2009 was finally supposed to bring positive change to the Middle East. US President Barack Obama conjured hope by promising responsible exits from Iraq and Afghanistan and, more profoundly, to pursue a two-state solution starting day one.
Instead an Israeli-Hamas prisoner swap came to dominate headlines as 2009 fell flat, a fitting end to a lost decade. Not the progress had Obama had in mind. Beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that he won’t seek re-election less than a year after Obama assumed office; Gaza remains similarly besieged. Muslims and non-Muslims alike are losing confidence in his ability to engage the Middle East.
Many US and Israeli officials would scoff at the growing number of skeptics who’ve deemed their collaboration a failure, but Fatah and Hamas leaders could both offer a five reasons why in ten seconds. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demeanor and preference for unilateral action, coupled with Obama’s backsliding, is snuffing the hope out.
The latest Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) opinion poll found that 68% of Palestinians believe the possibility of a two-state solution within the next five years is low or non-existent. While Arab states aren’t throwing in the towel, they’ve seen nothing given up and vented their anger over Goldstone’s report in the meantime. Just about every regional observer is asking where the US leadership has gone.
So it’s not surprising that Obama wants to change the tune for 2010. This is the year everything changes - but only if it’s nothing like last year.
“The ball is in the international community's court and specifically in America's court,” Abbas said during a December interview with the Wall Street Journal. “They have to convince the two sides to solve this. They have to come and say this is the end game and pressure the Israeli government to accept it. Why don't they pressure the Israeli government?”
Apparently US and Israeli officials are too hard at work hammering out a two-state solution to speak with the media and to ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, and too leery of rocking the boat. A valid point considering the precarious state of US-Israeli-Palestinian relations, but Israeli and Palestinian leadership are only as strong as their public support.
Talks between America and Israel are no use behind closed doors. They must spill into the open.
US-Israeli backchannels aren’t a secret like Steven J. Rosen, the archetypal Israeli lobbyist, claims in his recent article for Foreign Policy, but he of all people should know what’s going on behind the curtains in Washington. Rumors have President Obama drafting formal letters to the Israelis and Palestinians to kick off the new decade and hoist the peace process back on track.
Rosen claims Obama is far past writing letters for a new diplomatic initiative. America and Israel have reportedly compromised on most areas of a two-state solution and are ready to renew pressure on the Palestinians to enter final-status negotiations. Netanyahu told reporters before meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, “I hope we have reached the time to renew the peace process. The time for excuses is over. Now is the time for action."
But the glaring vulnerability in America and Israel’s strategy is an absence of Palestinian input. How are pre-negotiations in Washington supposed to restore a sense of balance to final-status negotiations already perceived as one-sided? And how will Obama benefit the Palestinian people if, according the PSR poll, only 3% see his policy as supportive of them?
The answer to both questions: they won’t. Yet this is all the more reason to finally sit down to the negotiating table. End the US-Israeli side-dealing and get directly in the game. Rosen concludes his article, “Now, a month later, the work on the Israeli side is done. Netanyahu has put the ball in the Palestinian court.”
If only he understood the true meaning of his words. He would’ve bit his tongue off.
Palestinians waited out 2009 in vain hope that America would reverse its Israeli policy and vigorously pursue an equitable two-state solution. 2010 demands a new course of action, one that favors bold action over passivity, as Netanyahu ironically advises. Israel and the West will never raise the Palestinian’s flag - they must do it themselves.
This is no call for a third intifada. For too long Israel has blamed the Palestinians for stalling the peace process despite Israeli obstinacy often being the root cause; the two sides would be negotiating by now had Israel froze its settlements in 2009. Palestinians must stop taking the blame for Israeli’s rigid negotiating positions. Bury the differences, or at least realize those differences are outweighed by those with Israel, and grab the ball.
Palestinian leadership should enter into final-status negotiations with one precondition: that negotiations can be paused or terminated at any time. Abbas, or whoever leads the Palestinians at that point, must maintain the right to walk away as a threat and exit strategy. Either force a true compromise on a two-state solution or, if this is impossible, expose Israel’s farcical demands and commit to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plan for unilateral statehood.
