December 11, 2010
Clinton's Israeli-Palestinian Speech Hollow to the Core
It’s logical that Hillary Clinton’s speech to Brookings Institute would mimic the peace process she’s desperately trying to revive. Although still breathing, contrary to the declarations of some Palestinian officials, the peace process with Israel is down for the count and struggling to get up. Expecting substance after repeated failures was a stretch, and the Secretary of State delivered on low expectations to a crowd of Israeli and Palestinian dignitaries.
They’ve heard it all before.
As usual Clinton spent a good deal of time listing America’s security partnership with Israel. Opening by consoling Israeli fire victims was an appropriate gesture, but she naturally segued into Israel’s security: “The United States will always be there when Israel is threatened. We say it often, but it bears repeating: America’s commitment to Israel’s security and its future is rock solid and unwavering, and that will not change.”
Apparently the Obama administration's “hostile” stance towards Israeli settlements can obscure this larger point.
Despite a speech tilted towards Israel and delivered in a pro-Israeli venue, Clinton managed to issue a few assuring remarks on the Palestinians’ side. In one of her most powerful moments, Clinton warned Israeli leaders, “The lack of peace and the occupation that began in 1967 continue to deprive the Palestinian people of dignity and self-determination. This is unacceptable, and, ultimately, it too is unsustainable.”
She also recognized a Palestinian state as “independent, “viable,” and “sovereign state.”
Unfortunately her “game-breaking” idea was supposed to work last time. When an optimistic Clinton restarted talks in September with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, she anticipated a framework on all core issues. The new core of Clinton’s speech - “grappling with” final status issues of borders and security, settlements, water and refugees, and Jerusalem itself - is no different than before.
Rather than change tactics, the White House appears to be running into the same wall until it breaks through. While its bilateral agreement with Israel collapsed in the news this week, the impact occurred two weeks before when Israel announced a new settlement project in East Jerusalem. So with over a week to prepare, Clinton’s lackluster speech reflects the stagnation in U.S. policy.
And because of a three-month stall, Washington also just destroyed the last shreds of confidence with the Palestinians, rather than build trust as Clinton envisioned. While defending the sincerity of U.S. efforts, she found herself at Brookings exactly because of proliferating doubts in Washington’s mediation. Clinton did admit her frustration with the lack of progress, but her focus appeared more on cheer-leading, trying to re-energize the stalled parties, and convincing them not to abandon U.S. negotiations in favor of alternatives.
“The parties have indicated that they want the United States to continue its efforts,” Clinton argued, ignoring a tidal wave of international recognition for a Palestinian state - and calls for the Quartet to take over the peace process.
The White House’s tarnished credibility scarred Clinton's position on settlements and Jerusalem, an ominous precedent for other issues. Though talking a hard-line - “Like every American administration for decades, we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity” - the very deal Clinton orchestrated with Netanyahu would have legitimized settlement activity after 90 days. Claiming that America “won’t hesitate” to condemn settlement activity, Clinton usually gets a spokesman to do her dirty work.
The same goes for East Jerusalem, which wasn’t part of the agreement at all. Yet Clinton defiantly insisted, “Provocative announcements on East Jerusalem are counterproductive. And the United States will not shy away from saying so.”
Although Clinton said she “supports the vision of the Arab Peace Initiative,” a potential step in the right direction, she ended with a weak endorsement of a Palestinian capital: “We believe that through good faith negotiations, the parties should mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations for both parties, for Jerusalem, and safeguard its status for people around the world.”
“America is serious about peace,” Clinton finishes, and maybe this time will be different. At least she wisely avoided another one-year deadline, which has already been thrown into the ring again. But the last three months have been a joke of diplomacy, and few Palestinians and Arabs believe America is serious about an equitable resolution to the conflict.
Given that everyone outside Washington and Israel holds them at fault for the latest breakdown, the only real way of building confidence is to open the peace process to the international community.
Looking ahead the peace process will likely return to normal for the moment. Nothing has actually collapsed because the situation remains as it did before September, except for the decrease in trust. U.S. envoy George Mitchell will travel to the region next week to outline a new starting point, or try to, while chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat heads to Washington. Nabil Abu Rdineh, spokesman for the PLO, said Erekat is coming to listen to U.S. ideas, not negotiate.
Clinton wants to go for the borders first, for good reason.
"They are alone responsible for the derailment of the peace process," Erekat said of Israel. "The Israeli government had a choice between settlements and peace and they chose settlements."
Considering the tone of Clinton’s speech, the lack of details, and its repetitive nature, the Palestinians have one overriding mission when they confer with the Arab League: break the U.S. monopoly on the peace process. The EU and UN are growing bolder in their calls for inclusion and, with the right strategy, the majority of the international community can be summoned to exert pressure on Washington.
Abu Rdineh said a united front will be presented “to face the Israeli obstinacy.” The same goes for America.