Obama's retreat leaves Israel at the mercy of multilateralism
'This is how the international community should work," said President Barack Obama a little more than a week ago. "More nations, not just the United States, bearing the responsibility and cost of upholding peace and security." He was referring to the military campaign in Libya, in which the US insisted it was simply following the lead of the Europeans and the Arab League, and quickly handed off command of the operation to Nato and a multilateral consensus. But some of Washington's most trusted partners believe the same principle should apply to the search for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Britain, France and Germany are pressing to take the "Middle East Peace Process" file out of the White House, where it has gathered dust for the past decade. If they succeed, they might be doing Mr Obama a favour because domestic politics in the US essentially prevent him from doing what he knows needs to be done to forge a two-state solution.
Washington will, however, face even more pushback from Israel following a Washington Post article by Judge Richard Goldstone, softening the charges in his UN report accusing Israel of war crimes in 2008. Mr Goldstone wrote that subsequent investigations suggest there was no evidence Israeli forces had deliberately targeted civilians. While not necessarily vindicating Israel's conduct, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seized on the partial retraction to demand that the UN bury the report. The affair will now become Exhibit A in Israel's efforts to resist foreign pressure by claiming the affair proves an anti-Israel bias in international institutions.
Domestic political calculations last month forced the administration to veto a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate halt to Israeli settlement construction on land conquered in 1967. But that veto, which isolated Washington from all of its allies except Israel, was also a moment of clarity: if domestic political calculations require that the US veto a Security Council resolution echoing its own policy on settlements, what hope was there for Washington to broker a just and viable solution to the conflict?
The administration's key European allies are now urging that the April 15 meeting of the Mideast Quartet formally state the international consensus that the geographic basis for a two-state solution is Israel's boundaries before the June 1967 war. By recognising Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem as the basis of a Palestinian state, the Quartet would be affirming that any territory Israel occupies outside of its 1967 borders is the Palestinians' (and in the case of the Golan Heights, Syria's) to trade away as they see fit, rather than Israel's to "concede".
Israel, which has settled almost a half million of its citizens on Occupied Territories, is fighting hard to avoid such international recognition of Palestinian claims. But when the UN General Assembly meets in September, the Palestinian leadership plans to demand that an independent Palestine based on the 1967 lines be recognised as a member state. There are no vetoes in the Assembly, and the Palestinians will easily muster the simple majority of the world's nations required to pass such a resolution.
No amount of diplomatic consensus can change the fact that Israel holds those territories, but it will affirm that it holds them by force of arms rather than on the basis of any legal recognition. And that undercuts the Israelis' expectation that their overwhelming advantage in the balance of force with the Palestinians, and the favour they enjoy in US domestic politics, will somehow compel the Palestinians - and with Washington's imprimatur, the wider world - to accept Israel's terms.
Mr Obama had prioritised settling the conflict, and had pressed Israel to halt all settlement construction to demonstrate that it was sincere about ending the occupation. But Israel is in no hurry to end the occupation, nor does it suffer any serious consequences for maintaining it. So Mr Netanyahu relied on Israel's unconditional support on Capitol Hill -and among some important Democratic Party campaign donors - to defy Mr Obama, and the president is not going to risk his re-election chances in a showdown with Israel.
But, having stonewalled Mr Obama's efforts, the Israelis now have to deal with the diplomatic isolation they have engineered for themselves. "How dare you?" Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly responded, when Mr Netanyahu called to complain about German support for the Security Council resolution on settlements. "You are the one who has disappointed us. You haven't made a single step to advance peace."
None of Israel's closest allies beside the US believe any longer that Mr Netanyahu intends of his own volition, to end the occupation or offer peace terms acceptable to the Palestinians. The new consensus is that Israel will have to be pressed into a deal, the parameters of which will have to be prescribed.
The past two decades has seen the US treat Israeli-Palestinian peace as its exclusive preserve. "We're dealing with it," has been the basic message from Washington to its international allies since the Clinton administration took office early in 1993. "We'll call you when we need your backing for whatever it is we come up with."
But through its failure to press Mr Netanyahu to halt construction on occupied territory, the administration showed the Palestinians and everyone else that no progress towards a two-state solution should be expected if the matter is left in Washington's hands. Mr Obama couldn't have signalled more clearly what was required in respect of the stalled peace process if he had silently mouthed "Help me!" during a White House press conference.
Of course, the Israelis and their supporters in Washington will urge Mr Obama to reject any moves by the Quartet or the UN to codify the 1967 lines as a basis for a two-state solution. But most of those who had, with increasing alarm, accepted Washington's exclusive handling of the issue may now be taking Mr Obama's praise of Libya multilateralism as a cue to internationalise the search for a two-state solution in the Middle East's most intractable conflict. After all, Mr Obama made clear, that's "how the international community should work".
Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Follow him on Twitter @Tony Karon
Updated: April 4, 2011 04:00 AM