What Obama Must Do about Palestine, Israel

By James Gundun – Washington, D.C.

The acting president of the Palestinian National Authority (PA) chose an appropriate setting to issue his latest impassioned plea. Himself in political limbo, running on the fumes of an expired term, Mahmoud Abbas was on hand in Ramallah to lay the cornerstone of the new presidential headquarters.

The four-story complex will replace Yasser Arafat’s British-era Mukataa within 18 months – just like U.S. mediated negotiations could use an overhaul.

Days earlier Abbas had delivered a special message to UN headquarters in New York warning that the present deadlock, mixed with ongoing Israeli settlement activity, has turned the peace process into a “ticking time bomb.” Although Meron Reuven, Israel’s UN envoy, slammed Abbas’s “destructive rhetoric,” his government appears to have responded with destructive action. Abbas claimed on Wednesday that he’s still in the dark over Washington’s policy towards Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

“We are waiting,” he informed the White House through the assembled reporters.

But the Palestinians have been waiting for support since Barack Obama’s first day in office, promised the most decisive action ever by a U.S. president and currently drifting in a turbulent sea. While Abbas accurately predicted, “maybe we will hear something official tomorrow,” he’s going to have to wait longer than that. According to an anonymous Palestinian official, the White House informed the PLO less than 24 hours later, “that the Israeli government did not agree to a new settlement freeze.”

Except the secret was already out, broadcast on loudspeakers as Israel’s Interior Ministry confirmed 625 new units in the Pisgat Zeev settlement of East Jerusalem. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat remarked, "It seems obvious that we have received the Israeli answer to the American attempts to stop settlements.”

"It looks like this is an Israeli message to the Palestinians and the Americans that they are refusing any deal resuming the negotiations,” added Nabil Abu Rdainah, Abbas’s spokesman.

As Obama nears his third year in office, it remains hard to believe that the peace process could deteriorate under his watch. The Bush administration left the region in shambles, a frozen negotiating table ravaged by intermittent hot-war between the IDF and Hamas. After the White House’s last ditch effort – the Annapolis Conference in November 2007 – former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice predicted a resolution by the time Bush left office.

Israel would invade Gaza during his final month, pulling back days before Obama was inaugurated.

But an iron-clad political law is holding true: conflict can always turn for the worst despite an illusion of rock bottom. The Palestinians would undoubtedly face a greater challenge against a U.S. president who bleeds Israeli blue, a characteristic Obama appears to lack. Yet this doesn’t automatically convert him to pro-Palestinian as some Israeli officials and pundits argue.

An omen of future events, Obama kept silent during the Gaza war in fear of “overstepping Bush’s authority” – and remained silent once in office. The White House later played an instrumental role in obstructing the UN’s investigation led by Richard Goldstone, and has done relatively little to improve Gaza’s inhuman conditions.

Although Muslim hopes for Obama entered the stratosphere with so many other passengers, a lack of sincere fuel ensured an ugly crash landing back to the Middle East. Warning signs were visible from the beginning, namely his speech to AIPAC delivered the day after securing the Democratic nomination. Obama offered up an undivided Jerusalem only to recant the next day after backlash from the Palestinians. He then proceeded to fill his staff with a collection of established Israeli boosters, leaving no doubt as to whose side he favored.

The Palestinians never had a chance – Obama was living a lie before he arrived in Cairo. Cashing into the Middle East’s euphoria to polish his own image, Obama also needed to repair America’s blackened reputation before his surge into Afghanistan and possible war with Iran. The Palestinians’ cause fell to the bottom, a means to an end rather than an end itself.

This theme now applies to Egypt’s own opposition.

Perhaps he knew that action wouldn’t follow, but Obama seemed to have hypnotized himself with his own rhetoric, believing it could substitute for actual policy. A Palestinian people far removed from naivety desperately wanted to believe him, yet skepticism took root from the beginning. Resulting expectations were inflated so high that Obama had nowhere else to go but down, as he never intended to deliver a fair two-state solution.

From here everything rolled downhill. Setback after setback, round after round of collapsed negotiations, and the peace process almost feels like it’s gone backwards. It certainly hasn’t moved since January 20th, 2009. The White House dreamed of an agreement within two years, except this time has already passed in a blur. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the latest restart in September, reports surfaced that Obama expected an agreement within a year. Negotiations collapsed less than 30 days later on the expiration of Israel’s partial 10-month freeze, after the two sides couldn’t agree on what to negotiate with Washington.

Obama has since remained quiet throughout the last two months of deadlock, allowing his "special adviser" Dennis Ross, who Netanyahu personally requested as his back-channel, to dictate a future Palestinian state.

A consistent pattern has developed from Obama’s campaign to the present: actions out of touch with the reality of both sides, and few actions in general. As if afraid to directly enter the conflict, or waiting until the very last moment (who can tell when that truly is), Obama has left the peace process to press officials and Israeli advocates, rarely commenting on settlement announcements except during heightened tensions.

