Stuck between Israeli intransigence and a Palestinian Authority that has no cards to play, Washington should step back from the peace process to break the ongoing stalemate.
Move aside Washington, and let the UN vote on Palestine
The Middle East is in turmoil, its political map being rewritten by revolts against the status quo. But in the heart of the region, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, actors on all sides appear to be stuck playing out the same stale scenes.
In recent weeks, the US president, the UN secretary-general, and a host of other heads of state have weighed in on the importance of resolving this conflict. But other than to lamely insist that "the parties must return to the negotiating table", no one seems to have an original idea as to how to do it.
There have been on again, off again negotiations for 20 years, all to no avail. With the Palestinians holding no cards and having no leverage, they come to the table more as supplicants than negotiators. The Israelis, who seem to hold all the cards, declare in advance which cards are "off the table"; they do more dictating than negotiating.
The Israelis insist, for example, that they want good faith negotiations, without preconditions. At the same time, they refuse to stop construction in West Bank settlement blocs, which they claim "everyone knows will revert to us in a final peace agreement" and in what they call "Greater Jerusalem" (an illegally annexed land mass that includes a number of Palestinian villages in the heart of the West Bank), claiming that "Jerusalem is our eternal capital". With the rights of Palestinian refugees and the maintenance of a security zone in the Jordan valley also termed non-negotiable items, one can only wonder: what do the Israelis mean by "no preconditions"?
And so here we are well into the Obama administration's efforts to resolve this matter, and the only creative ideas have come from the Palestinians, the weakest and most vulnerable party to the conflict. On the one hand, the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has successfully reformed governance on many levels, winning endorsement from international institutions, all of whom now concur that the Palestinians are prepared for statehood.
Mr Fayyed has endorsed other measures aimed at promoting self-reliance and passive resistance to the Israeli occupation. The prime minister knows he can't create a state while Palestine is divided. But he is taking the steps to make sure that when Palestinians achieve independence, they are ready for self governance.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority has embarked on a campaign to win international support for their claim to statehood, pledging to go to the United Nations in the fall to seek a resolution recognising a Palestinian state. While some analysts in the West dismiss this effort as a hollow gesture, the Israelis have become mildly hysterical (they have termed the looming UN vote "a diplomatic tsunami"), with some threatening the equivalent of a political temper tantrum should the Palestinians persist.
No UN resolution can, by itself, create a state (since the US can still veto a formal acceptance in the Security Council), but why deny the Palestinians their right to a vote on recognition? And why is all this creating such hysteria both in Israel and among its supporters in the US? Is it that they just don't want to see a vote, or is it that they can't bear to lose a vote or fear just losing control of the discussion?
With the September UN General Assembly session fast approaching, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is preparing another grand appearance in Washington, in an effort to win the one and only vote he feels he needs to block international pressure.
Concerned that Mr Obama may soon present his own plan laying out a US framework for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, Mr Netanyahu has wrangled an invitation to address the US Congress. It is expected that he will attempt to preempt the US president by unveiling his own proposal, which from all indications will amount to no more than an agreement to take the minimum steps he should have taken and refused to take 15 years ago when he rejected the Oslo process.
While this will surely be seen by Palestinians and most of the world as "too little, too late", it will no doubt win the Prime Minister thunderous applause in Congress, emboldening the Israelis to stand fast and do no more.
Assuming that Mr Netanyahu will emerge victorious in Congress, what will and can the US president do in response? One suggestion: he can preempt the Israelis by delivering his own speech before Mr Netanyahu arrives in Washington, laying down firm markers on outcomes and steps to be taken to achieve peace.
This will only be effective if the outline includes the sanctions that will be incurred should the parties fail to take the required steps. Here, Mr Obama has limited leverage, since Congress will most likely not support any cuts in aid or other punitive acts against Israel. But should the speech fail to include real sanctions for non-performance, it will not be taken seriously.
Recognising this weakness in the US position, Mr Obama could decide to get out of the way and let the UN have its say by letting the General Assembly vote and declare Palestine a state, and then allowing the measure to pass in the Security Council. At that point Israel can be found to be in violation of international law since it is occupying, annexing and illegally settling on the territory of a member state. And the Palestinians will be free to take their case to other, more impartial, international bodies.
If the US can't do more than it has done to date, then doing nothing, and letting Israel face the music in the fall might be the smartest approach.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute