When a “senior Obama administration official” was quoted in The Atlantic using a profanity to describe Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was only the latest in a series of mutual insults that have brought US-Israel relations to a new low.
John Kerry, US secretary of state, implies he blames Israel’s settlement policies for the breakdown in peace talks, while Mr Netanyahu has lectured the Obama administration on a range of topics, including “American values”.
The impulse of many Palestinians is to see this unusual acrimony between Israelis and Americans as a significant net gain. But they shouldn’t jump to conclusions.
Much as they may resent American closeness to Israel, Palestinians need the US if they are ever going to get an agreement on ending the occupation. Many complain that the US is an inappropriate third-party because it is biased towards Israel. But there is no other power seeking to replace the US as Middle East peace broker. Under these circumstances, Palestinians can either negotiate directly with the Israelis or they can continue to work with the Americans.
Moreover, given the reality that the US is the only plausible third-party mediator, and that the only way to end the occupation is through a successful negotiation with Israel, the strong US-Israeli relationship does potentially provide a benefit to Palestinians. The Americans can “deliver” the Israelis, at least in theory, to the negotiating table. Certainly there is no other party that Israel would trust as a guarantor of any agreement.
Finally, any notion that strained US-Israeli ties are a benefit to Palestinians imposes an illusory zero-sum model. It’s just not true that anything that harms Israel’s interests is good for the Palestinians and vice versa. The real world is much more complex than that. The tensions between Tel Aviv and Washington do open an important set of potential opportunities for Palestinians. But they have to proceed carefully if they are not to squander it.
During the first Obama term, the US and Israel had a major confrontation over settlements. Yet this did not help advance Palestinian interests at all because Palestinians did not position themselves as appearing to be willing to compromise.
US-Israeli tensions don’t amount to much if Washington also views the Palestinian position with suspicion. This leaves the US to conclude that, rather than having a recalcitrant Israeli interlocutor and a responsible Palestinian one, they are dealing with two fundamentally non-cooperative parties.
Yasser Arafat demonstrated, at the Wye River negotiations, how taking a political hit (in the form of accepting a deal that was less than he reasonably believed Palestinians ought to accept) in order to demonstrate a willingness to work with the Americans. It produced results. For one thing, it led directly to the defeat of Mr Netanyahu by Ehud Barak.
That wasn’t sustained, but it did demonstrate the basic pattern. The Palestinian leadership could take steps to try to demonstrate what it is willing to do to help the US achieve its broader goals.
One prospect that now emerges is not the US declining to veto Palestinian statehood initiatives at the UN, but a new Security Council resolution on settlements.
The deterioration of US-Palestinian relations began with the US veto of a Palestinian-driven Security Council resolution condemning settlements in February 2011. The US said it didn’t want to vote for a resolution describing settlements as “illegal”, but would accept the word “illegitimate”. Palestinians insisted on “illegal”.
Washington vetoed the resolution and relations have been strained ever since. Under the current circumstances, should Palestinians play their cards right, there is a real prospect for revisiting the crucial issue of the settlements in the Security Council. That would be a breakthrough both in US policy and US-Palestinian relations. And, given Israel’s missteps, it’s now achievable.
But if Palestinians don’t frame themselves as a responsible party, in contrast to Israeli irresponsibility, then the opportunity will, once again, have been wasted.