Such as when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat in his chair as he toured Asia.

Yet Obama’s soft warning – after visiting Indonesia of all places – foreshadowed the immediate future. Netanyahu’s visit to Washington contained no learning lesson; he was ready to pull off a heist the moment he landed in New Orleans. But once his shenanigans turned Obama’s Muslim outreach into a mockery, especially after speaking the bare minimum on Kashmir’s dispute, Obama’s return to Washington became a key indicator going forward. And rather than restore a sense of impartiality to the peace process, he offered his terms in writing to Netanyahu’s skeptical cabinet.

Ignoring the latest settlement announcement – and Erekat’s demand that the U.S. acknowledge the negotiation’s collapse – Obama instead Tweeted: “Jews have lit Hanukkah candles as symbols of resilience in times of peace and in times of persecution. Their light inspires us to hope.”

As usual State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was left to clean up the mess. Days before Crowley had scuffled with reporters as to why the U.S criticizes Israel’s actions in private and the Palestinians in public. Meeting those same doubts on Thursday, Crowley explained, "We have quiet conversations with both sides on the substance of the peace process. Those conversations are ongoing. And beyond that we’re not going to get into details of what precisely was discussed.”

He added, "these kinds of announcements undermine the trust that is important to get the parties back into negotiations and to make progress."

Only this is where Washington and Israel’s scam really kicks in. U.S. condemnation rang hollow enough when Israeli settlement notices interrupted Vice President Joe Biden’s visit or Obama’s Asian tour, before Netanyahu and Clinton’s latest terms had been disclosed. Then the news spilled that Washington had gifted East Jerusalem to Israel by excluding it from a proposed 90 day settlement freeze, a development that turned U.S. “criticism” into Jello.

This symbolism overtly laid claim to the whole capital and served as direct payment to Netanyahu’s hard-line government, particularly Shas leader Eli Yishai. After Annapolis, Yishai had threatened to pull out of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government if he signed away East Jerusalem, vowing, "Jerusalem is above all political considerations." So including East Jerusalem would have immediately killed the deal – and instead killed it to the Palestinians.

Abbas has insisted on a number of occasions, "If there is no complete halt to settlements in all of the Palestinian territories including Jerusalem, we will not accept."

Some Israelis and Americans still believe that Obama is trying to set Netanyahu up to fall, either to blame Israel for a potential breakdown or scapegoat it for America’s unpopular wars in the region. They view his “Muslim outreach” as appeasement. And they believe that he’s being too easy on the Palestinians, a preposterous thought when he’s aiding and abetting in Israel’s robbery.

By stalling through settlement activity, Israel has leveraged additional concessions out of Washington to impose on the Palestinians. Now Abbas is supposed to return to even more unfair terms after witnessing Netanyahu effortlessly manipulate the U.S. political system. Daniel Kutzberg recently shocked the system by admitting the White House is rewarding Israel for bad behavior. This from an ambassador who served Israel’s interests for both Bill Clinton and George Bush, and who supposedly co-authored Obama’s speech to AIPAC along with Ross and James Steinberg, now the Deputy Secretary of State.

How unfair Israel’s treatment must be.

Sadly the imbalanced status quo in the Palestinian territories has been entrenched under Obama, and for a fraction of Israel’s citizens. Roughly 500,000 settlers are holding a large portion of Israelis and Palestinians hostage. Those who blame settlements for assuming gross disproportion fail to point out the corresponding truth that settlers currently dictate the peace process. Many Israelis do want to see an equal two-state solution, but are being drowned out (or else have tuned out in their safe environment).

On the Palestinian side, over 60% of respondents in the latest PCPSR poll rejected negotiations without a settlement freeze. But that left 40% who wished to proceed, a logical conclusion given that an overwhelming majority oppose a return to organized violence. The Arab Peace Initiative remains their highest and only hope, favored at 52%. However this route obviously runs into the same wall: East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu and company have laid repeated claim to the entire city, while Palestinian officials insist that the new headquarters in Ramallah is only temporary until they can relocate to their future capital.

Back to where we started, in a loop – or did we even move? With the debate switching between settlements and borders, both sides occupy common ground by leaving Jerusalem for the end. Though conventional thinking has left the hardest terms for last, it’s also beginning to make less sense. The specter of Washington awarding the whole city to Israel haunts the remaining final-status issues: right to exist, settlements, borders, refugees, water. Perhaps Israel and the Palestinians should begin at Jerusalem and work backwards.

How can the White House stop what feels like an endless fall? If Obama believes anything he’s said – if he believes in international law – he must definitively award East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. Waiting until the next cycle of violence before personally intervening will be too late. 

– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst based in Washington D.C. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him in The Trench, a realist foreign policy blog, at www.hadalzone.blogspot.com.

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