by Mitchell Plitnick
When it comes to the tedious dance between the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the more things change, the more they stay the same. As 2013 draws to a close, we have another proof of that cliché.
As 2013 dawned, President Barack Obama began his second term, and Benjamin Netanyahu — whose horse in the US race, Mitt Romney, had lost decisively — was winning re-election but embarking on a very difficult set of talks to cobble together a governing coalition in Israel. As there always is with a second-term US president, there was some speculation that Obama might decide to damn the torpedoes of domestic politics and put some moderate pressure on Israel to compromise. Despite some illusions, by the end of the year it became clear that this wasn’t happening.
A little less than a year ago, John Kerry was named Secretary of State and vowed not only to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians but to bring them to a conclusion. Few believed he could get the two sides talking again, but Kerry managed it and thereby breathed a bit of life into Washington groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now who have staked their existence to the fading hope of a two-state solution. But even fewer objective observers believed Kerry could actually fulfill the second part of his pledge, and as 2013 comes to an end, all the evidence points to the vindication of that pessimistic view.
The talks were restarted because Kerry asserted US authority, cajoled and convinced the two sides to talk again and was willing to exert some public pressure on the Israeli government as well as the Palestinian Authority to make it happen despite the political difficulties both sides faced in agreeing to them. But when it came to matters of substance, the sort of pressure that would be required — a good deal more than was needed just to restart the talks — was absent.
Recent events have demonstrated that the United States’ position on a final agreement still largely reflects Israeli concerns and de-prioritizes the more pressing concerns of the Palestinians. The key issue this time has been an ongoing Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley. For the Palestinians, this is a sine qua non. After all, it is very difficult to sell the idea that a military occupation has ended when the armed forces of the occupying country are still there.
The US’ idea of “compromise” on this point seems to be that Israel would maintain its hold on the Jordan Valley for some period of years, and then would gradually hand it over to the Palestinians if the Palestinians behaved themselves. It’s not hard to understand why the Palestinians see that paternalistic arrangement as the US taking Israel’s side, rather than as a compromise proposal.
Indeed, the US approach remains unchanged regarding Israel and Palestine, despite rather profound shifts in US policy across the region in the wake of regional changes and Obama’s re-election. The US has clearly moved to extricate itself from many of the region’s issues, has refused to take the interventionist steps its key ally, Saudi Arabia, was pushing hard for, and opened the door to diplomacy with Iran. But in Israel-Palestine, the approach remains the same: the issue is primarily viewed not through the lens of millions of innocent people living under a harsh military regime without civil or human rights, but through the lens of Israeli security.
This picture can sometimes be confusing because of the obvious dislike and mistrust that exists between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. There can be little doubt that there is real contention between the two, and this often plays out in public. But the reality is that this tension only lies between greater and lesser extremes of Israeli intransigence. The radical right-wing view, whose most prominent advocate in the Israeli government is Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, was laid out in Ha’aretz on Dec. 27: “Ya’alon demands that the army have freedom of movement in all West Bank cities. He also wants full Israeli control in the Jordan Valley and of all border crossings, as well as of the air space.” In other words, no significant end to the occupation, ever. The more moderate position thus becomes Netanyahu’s, which would allow for Palestinian control over areas outside the major settlement blocs (although the surrounding territory, which currently falls under the jurisdiction of the settlements’ “regional councils” would likely be included in the blocs that remain Israeli), and a reduction in Israel’s presence in the Jordan Valley along the lines that Kerry is proposing as well as some American and Palestinian participation in border crossings and air space.
Obviously, that puts a middle ground between more or slightly less occupation of the West Bank, and doesn’t allow for a real end to the Israeli occupation or anything approaching Palestinian sovereignty. So, as has happened many times over the past twenty years, the Palestinians correctly see the United States as joining a rejectionist Israeli position, even while the ever-increasing popular ranks of the Israeli right, and their supporters in the US, see the very same US positions as siding with the Palestinians.
But other things are changing. Israel, including the current government, has long seen participation in peace talks as an end unto itself because it served to ease international pressure. But this time around, the effect of merely holding talks has been considerably diminished. The European Union went ahead with conditions on an economic aid package that bar cooperation with settlements and businesses housed in them. The effect of this action is minimal; it won’t affect a great many programs, and Israel has avenues to attain most of the same cooperation. But along with explicit European warnings about further actions if peace talks fail, this is a clear message to Israel that Europe is losing patience with Israeli settlements and intransigence.
There is also the growing consciousness of the occupation in civil society movements advocating boycotts against and divestment from Israel, commonly referred to as the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. Consider the recent decision by the American Studies Association in the US to approve an academic boycott against Israeli institutions. It, too, won’t have a dramatic effect on Israeli academics’ ability to pursue their work, but the message that was sent was profound. That was clear by the nearly hysterical reaction in Israel and among the well-connected supporters of Israel’s rejectionist policies in the United States. These popular forces coupled with the impatience in Europe, a potential rapprochement between the West and Iran and the concern over the changing terrain in the Arab world are creating pressure on Israel to change. Right now, Israel’s response is to dig its heels in even deeper, but that could change quickly if more Israelis start feeling the effects of international opprobrium.
In the end, though, the biggest obstacle remains on the Palestinian side. The Palestinian Authority commands very little real sway these days among the Palestinian masses, and Hamas is not seen by many as a viable alternative. Exceedingly few Palestinians believe the PA’s reliance on the United States is a fruitful course toward their freedom, but Hamas, even beyond the obvious obstacles that were placed in front of it by the siege on Gaza, has offered no alternative strategy. Instead, the two sides vie for supremacy among an occupied and dispossessed people who largely prefer to see the two come together into an unified leadership.
There is some reason to hope for 2014 and beyond that Israel and the Palestinians arrive at a reasonable agreement. But for that to happen, the Palestinians themselves must become active participants, as was the hope after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. They need to be a party with their own agency and strategy, not a partner trying to prove itself to Israel’s closest ally with the dream that the US will suddenly turn to support them. The issue must be seen internationally as one of a monstrous occupation that must end for both moral and practical reasons, and the occupation must end in a way that gives Israel a sense of security. But right now the main goal is to give Israel security while ending the occupation is viewed as a bonus. That dynamic must change, but the leadership in Washington continues to stand in the way.