Obama's dose of reality may be a cure for the Palestinians
The Obama administration's announcement that it had capitulated before Israeli recalcitrance on a settlement freeze should be read as a cry for help. Mr Obama has, in fact, taken a bold step in acknowledging frankly that he has a problem. He has been repeating the rituals and catechisms of the failed Oslo peace process in the hope of producing a different outcome. Now, he's been forced to acknowledge that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a communication problem that can be solved by simply getting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas to talk.
Mr Obama's epiphany appears to have come after his final humiliation by Mr Netanyahu, who turned down a massive package of military aid and diplomatic concessions offered for just 90 more days of a partial settlement moratorium aimed at restarting talks. Mr Netanyahu has so successfully resisted the US administration over settlements that there was little credibility to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's insistence, in a speech on Friday, "that the position of the United States on settlements has not changed and will not change... we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity".
Strong words, perhaps, but they can barely be heard above the roar of construction equipment in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The US disapproves, but it will impose no consequences for Israel ignoring that disapproval, and international law, by continuing to build outside of its 1967 borders.
Mrs Clinton's speech offered some encouragement for those looking for a more forceful intervention by the US. The parallel talks that each side will continue to hold, separately, with the US envoy George Mitchell will no longer aim to get the parties into direct talks (as Mr Netanyahu had demanded) but will instead negotiate the terms of a settlement.
Giving substantive answers on his terms for Palestinian statehood is something Mr Netanyahu has been desperate to avoid until now. The prime minister who built a career out of opposing a two-state solution finally uttered the words for the first time last year, but has yet to spell out what he means by it. Even his initial public embrace of the term prompted his father to reassure the Likud faithful that despite Mr Netanyahu's apparent departure from the party's principled opposition to Palestinian statehood, the prime minister would attach preconditions that no Arab leader could accept.
Direct talks with Mr Abbas with minimal US input has been Mr Netanyahu's preferred format because Mr Abbas brings no leverage to the table. These are called "peace" talks, but Mr Abbas is not at war with Israel, who make no secret of the fact that they view him as a lame duck.
But Mrs Clinton's speech also suggested that disappointment awaits anyone expecting Mr Obama to march the Israelis back to their 1967 borders. "The United States and the international community cannot impose a solution," Mrs Clinton warned, adding somewhat disingenuously: "Sometimes I think both parties seem to think we can. We cannot. And even if we could, we would not, because it is only a negotiated agreement between the parties that will be sustainable."
To suggest that ending the occupation of Palestinian territories that began in 1967 requires that the Palestinians "want it" as much their occupiers do is an abrogation of the moral burden accepted by Mr Obama in his Cairo speech last year. "The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," Mr Obama said, citing 60 years of displacement and the humiliations of occupation. "And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own."
The blunt truth, often camouflaged in the language required by America's pro-Israel domestic political tilt, is that ending the occupation clearly requires "wanting it" more than the Israelis currently do. The Israelis are clearly comfortable with the status quo, because it has no downside for them. Mr Netanyahu was under pressure at home last week, not because he'd botched the peace process, but for his handling of the wild fires that wrought havoc in Israeli forests.
Mr Obama knows that for the Palestinians, the failure of the diplomatic process perpetuates an intolerable situation, but his domestic political considerations militate against going out in front to press for Palestinian freedom over Israeli objections. But if others step forward and take the steps that Mr Obama is politically unable to take, that could yet change the equation. Thus, a cry for help.
Last week, 26 top-level former European officials urged the EU leadership to impose consequences in the form of limited sanctions if Israel continued to defy international law by building settlements outside of its 1967 borders. The Israelis took notice, as they did when Argentina and Brazil announced recognition of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Mr Obama may be hamstrung by domestic politics, but if others step forward and assert Palestinian rights and international law, and raise the spectre of international isolation, the US president may find it easier to press Israel, and offer it the necessary reassurance, to do some of the things it currently resists doing.
The key element, however, will be the extent to which the Palestinians themselves raise the diplomatic, economic and political cost of the occupation for the Israelis. Palestinian civil society has begun to do exactly that, avoiding the disastrous violence of the second intifada that played into Israel's hands and taking up Mr Obama's Cairo challenge to emulate civil rights struggles elsewhere. PLO figures have begun talking of pressing their case at the United Nations, which recent international responses suggest could be a fertile option - if it's more than just a threat. Mr Obama's message last week, unstated but unmistakable, is that the Palestinians' fate is ultimately in their own hands, not his.
Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TonyKaron
Updated: December 13, 2010 04:00 AM