Is the Palestinian relationship with the United States really important?

A regular Ibishblog readers asks me to, “Please cite a single benefit which the Palestinians have enjoyed due to the US’ chimerical support for the principle of Palestinian independence. If the US’ toothless and duplicitous ‘support’ is one the main cards the hapless Palestinians hold, they’d better find another game to play-this one is obviously rigged. What in the world are you smoking in that shisha of yours?”

I’m sure this reader speaks for many, many Arabs and Palestinians in being skeptical that the slow but steady and, when viewed in terms of the past two decades, striking development of US support for the most fundamental Palestinian national positions, and the evolution of US-Palestinian diplomatic relations generally, is a useful thing. However, I would argue that this is a shortsighted and emotional reaction based on frustration (sentiments I, of course, share), rather than a strategic analysis that has any merit. To seriously assess the nature and the value of the US-Palestinian relationship, we need to consider first the fundamental political realities with which the Palestinian national movement has to contend, and second the alternatives to cultivating the strongest possible ties with the United States.

The fundamental political realities that define the context of Palestinian efforts to end the occupation and establish their own sovereign, independent state are the essential Middle Eastern regional and global international circumstances. The first point that needs to be faced is that in the Middle East at the moment and for the past several decades, the main regional power is, in fact, the United States. There is currently a growing challenge from Iran as a rising potential rival regional hegemon, but at present and for the foreseeable future, for better or worse, the United States is the most potent actor in the Middle Eastern region. It’s also the most significant country in the world, and with all due respect to the Chinese president, as yet it has no equal on the global stage.

There is no doubt that US power is declining in relative terms from a peak at the end of the Cold War, but rising potential global rivals such as China, India, Russia, Brazil and possibly the European Union are still developing their international presence and all of them remained largely mercantile powers devoted to trade with limited interest or ability in real power projection through military and diplomatic coercion, especially at the global level. Moreover, none of these powers either can or seem to desire to play the central role of third party in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The “Quartet” essentially reflects international support for US efforts. Therefore, while the international power of the United States is often exaggerated both here at home and in many countries around the world, and its ability to enforce its will is of course highly constrained (as demonstrated most recently in Iraq), from a diplomatic perspective there is no substitute for American support as a practical matter if the occupation is in fact to be ended.

It could be argued that for the Palestinians, the Arab states constitute a first line of crucial diplomatic and political support, but that commitment has never been seriously called into question. Obviously there are many complaints Palestinians have about some of the policies of some, or perhaps even in some cases all, of the Arab governments, but the generalized Arab commitment to the Palestinian cause is really beyond question. Therefore, even if it could be argued that Arab diplomatic support is the most important for the Palestinians, since it is virtually guaranteed, the real question is the relationship with the United States.

Obviously, the American special relationship with and commitment to Israel, which is not at the moment subject to any serious political challenge within the American system, makes the US an even more crucial player from the Palestinian point of view. Palestinians can only achieve their ultimate objectives through an agreement with the Israelis, and it is really only the United States that Israel trusts to broker such an agreement. Therefore, if there is to be any such thing as Palestinian diplomacy or a Palestinian diplomatic strategy, the centrality of the relationship with the United States is obvious. It’s plainly the case that both because Israel enjoys such a powerful set of domestic political interests that advocate on its behalf in the United States and because Israel is a sovereign state with its own policies, the American ability to influence Israeli decision-making is significant but ultimately limited. The ongoing flap about Israeli settlement activity, Jerusalem and other issues significantly dividing US and Israeli policies is the most recent demonstration of this limitation.

One of the most common mistakes to be found in analyses of international relations is the notion that because the United States has no global rival, it can therefore be considered omnipotent. The least that can be said is that its power is greatly exaggerated in many people’s minds. In some conspiracy theories around the world, including among some Arabs, almost anything that takes place is considered to be a reflection of the American will. This is, of course, ridiculous. So is the idea that if the United States really wanted an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, it could simply force all the parties to agree to its agenda and the whole thing would be resolved in short order. Again, this is a misreading of both what is possible given the domestic political considerations in the United States and the reality that American power over both allies and rivals, while unmatched by any other state, is nonetheless seriously constrained by rather obvious limitations.

