The Obama administration’s refusal to support Palestine as a symbolic “observer state” in the United Nations sends a strong signal that all will be business as usual during the second term. Worse, with its latest and most shameful capitulation to AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., the United States has essentially endorsed a No State Solution between Israel and Palestine.
Official U.S. policy has long been in support of a negotiated settlement that would produce two states, Israel and Palestine, existing side by side in peace. But during the “peace process” of the last twenty years, Israel’s actions have undermined that goal. Since the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn in 1993, which marked the beginning of the Oslo process, settler population in the West Bank has rocketed from 109,000 to more than 350,000. One of the largest settlements, Ariel (20,000) has been absorbed into “greater Israel” by a separation wall that veers deep inside the West Bank; plans are in place to thus incorporate a second settlement, Ma’ale Adumim (34,000). A ring of Jewish settlements all but surrounds East Jerusalem, crippling the dream of making the Holy City the future capital of Palestine. Settlements, checkpoints, roadblocks, settlers-only roads, and Israel’s full military occupation of 60 percent of the West Bank: all have combined to carve a would-be Palestine into disjointed cantons, not the “viable and contiguous” land that the U.S. officially seeks for Palestine. Rockets from Gaza or, in past years, suicide bombers from the West Bank have clearly undermined the Palestinians’ own case. But the Israeli seizure of Palestinian land has continued apace, regardless of the level of violence.
These facts on the ground send clear signals that the Palestinians don’t have a partner for peace. With each new housing project, with each clearly-stated intent not to dismantle major settlements or allow Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem or the crucial Jordan Valley, Benjamin Netanyahu, like Ariel Sharon before him, has demonstrated his unambiguous contempt for two sovereign states. Rather, Israeli leaders are turning the Holy Land into a single entity, with land, borders, airspace and underground aquifers controlled by Israel, and with citizenship rights granted only to some.
In the face of this, Mahmoud Abbas, the weak and unpopular leader of the West Bank Palestinians, had nothing to lose by going to the United Nations for its semi-meaningful statehood declaration. (“Observer status” speaks for itself, though the prospect of Palestine joining the International Criminal Court could subject Israel to war crimes investigations, and Israeli officials to arrest and prosecution abroad.)
That Abbas wasn’t supported in this modest U.N. effort by the United States actually strengthens him at home. Palestinians have become disillusioned since the soaring rhetoric of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech gave way to the reality of America’s lopsided support for Israel, and its abandonment of modest Palestinian moves toward self-determination.
The latest wag-the-dog U.S. reaction: Secretary of State-in-waiting Susan Rice’s cynical declaration in the U.N. that “today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade,” and Hillary Clinton’s profound understatement that “America has Israel’s back.” The next day, Israel made a mockery of Clinton’s words, announcing it was unveiling plans to build on “E1,” the last piece of land that connects East Jerusalem to the West Bank. Jewish housing there would be the last nail in the coffin for the two-state solution, and finally reveal American officials’ cluelessness as to Israel’s true intentions.
Yet the U.S. continues to operate under the Beltway perception that “domestic political considerations” must trump the national interest, and the human interest, even in a second Obama term. This despite the fact that within intelligence circles, Israel is increasingly seen as a strategic liability for the U.S. From Cairo to Tehran to Jakarta to Mindanao Island in the Philippines, Palestinians are seen as essential stewards of the Muslim holy sites, and their oppression and occupation by Israel remains a great rallying cry for militants worldwide. “The status quo is unacceptable,” former CIA director David Petraeus told the New York Times in 2010. “If you don’t achieve progress in a just and lasting Mideast peace, the extremists are given a stick to beat us with.”
The United States is now willfully disengaging from its own interests, and that of its citizens, at an immense and as-yet-unknown cost. By failing to forcefully challenge Israel, or to support the modest Palestinian aspirations, the U.S. has essentially, if unofficially, endorsed the end of the two-state solution in favor of a system of one-state dominance by an occupying military power.
Changing course is always possible. An excellent place to start would be to threaten the removal of American aid to Israel given its bellicose actions in the West Bank, in particular its announcement of plans for building on the landscape of Palestine’s last hope. There’s precedent for that: in 1992, Secretary of State James Baker, with the full backing of President Bush, refused to approve loan guarantees for Israel unless it agreed to halt settlement expansion. The threat worked, for a while, until the Oslo era arrived.
Now would be the time to try again. It could be accompanied assurances that the U.S. is not abandoning Israel, and a stated understanding of Israelis’ deeply-rooted fears of isolation and vulnerability. But friends shouldn’t let friends drive drunk – especially you’re both in the same car. The U.S. needs a frank talk with Israel. But that would require vision and political will on the question of Palestine – both of which have been absent from U.S. policy for a long time.