On May 19 2011 U.S. President Obama outlined his long overdue, revised approach to the Middle East region in a major policy address, including his vision of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There was much for both Israelis and Palestinians to like in Obama’s remarks, however, both Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu dwelled on the negatives and responded with disappointment, belligerence and snubs. A month on, and the Middle East peace process remains as dormant as it has ever been.
Palestinians and Israelis need no more grand visions of peace from a U.S. President or other world leaders. They have agreed on their own. For the past two decades, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have publicly shared the same core vision of peace: “Two states for two peoples.” Rather, what remains elusive is the means by which to realise that vision. What was lacking in Obama’s speech, and what only the American president can facilitate, is a resilient and sustained process of Middle East peace negotiations that can endure the slings and arrows of Middle East politics and the violence that so often erupts.
A month on and Obama’s speech has yet to be coupled with renewed American diplomatic effort to bring the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to the negotiating table nor a mechanism through which to resolve the remaining differences between the two sides. Obama has not even called for the resumption of negotiations. Moreover, nascent attempts by the French government to convene a Middle East peace conference in July have been met, to date, with the cold-shoulder by Washington.
The problem for the past twenty years of Middle East peacemaking has not been an inability to envisage a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather an inability to get from Here to There. A means to break diplomatic impasses, a process that maintains sufficient popular legitimacy in the eyes of the residents of Ramallah and Tel Aviv, a path that allows elected Israeli, Palestinian and American leaders to sustain the political courage needed to agree upon what will necessarily be painful compromises from both sides in the name of a genuine peace.
During the 1990s, the Oslo process attempted the incremental ‘Gaza-Jericho First’ approach to peace-making, then in 2000 under the auspices of President Clinton at Camp David, the parties tried the all-at-once approach, then the Quartet’s Roadmap to nowhere. All failed. Domestic politics – in all three key polities, Palestinian, Israeli and American – have gotten in the way of progress towards peace, as have outburst of horrific violence that have only strengthened the distrust and fear of the Other while playing into the hands of each nation’s hardline leaders.
Middle East peace negotiations should not be held hostage to emanations of the very conflict they seek to resolve. The achievement of a genuine peace will greatly diminish (but, realistically, not entirely end) the violence and feelings of enmity and suspicion experienced by both Israelis and Palestinians. This is all the more reason for the U.S. President to place the emphasis on developing a durable peace process.
The latest reasons we hear from each side ostensibly holding up a resumption of high-level Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are two-fold: Israel’s rejection of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the refusal to negotiate with representatives of Hamas which has yet to renounce violence and has in its charter the goal of the destruction of Israel. For their part, Palestinians have called for the cessation of new settlement construction before negotiations should resume.
Both sides have therefore placed onerous pre-conditions on peace-talks, and like petulant children, neither side wishes to take a backwards step before the other: a recipe for deadlock. These are soluble problems, but if a lesson can be learnt from the past two decades of failed peace attempts, it is that the Israeli and Palestinians cannot do it by themselves. Adult supervision is required.
Certainly, magnanimous gestures of goodwill on either side would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and rebuilding trust. But measures such as a voluntary Israeli halt to new settlement construction, or a postponement of Abbas’ plan to seek recognition of Palestinian independence at September’s United Nations General Assembly, seem unlikely without active intervention by the White House. America remains the essential third party for Middle East peace, and the personal, sustained intervention of the U.S. President remains indispensable.
Back in 2009, the early signs were that Obama had learnt this lesson. He prioritised a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from his very first days in office with the appointment of former U.S. Senator George Mitchell as a full-time Special Envoy tasked with bringing the two sides back to the negotiation table.
However, Mitchell faced resistance from several quarters (including from within the U.S. government) to his advocacy of a more forward-leaning U.S. peace policy, and his attempts to get the parties back to the negotiating table. Reportedly out of frustration, Mitchell resigned just days before Obama’s May 19 Middle East policy speech.
From a U.S. point of view, perhaps the most awkward dilemma confronting Obama is the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, and how, therefore, to compel a close ally Israel to negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas – an entity recognised as a terrorist organisation by the U.S. In his speech and in the month since, Obama has offered no answers. Yet this is the Middle East riddle he must resolve in the coming months.