Whoever wins the election, President Barack Obama or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, will face the same fundamental problem regarding Palestine. As their foreign policy debate indicated, the two differ little on most international relations issues, and tried to outbid each other on support for Israel.
But, domestic politics notwithstanding, any American administration will face the problem that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not go away. Various administrations, most recently the early period in the first George W. Bush administration, have attempted a policy of “benign neglect,” considering the problem to be either unsolvable and hence to be avoided, or too marginal to be a priority. All such efforts invariably confront the reality that this conflict can be neither managed nor ignored.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems poised to win the January Israeli elections. He aggressively promotes a “fortress Israel” mentality, particularly in the context of the Arab uprisings, and has focused Israeli and American attention entirely onto Iran, and away from the Palestinians and Israel’s relentless colonization of the occupied territories. Obama and President Mahmoud Abbas, through their own missteps, allowed Netanyahu to outmaneuver them both time and again on settlements and negotiations.
Abbas has said that, following a UN vote on nonmember observer states status for Palestine later in November, he would be willing to return to negotiations with Israel without preconditions. This would be an important first step in restoring relations with the West, and acquiring a resumption of badly needed aid that can offset the dangerous and destabilizing Palestinian Authority fiscal crisis.
Even if the Palestinians are ready to resume substantive negotiations, considerable groundwork will be necessary if they are not to prove futile. The calculations of Netanyahu must be shifted. If they yet again give him the space to do so, Netanyahu will avoid negotiations and, no matter how unfairly, place the blame squarely on the Palestinians. For both Americans and Palestinians, therefore, the priority must be to repair their relationship.
Palestinians are extremely unlikely to achieve their national goals without significant American cooperation, no matter how frustrating they find the relationship. And even in their day-to-day activities, they have not been able to discover an alternative to Western support.
The Arab states, too, are facing momentous decisions regarding Palestine. Palestinian national reconciliation is inevitable. The question is, on whose terms will it come, Gaza or Ramallah? The Emir of Qatar cast his vote in his recent trip to Gaza, with promises of massive financial and reconstruction aid to Hamas and the establishment of a diplomatic mission in the territory.
No doubt by embracing Hamas, Qatar has broken with the Arab consensus regarding the exclusive right of the Palestine Liberation Organization to speak on behalf of the Palestinians. And many Arab states have not done enough to help the Ramallah government survive the consequences of its failed UN bid from last year, or the upcoming revived UN effort, both of which they encouraged.
Everyone would prefer to be living in an alternate reality, but it doesn’t exist.
The incoming American administration would undoubtedly like to ignore the Palestinian issue and avoid any quarrel with Israel over settlements or anything else. But it cannot secure the American interest of Middle East peace without a major effort that involves confronting Israel.
Israeli would like the world to let it quietly complete the colonization and de facto annexation of the occupied territories, and hopes to be embraced by the Arab world anyway. But this is not how Arabs and others are going to react to this illegal and expansionist project.
The Palestinians would rather deal with another broker and patron than the Americans, who they reasonably perceive as too close to Israel for their liking. But no other country is interested in playing this role, or able to do it. Indeed, no one else is even compensating the impoverished PA for withheld American aid.
But the task of the next American administration and leaders in Palestine, Israel and the Arab world is to face reality as it is, and not as they wish it were.
If Americans are serious about peace being in their national interests, they must use their influence to secure it, even if it means confronting Israel. If Israelis want to live in peace and security, they must make a reasonable peace agreement with the Palestinians. If Arab states want the problem resolved, they must support those willing to make peace.
If Palestinians want to create an independent state, they must repair their relations with the West, particularly United States, and work with it as partners. Some might find that distasteful. But it is the only way to succeed. The difficult truth is the biggest instrument of leverage the Palestinians have is the American consensus that a two-state peace agreement is in the US national interest.