Ariel Schalit/AP
Palestinian schoolgirls walk by an Israeli policeman near a building occupied by Jewish settlers in Hebron, in April 2012.

Arabs, Europeans move to fill US void on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

US absence in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is prompting Arabs and Europeans to jump in. But are prospects for them any better than they were for the United States?

With the United States sitting on the sidelines, Arab and European countries alarmed at a steady uptick in tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are pushing ahead with efforts to get the two sides talking again and moving toward resolution of their long conflict.

Optimism that a new international peace initiative can somehow do better than the Obama administration’s failed foray into peace-process diplomacy earlier this year is close to zero. The US is preoccupied with the battle against the Islamic State and with talks aimed at securing a comprehensive deal with Iran on its nuclear program, while Israel will be distracted by the campaign leading up to elections now set for March. 

But at the same time a number of key powers, primarily in the Middle East and Europe, are increasingly concerned that doing nothing as tensions rise is a recipe for disaster.

Efforts under way in the United Nations Security Council to push Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table arise not just from growing frustrations over deteriorating conditions in the absence of diplomacy. They also reflect a sense that the two sides are less prone to take aggravating unilateral steps when they are in talks than when they retreat to their opposite corners, as is now the case.

The rekindled efforts out of the region in particular also debunk the notion that had been gaining traction in some Washington circles that the unresolved Palestinian issue is no longer the driving force among Arabs that it once was.

The Arab League last week endorsed a Palestinian-drafted resolution that would recognize Palestine as a UN state and call for Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to end by November 2016. Jordan, which currently sits on the Security Council as a nonpermanent member, has begun circulating the resolution at the UN in New York. Jordanian diplomats have said they would like to see a resolution voted on by the end of the year.

Three European powers – Britain and France, which are permanent members of the Council, and Germany – have drafted a separate and less confrontational resolution that would set a deadline of two years for negotiations culminating in a Palestinian state.

One key question is where the US would come down on the resolutions.

The Obama administration would almost certainly veto the Arab-backed version if it came to a vote – the US effectively killed the last bid by Palestinians to achieve statehood through the Security Council in 2011 – but the wording of the less-definitive European version would probably determine the US position, some diplomatic experts say.

Jordan’s King Abdullah sat down with President Obama at the White House Friday for a conversation that focused on the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and the challenges that the Syrian civil war presents to Jordan and other Syrian neighbors.

The two leaders gave no indication that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was a focus of their discussion when they delivered brief statements to the press.

“We are going to continue to share ideas” to move dialogue forward, Mr. Obama said. But he added that after the Gaza violence this summer and recent tensions in Jerusalem, “the environment has not been conducive for the sort of peace initiatives that we’d like to see.”

During his US visit, Abdullah repeated his position that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a “core issue” in the region that is exploited by “extremists” to gain favor with public opinion.

In an interview with CBS News, he said the fight with IS is part of a “war inside of Islam” that must be led and “owned” by Muslims. But he said resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would benefit the entire global community.   

The official US stance on the conflict since Secretary of State John Kerry threw in the towel on his peace effort in April remains unchanged: that the only way to “two states living side by side in peace” is through direct negotiations between the two sides. To get back to talks, the US adds, both sides must avoid unilateral actions that raise tensions and make direct talks more difficult – whether it's Palestinian recourse to international bodies like the Security Council or Israeli expansion of housing developments on Palestinian lands.

“Our position on this hasn’t changed,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday when asked about the US response to diplomatic efforts in the Security Council. “In order to get two states living side by side in peace and security, we believe the way to do that is through direct negotiations between the two parties themselves where they get to a final agreement on all the issues.”

The Obama administration has come under some criticism from pro-Palestinian forces who say the US has acted to stop Palestinian authorities’ unilateral actions, while going no further than verbal rebukes of Israel when it has taken “unhelpful” unilateral steps.

But there are some indications that the White House, growing increasingly frustrated with Israeli actions – in particular concerning accelerated settlement expansion – could move toward more concrete actions to underscore displeasure with Israel.

White House officials refuse to confirm that discussions are taking place on a tougher US response to settlement activity, but some Israeli officials, speaking with the Israeli press, have said that US officials have told them that such talks have been under way since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s White House visit in early October.

That visit was accompanied by a rush of settlement activity, including announcement of construction of more than 2,500 housing units in East Jerusalem.

What remains unclear is what form any US action might take. Some UN diplomatic experts have speculated that the administration might decline to use the US veto in the Security Council if a resolution condemning Israel for the settlement activity were to come up.

Or, others wonder, might the US decide to go along with a European resolution that ups the pressure on Israel to get back to talks?

A tougher stance against Israel is not sitting well with some members of Congress.

“Not only is the Administration rejecting new sanctions to end Iran’s nuclear threat, it's now reportedly developing sanctions against our closest ally, Israel," Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois said in a statement. "This move only worsens perceptions that the Administration treats our friends like enemies and our enemies like friends.”

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