Borders are set to open final-status negotiations so that settlements can be regulated effectively, but the demarcation line is set to become a battlefront. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised anticipation when she spoke of a Palestine “based on the 1967 lines,” but America’s overriding concern is clear: “the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”
That still didn’t stop Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, from reacting to Clinton’s statements, “One of our objections is that we do not believe that ’67 borders are defensible.” Netanyahu also stated that he doesn’t intend to recognize the pre-1967 border considering its control integral to Israel’s security, at the cost of Palestinian security. Abbas wants to enshrine the 1967 boundary as sacrosanct, but Rosen argues this will never happen.
Israel’s insistence that it administer the border subsequently raises doubts on settlements. After treating the international community with complete disregard, Netanyahu called his 10 month settlement freeze a “painful” step and said he hopes the Palestinians and the Arab world will “seize this opportunity” to work toward peace. US officials praised him, PA officials rolled their eyes.
Netanyahu actually believes a partial freeze that excludes Jerusalem and already underwent revision to include minor infrastructure projects is a magnanimous offer. He even hinted that the freeze might not last if Palestinians don’t agree to negotiate soon and vowed to resume full settlement expansion afterward. His desire to dictate both the border’s status and settlement growth is obvious.
"With each individual action it undertakes on the ground, Israel is saying no to meaningful negotiations," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Because an equitable land swap is unlikely to materialize, the return of Palestinian refugees will go from improbable to impossible. Any refugee resettlement is likely to meet the minimum effort. Netanyahu claims he’ll discuss refugees in a multilateral framework, but he’s also declared refugees and their descendants, “must once and for all give up the demand to resettle inside of Israel.”
Abbas has flipped this demand back on Netanyahu for frequently criticizing his determination on the settlement freeze precondition.
“Meanwhile,” he told the Wall Street Journal, “Netanyahu says 'I call on Abbas to negotiate, but he has to understand that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel, that's not up for discussion. The refugees - there will be no talk about them at all. He has to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.' So who is putting conditions. I'm not putting them. He is putting conditions.”
Netanyahu considers Israel’s right to exist as the root solution to the conflict. “The key to peace is the explicit recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as a Jewish state,” he said, which is only true from his perspective. Most Palestinians are willing to accept Israel’s existence if provided with a viable, sovereign state. Netanyahu wants Palestinians to admit up front that Israel’s existence is unquestionable - but doing so now would legitimize the present occupation!
Recognition of Israel should be granted once Israel withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza according to pre-1967 borders, compromises on settlement growth and land swaps, and guarantees the legal rights of Palestinians living inside Israel. Expecting anything upfront is the exact rebuke Netanyahu levies against Abbas, nor does Gaza’s condition suggest Israel is that concerned about the Palestinian’s existence.
Even if negotiations miraculously progress beyond borders, settlements, and refugees, a compromise over Jerusalem would have to defy reality. Netanyahu emphasized there will be “no restrictions on building in our sovereign capital” during his announcement of a temporary settlement freeze, a phrase he uses when discussing all things Jerusalem.
"We have always made a clear distinction between the West Bank and Jerusalem," government spokesman Mark Regev echoed in response to international criticism. "Jerusalem is our capital and will remain as such.”
It should be clear to all parties involved that Israel has no intention of relinquishing an inch of Jerusalem. Rosen argues, “Netanyahu has accepted that the Palestinians will bring their claims for Jerusalem to the table,” but he knows what will happen at that table. It’s hard to envision Netanyahu permanently ceding sovereignty of East Jerusalem and the Old City.
"The job of the Israeli Prime Minster should be to prepare his people for what it takes to make peace," Erekat said. "He knows very much that there will never be peace between Palestinians and Israelis without East Jerusalem being the capital of the Palestinian state."
Palestinians have negligible reasons to enter final-status negotiations when such a tainted deal awaits them, but stalling is no longer viable either. Israel is unlikely to meet the Palestinians half way on any final status issue yet the chance must be offered. This is why the rejection of a 24 month deadline is pivotal to maintaining flexibility; any deadline is already improbable considering Netanyahu’s opposition to one.
A bilateral two-state solution is still preferable to unilateral action by either side, and a breakthrough might occur, as often the case, in the 11th hour. However, if Israel (and America) insists on a Palestine Lite - demilitarized and without observance of pre-1967 borders, resettlement of refugees, or East Jerusalem as the capital - Palestinians can walk out the door confident that no other choice remains.
They must take the ball and try to score themselves.