What I’m arguing here is that while the United States is indispensable as a broker to Palestinian-Israeli agreement on just about anything constructive, it is unreasonable and wrong to think of American policies as a panacea. Not only has this been demonstrated by the recent inability of the Obama administration to shift Israeli policies it does not agree with, the fact that the most fundamental Israeli-Palestinian agreement to date, the Oslo statement of principles, was largely negotiated through a back channel which bypassed the Americans (this could be taken as an indication that the US is not really needed, or, as I would argue, that its absence was a part of the real failings of Oslo from the outset). However, implementing these agreements, correcting the drastic flaws in everything that emerged from the Oslo process, and taking the diplomatic process further almost certainly requires an American role as a third-party. Moreover, I don’t think there is a real substitute for American financial and technical support and political protection for the PA State building plan and, indeed, many efforts to develop Palestinian society, economy and infrastructure.

One should consider the alternatives:

* Were the Palestinians better off diplomatically 20 years ago when there was absolutely no contact whatsoever between the United States and the PLO?

* Were they better off before the United States established a formal and increasingly respectful relationship with the Palestinian leadership?

* Were they better off before the United States adopted ending the occupation as a foreign policy goal under Bush and a national security priority under Obama?

* Would they be better off without the UN Security Council resolutions calling for Palestinian statehood?

* Would they be better off without the new Palestinian security forces that have brought a new measure of law and order to Palestinian cities like Jenin and Nablus and formed the basis for significant economic improvement?

* More importantly, would they be better off if the United States withdrew its support for the goal of ending the occupation?

* Would they be better off if the United States closed the PLO mission in Washington and ceased all contacts with the Palestinian leadership?

* Would they be better off if the United States abandoned any interest in the Palestinian cause and issue and simply left the Palestinians and, perhaps, the other Arab to deal with Israel completely on their own?

* Would it really make any sense for the Palestinians to allow Hamas to replace the PLO as the primary political and diplomatic arm of the Palestinian people and throw in their lot with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood parties that are both (and separately) challenging not only the American role in the Middle East but the regional order itself and almost all of the Arab states as well?

* Could the Palestinians even consider proceeding without any international support from the US, the Arab states, the UN and everyone else?

* Is there any possibility for Palestinian self-sufficiency given the reality of the occupation and the present state of Palestinian society?

Obviously, the reader and plenty of other frustrated people might rashly and precipitously be tempted to answer in the affirmative across the board. But I don’t think any serious person, upon the calm reflection, can answer yes to almost any and certainly not to most of these questions.

The other consideration is whether or not there is a non-diplomatic option for advancing the Palestinian cause and, most importantly, securing an end to the occupation. In my view, the state-building plan is just such a practical, complimentary and effective extra-diplomatic option, but it too requires American support and protection from Israeli interference in order to succeed. Boycotts and the like can be useful, especially when targeted against the occupation and used in harmony with the PLO’s national strategy, as can other grassroots efforts, but I very much doubt that civil society protests can secure the Palestinian national aims. They can cause pain and raise awareness, and could even have a small contribution to the overall political context, but I cannot imagine that they can fundamentally transform the strategic situation as the state-building option could. As for violence, it has proven its inefficacy and counter-productive qualities definitively and beyond serious dispute. Armed struggle is no answer for either side, and for all of the magnificent, heroic efforts at non-violent resistance against Israel’s giant wall in the West Bank there does not seem to be a serious chance that a widespread campaign of non-violent resistance would characterize a third intifada, as I have explained in detain in recent articles and Ibishblog postings.

Therefore while there are many useful tactics the Palestinians might employ to advance their cause, the strategic goal must be ending the occupation and all of these tactics need to bolster and support that overriding imperative. Since the only way this can in reality be accomplished is ultimately through diplomacy supported by state-building efforts, grassroots actions both in Palestine and internationally, and other measures, all roads ultimately lead back to the need for the best possible relationship with the United States.

Of course the ultimate objection raised by the reader is that for all of the increasing American sympathy for and support of the goal of ending the occupation and securing other crucial Palestinian national interests, the situation has, in many ways, continued to deteriorate and has certainly not been resolved. Fair enough. But this same charge can be made against any and all of the extant realities, strategies and approaches to securing Palestinian human and national rights that have been employed since 1948 (and indeed before), since none of them have produced the anticipated and required results. Obviously the relationship with the United States that has been steadily and in some ways dramatically improving over the past two decades needs a lot more work both to realize its broader potential and to undergird ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state. But it is quite difficult to imagine the Palestinians achieving their aims in the face of American antipathy or even ambivalence.

Therefore, what I’m suggesting really is a nuanced understanding that recognizes the indispensability of American engagement and support for the Palestinian national project while recognizing both the limitations of American power and what is possible given the domestic political circumstances in the United States. I’m asking people to accept that this reality is subtle, complex and includes apparent paradoxes such as the twin facts that while American power is highly limited, it is also absolutely indispensable.