The Obama administration’s refusal to support the successful Palestinian bid for symbolic “observer state” in the United Nations sends a strong signal that all will be business as usual during its second term. Worse, ever too mindful of the pro-Israel lobby in America, the United States has essentially endorsed a No State Solution between Israel and Palestine.
Official US policy has long been in support of a negotiated settlement that would produce two states, Israel and Palestine, existing side by side in peace. But during the “peace process” of the last 20 years, Israel’s actions have undermined that goal. Since the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn in 1993, which marked the beginning of the Oslo process, the Israeli settler population in the West Bank has rocketed from 109,000 to more than 350,000. One of the largest settlements, Ariel (almost 20,000) has been absorbed into “greater Israel” by a separation wall that veers deep inside the West Bank; plans are in place to thus incorporate a second settlement, Maale Adumim (39,000).
A ring of Jewish settlements all but surrounds East Jerusalem, crippling the dream of making it the future capital of Palestine. The settlements, checkpoints, roadblocks, “sterile” zones, “closed military areas,” settlers- and VIP-only roads, and Israel’s full military occupation of 60 percent of the West Bank have all combined to carve a would-be Palestine into disjointed cantons, not the “viable and contiguous” land that the US officially seeks for Palestine.
Without a doubt, rockets from Gaza or, in past years, suicide bombers from the West Bank have clearly undermined the Palestinians’ own case. But the Israeli seizure of Palestinian land has continued apace, regardless of the level of violence.
These facts on the ground send clear signals that the Palestinians don’t have a partner for peace. With each new Jewish housing project, with each clearly-stated intent not to dismantle major settlements or allow Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem or the crucial Jordan Valley, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like Ariel Sharon before him, has essentially shown unambiguous contempt for two sovereign states. Rather, Israeli leaders are turning the Holy Land into a single entity, with land, borders, airspace and underground aquifers controlled by Israel, and with citizenship rights granted only to some.
In the face of this, Mahmoud Abbas, the weak and unpopular leader of the West Bank Palestinians, had nothing to lose by going to the UN for its semi-meaningful statehood declaration. (The title “observer status” speaks to the largely symbolic nature of the recognition, but the prospect of Palestine joining the International Criminal Court has very real implications. Chief among them: Palestinian membership could subject Israel to war crimes investigations, and Israeli officials to arrest and prosecution abroad.)
That the US didn’t support Mr. Abbas in his UN effort actually strengthens him at home. Palestinians have become disillusioned since the soaring rhetoric of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech gave way to the reality of America’s lopsided support for Israel, and, in the face of intransigence from the Israeli prime minister, its abandonment of Palestinian moves toward self-determination.
The latest case in point: After the Palestinian victory, UN ambassador Susan Rice declared cynically that “[t]oday’s grand pronouncements will soon fade.” And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an understatement, added, “America has Israel’s back.” The day after the UN vote, Israel essentially made a mockery of Clinton’s words, announcing it was unveiling plans to build on “E1,” the last piece of land that connects East Jerusalem to the West Bank. Jewish housing there would be the last nail in the coffin for the two-state solution. American officials seem either clueless or complicit about Israel’s intentions.
US policy in the region continues to operate under the Beltway perception that “domestic political considerations” (chiefly driven by the pro-Israel lobby) must trump the national interest – and the human interest – even in a second Obama term. This despite the fact that within intelligence circles, Israel is increasingly seen as a strategic liability for the US. From Cairo to Tehran to Jakarta to Mindanao Island in the Philippines, Palestinians are seen as essential stewards of Muslim holy sites in the Holy Land, and their oppression and occupation by Israel remains a great rallying cry for militants worldwide.
“[T]he status quo is unsustainable,” former CIA Director David Petraeus told The New York Times in 2010. “If you don’t achieve progress in a just and lasting Mideast peace, the extremists are given a stick to beat us with.”
By refusing to support even modest moves toward Palestinian self-determination through official international channels, the US is now willfully disengaging from its own interests in the region, at an immense and as-yet unknown cost. By failing to forcefully challenge Israel’s settlement expansion and demand an end to a 45-year occupation, or to meaningfully support Palestinian aspirations, the US has essentially, if unofficially, endorsed the end of the two-state solution in favor of a system of one-state dominance by an occupying military power.
Changing course is always possible. An excellent place to start would be to threaten the removal of American aid to Israel given its bellicose actions in the West Bank, in particular its announcement of plans for more settlement building on the landscape of Palestine’s last hope. There’s precedent for that: In 1992, Secretary of State James Baker, with the full backing of President George H. W. Bush, refused to approve loan guarantees for Israel unless it agreed to halt settlement expansion. The threat worked, for a while, until the Oslo era arrived.
Now would be the time to try again. Such a condition could be accompanied by assurances that the US is not abandoning Israel, and a stated understanding of Israelis’ deeply-rooted fears of isolation and vulnerability. But friends shouldn’t let friends drive drunk – especially when you’re both in the same car. Such a frank talk would require both a vision and political will on the Palestinian question that have been absent from US policy for too long.
Sandy Tolan is author of “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East,” and associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He blogs at ramallahcafe.com.