meeting with Netanyahu in March 2010, Obama insisted on a complete settlement freeze and asked the Israeli prime minister to clarify his position on the announcement of new settlement expansion in Jerusalem. Despite the force of the president’s words, Israel continued its settlement activity unabated. Thus by September 2010, the Israeli settlement watchdog, Peace Now, recorded almost 500 violations underscoring Israel’s willingness to violate its own commitments and the president’s unwillingness to do anything about it.

The significance of the Americans’ weakness notwithstanding, President Obama continued his efforts toward peace and brought the Palestinians and Israelis together in Washington for consultations in September 2010. Under the auspices of the president, the parties agreed to return to direct negotiations for the first time in months and get on with addressing the core issues: borders, Jerusalem, existing settlements, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, water rights and Israeli security. Flanked by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu, Clinton publicly described the meetings as encouraging and expressed her confidence in both parties and their commitment to peace. Requesting good faith efforts from the Palestinians and Israelis, the secretary added that negotiations should resume swiftly and “without preconditions.”

Not without its significance, the meetings were troubled by the same problem the vice president encountered in March. At the end of the month, Israel’s moratorium on settlement expansion, which excluded occupied East Jerusalem, was set to expire and the Palestinians had already stated that extending the moratorium was essential for continuing talks. To the Palestinians’ credit, their position was not an unreasonable one. All previous agreements required that Israel freeze settlement expansion, including natural growth. In addition, Obama himself already suggested that settlements were illegitimate and unhelpful for promoting peace. Lastly, it’s difficult to see how meaningful negotiations can take place while one party continues to confiscate one of the central issues under discussion.

Clinton’s remarks at the Washington meeting presumably reflected her awareness of the moratorium’s expiration and the uncertainty of an Israeli renewal. Thus the precondition clause was largely directed at the Palestinians and indicated another retreat on the U.S.’s commitment to engaging both parties with an even hand.

September ended and so did the moratorium. On Nov. 8, much to the dismay of the Obama administration, Israel published plans for 1,000 new housing units in occupied East Jerusalem. The announcement came just before Netanyahu traveled to the U.S. for an annual convention. Set to meet with Biden and Clinton again, the move was a political rerun of the March debacle and prompted the State Department spokesman, Philip Crowley, to condemn the plan

as counterproductive. While in Indonesia, President Obama added his own words, calling the settlement plans unhelpful for negotiations. Shortly thereafter, Netanyahu’s office fired back claiming occupied East Jerusalem as the “capital of the State of Israel.”

The apparent disagreement between Washington and Israel suggests two critical issues. First, it showed that Netanyahu was unafraid of pursuing an agenda at odds with U.S. policy. Indeed, his willingness to permit settlement expansion reflected his own party’s platform, which sees colonization in the West Bank as a natural right of the Jewish people. Second, the dispute revealed that, although disturbed by settlements, Obama was seemingly incapable and/or unwilling to apply punitive measures to stop them. On the contrary, the president’s response to Israeli settlements proved that the U.S. was willing to reward Israel for not violating peace agreements and international law. After seven hours of talks between Clinton and Netanyahu in New York, the U.S. offered Israel an incentive package in the form of military aid and political commitments. Faced with new settlement plans and a near collapse of peace negotiations, the president broke with the tenor of his Cairo speech and presented Israel with an incentives package, including 20 F-35 fighter jets worth $3 billion and a commitment to block any moves at the United Nations regarding peace negotiations or to challenge Israel’s right to self defense. The U.S. also promised not to ask for another halt on settlements. In exchange, Israel, was to extend its settlement moratorium for 90 additional days while the issue of Israeli/Palestinian borders was resolved.

The incentives were significant. On the one hand, the U.S. commitment to blocking U.N. involvement was a direct response to recent signs that Palestinians were going to take their claims to the international community. And why not? Faced with Israeli intransigence and rapid colonization of the West Bank, Palestinians have a good basis for winning international recognition of statehood since it not only mirrors the methods through which Israel was established but also could solve the settlement issue and occupation in one fell swoop: if the Green Line is the border, then the settlements and occupation will have to go. On the other hand, U.S. political commitments at the U.N. seem to suggest that Israel is getting an advanced green light for an attack on Iran. By self defense, one can imagine that Israel is merely getting its international cards in order should it decide to strike the Islamic Republic.

After weeks of deliberation, Israel rejected the offer Dec. 7. Despite free weapons, support at the U.N. and a promise to bury the question of settlements, Netanyahu and his cabinet decided to continue colonization and further shame the Obama administration. Without an alternative strategy in place, the president defaulted to his earlier efforts toward promoting indirect talks. Worse still, Clinton blamed both parties for the breakdown. Although Israel refused to comply with its obligations to end settlement construction, the Palestinians were nevertheless blamed for setting preconditions to peace. Israel’s refusal to accept the president’s incentives package was the final nail in the coffin of Cairo. Instead of demanding that Israel comply with the rules of the game, the president simply changed the game. After telling the Muslim world about his commitment to peace and the illegitimacy of Israeli settlements, Obama backed down. Despite the force of his bark in the Egyptian capital more than a year ago, the president failed to bite when it was needed the most.

One can imagine few options for Obama in the next two years of his presidency. For starters, Israel is sure to drag its feet since settlements can now continue unchallenged. In such a situation, it’s hard to imagine that indirect negotiations will work if the obstacles to direct negotiations remain in place. Even if indirect negotiations work, one is left wondering what the Israelis and Palestinians can possibly talk about. Borders, for example, are a pointless discussion if Netanyahu expands Israeli settlements into areas the Palestinians will claim. Moreover, there seems to be little for Obama to do if Israel doesn’t comply with its own obligations. How might the president respond if Israel continues its closure of Gaza, confiscation of land, expansion of its “security wall,” and refusal to accept Jerusalem as anything but its own capital? Given the tenor of the Obama administration thus far, one can hardly expect more than a whisper of disapproval. All the while, Palestinians will continue to suffer the occupation and the negation of their most basic human rights.

A cursory glance at the facts on the ground in 2010 suggests that peace is an unlikely outcome for a president well out of cards to play. Indeed, more than one year after the claims of Cairo, Obama has few promises, if any, left to keep. Thus the real question for the president is not how he will promote peace but how he will respond to the absence of conflict in an Israeli-run apartheid system. If the close of 2010 indicates anything for the opening of 2011, it is that we can expect little from an administration unable to confront Israel and fulfill its commitment to holding both parties accountable.

Yet this president might still have a chance. Where he has failed to push Israel in 2010, he can pull on the Palestinians in 2011. In this case, Obama has two important options. First, he can let the Palestinians take their case to the United Nations and support their declaration of statehood before the international community. Such a move will not only fulfill his Cairo commitments but will also show that the administration is willing to take bold steps in the interests of peace and play an evenhanded role in the Middle East. Given Hamas’ recent support for a two-state solution, the move will also have the legitimacy needed for promoting a sustainable solution to the conflict. Second, Obama can increase his administration’s role in Palestine by facilitating the realization of Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad’s “state-first” policy. For Fayyad, Palestinians can focus on state-building efforts and then force Israel to relinquish its control. With a functioning state, the argument goes, the occupation will become an untenable system and statehood will inevitably follow. All the president would have to do here is quietly make Fayyad’s efforts a reality; the rest will be history.

Michael Vicente Perez is the Diversity Faculty Fellow at Montgomery County Community College and senior editor for The Islamic Monthly. He received his PhD in anthropology from Michigan State University.

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    Michael Vicente Perez

    Michael Perez is a Senior Editor at The Islamic Monthly and a regular columnist.

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