May 22, 2009

Crash Landing

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington was unproductive, to be polite. The awkward press conference with President Obama suffered from a lack of eye contact, numerous American officials reprimanded Israel for its settlement expansion, and Netanyahu went out of his way to tell reporters, “I did not say two states for two peoples.”

But these speed bumps in the road map pale in comparison to Netanyahu’s homecoming, where he landed hard on Palestinian dreams.

“United Jerusalem is Israel's capital,” he told a state ceremony to mark the conquest of the city during the 1967 Six Day War. “Jerusalem was always ours and will always be ours. It will never again be partitioned and divided.”

Later at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, the site of a massacre in 2008, Netanyahu told a ceremony to mark Jerusalem Day, “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, a city reunified so as never again to be divided.”

Netanyahu knows how to send a message. His symbolism is overt, never discreet, and it’s easy to picture President Obama wincing as he listened to Netanyahu’s remarks.

The Palestinian response was swift and predictable. Lead negotiator Saeb Erekat warned, “Mr. Netanyahu, by saying that, he's saying the state of conflict will be eternal.”

Rafik Husseini, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, simply concluded, “Israeli occupation of east Jerusalem is illegal.”

Despite the endless complexities of the conflict, two states in the Holy Land depends on three variables: the recognition of Israel’s right to exist by Palestinian militants, the fate of four million Palestinian refugees, and the final status of Jerusalem. Hamas won’t recognize Israel for free and many refugees are likely stuck in their place, increasing the significance of Jerusalem to the peace process.

The world now knows Israel’s position, if it wasn’t already clear, and darker days seem destined. The Annapolis summit can’t be called a success when the parties are still arguing, two years later, over settlements. Such a distraction has left details like Jerusalem and refugees under-debated, though it’s hard to formulate a tool for an ever shifting land.

Hamas has decried its perceived illegality of President Abbas and is pressing for national elections, a prospect that has perturbed America. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in Gaza, “The formation of the government by Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] in the West Bank will reinforce the political chaos, judicial and legislative, which he is carrying out over there in the West Bank.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Al Jazeera in a rare interview, “You cannot expect either Fatah or the Israelis or Arabs who wish to see this matter resolved with a two-state solution to work with a group that does not believe in the outcome of these efforts.”

However, Salam Fayyad, the American-educated Palestinian prime minister, told reporters, “The main objective should be ending internal division.”

Is anyone on the same page? American and Israeli officials differ on Iran, settlements, and just about everything else except that Hamas is evil. Israelis and Palestinians both want two states but don’t agree on any of the core issues. Palestinian and American officials aren’t sure of each others positions and Palestinian politics may soon experience an upheaval.

The Holy Land is an airfield without a traffic controller.

As much the world wants to solve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, it would be wrong to force a resolution on quarreling people and unstable ground. President Obama may want to cut the Gordian Knot of the 20th century, but he should satisfy himself with moving the process forward. If the focus is shifted from a grand solution to progress on individual details, he has a better chance of solving the whole equation.

Little can be done to immediately correct the problems facing Israelis and Palestinians. If they fundamentally disagree on Jerusalem or land exchanges, no amount of negotiating is likely to produce an accord. But with the political reality in disarray, the crisis still desperately needs a reboot. As much as the West will hate it, a new forum must be held that includes Hamas without preconditions.

That means sitting down Israel, all of the Palestinian factions, America, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to the table - a table that might rest in Jerusalem - and grinding on the core issues. Impossible? Then planes will keep colliding.

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