The Mideast peace process has been derailed by ill-considered Israeli and Palestinian decisions. Now the Obama administration must decide if it will still spend diplomatic capital on unwilling partners when several other pressing crises call for the kind of commitment that’s been made to the Mideast.
Secretary of State John Kerry said as much to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I hope the parties find a way back,” he said. “But, you know, we have an enormous amount on our plate.”
A “way back” is needed because of recent counterproductive moves meant to placate Palestinians and Israelis instead of asking citizens to accept necessary compromises. Despite a growing chorus calling for the United States to walk away, the Obama administration must continue to lead.
Both sides are to blame for the stalled negotiations. In intertwined events, Israel balked on a planned Palestinian prisoner release and announced approval of 700 more housing units for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority applied to join 15 international treaties and conventions in an attempt to get recognition from more nations except the one that truly matters — Israel. In response, Israel withheld taxes collected for the Palestinian Authority.
The housing units are counterproductive and controversial even within Israel’s government. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator, accused the country’s housing minister, Uri Ariel, of sabotaging the peace process. If so, he’s not the only hostile cabinet member. In January, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon undiplomatically said, “The only thing that can ‘save us’ is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.” Yaalon later apologized for his unprofessional and ungrateful comments, but the diplomatic damage was done.
The intra-Palestinian discord is even deeper, since the Palestinian Authority runs the West Bank and Hamas rules Gaza.
Peace will not be possible unless Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pressure their own citizens as hard as they push back at the United States and each other. While they may not act like it, each needs a two-state solution.
In a region roiled by citizen uprisings, it’s only a matter of time until mass Palestinian protests, or even a third intefadeh, begin.
Once they do, they will be difficult to contain without taking measures that further alienate allies. Already there is a growing global boycott, divestiture and sanctions movement targeting Israel. And Israelis opposed to a two-state solution know that demographic trends could eventually mean that the single-state status quo could force Israel into choosing between being a democracy or a Jewish state. It’s thrived as both and would wither conceding either.
As for Palestine, an intefadeh may not just target Israel but turn against its leaders’ incompetent, corrupt rule.
For a frustrated administration, walking away may be emotionally satisfying. Kerry, whose shuttle diplomacy has been earnestly energetic, has pushed the peace process harder than any secretary of state in years.
But what good is power if a president is not willing to use it to advance a common good? The Obama administration should not walk away, but rather redouble its efforts on Mideast peace. The issues that need to be settled are already known. Among them are settlements, borders, land swaps, the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, water rights, interstate relations, and how to implement and police a two-state solution.
Kerry brokered negotiations on these and other issues, but the administration has not offered a specific plan that would compel the parties to respond. Doing so would be a dramatic but potentially productive next step. Should Israel and Palestine ignore or reject the administration’s attempt, then it will truly be the time to step back. Israelis and Palestinians need to want peace as much, or more, than the United States.
Should the United States offer a plan, Obama would need to increase his involvement to sell it. Sure, presidential prestige would be on the line. But it already is, and because of shortsighted leadership from both Israel and Palestine, the peace process is close to devolving into yet another foreign policy crisis.