A new US perspective on Middle East peace


Washington, DC – Under US President Barack Obama’s Administration, the United States has vigorously re-engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and made commitment to Palestinian statehood a national security and foreign policy priority. Obama has said that it is “absolutely crucial” to American interests to resolve the conflict, and appears determined to persist despite all difficulties and obstacles.

There are several crucial reasons for this intensification.

First, while the benefits to American interests of ending the conflict have been clear for many years, the substantial costs to the United States of failing to secure a peace agreement are becoming more widely understood. The conflict has become an exceptionally powerful weapon in the hands of fanatics throughout the Middle East, fuelling anti-American sentiment throughout the region. The administration has understood that ending Israel’s occupation would be a singularly effective counterattack against extremism.

Second, the Obama Administration is taking a more holistic approach to retooling the American relationship with the region, compared to its predecessors. Rather than viewing each relationship and problem independently, and dealing with them on a case-specific and usually bilateral basis, this administration understands they are both independent and interconnected.

Third, it has become increasingly clear to many American friends of Israel, including numerous prominent Jewish Americans, that a peace agreement with the Palestinians and an end to the occupation is not only in the United States’ national interest, it is also in Israel’s interest. If it persists with the occupation, Israel can be meaningfully neither Jewish nor democratic, and will not know either peace or regional acceptance. This understanding has allowed many prominent Jewish Democrats, including key members of Congress, to support Obama’s push for an Israeli settlement freeze.

Indeed, Obama’s initial strategy for advancing the peace process was to secure Israel’s implementation of its commitment under the roadmap for peace, issued under former US President George W. Bush, to freeze settlement activity in the occupied territories. Obama was also trying to secure diplomatic gestures from Arab states as a reciprocal move.

Obama met with only partial success on both sides, with Israel reportedly agreeing to a temporary settlement freeze in the West Bank, but not in occupied East Jerusalem. At the tripartite UN meeting between Israeli, Palestinian and American leaders on 22 September, Obama made it clear that he did not accept this proposed compromise on settlements by Israel, but was setting the issue aside for now and moving forward on permanent status talks.

While previous administrations would almost certainly have embraced the proposed Israeli compromise, Obama continues to reject the legitimacy of Israeli settlement activity and has left the issue unresolved.

At his UN General Assembly speech the following day, Obama laid out a number of stipulations for the negotiations that strongly favour the Palestinian position, pledging to “end the occupation that began in 1967” and insisted, above all, that the status of Jerusalem is to be addressed by new talks.

Including Jerusalem in the talks runs directly counter to Israeli positions and strongly reinforces the Palestinian view that the city must be the capital of any Palestinian state. It is a central question that cannot be ignored. Perhaps even more than settlements, this issue will prove extremely challenging for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, especially given his coalition partners’ uncompromising stance on Jerusalem.

Ultimately, the main message senior administration officials, including Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are sending is that the administration is “determined” to achieve a two-state peace agreement.

This determination, a willingness to take political hits and keep on going, was evident in Obama’s words at this week’s UN General Assembly meeting when he declared, “…Even though there will be setbacks, and false starts and tough days–I will not waiver in my pursuit of peace.” Any party counting on wearing down, waiting out or chasing this administration away from negotiations must now seriously reconsider its strategy.