Four More Years

by Mouin Rabbani Chris Toensing | published December 5, 2012

The 2012 US presidential election elicited less interest among Palestinians than any such contest in living memory. While most Israelis, and their government in particular, expressed a clear preference for a Republican victory, Palestinians seemed resigned to continuity in US foreign policy irrespective of which party won the White House.

The main reason was that President Barack Obama, self-proclaimed apostle of change and widely hailed as such in the region when he assumed office four years ago, has yet to demonstrate a meaningful inconsistency with his predecessor George W. Bush when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Events since the election have only confirmed this policy direction and thus the validity of Palestinians’ indifference.

Settlement

Four years ago, one need only have listened to Obama to understand that US policy toward Israel-Palestine would not change. En route to the White House after the 2008 election, he offered unconditional support — undiluted by a single word of criticism — of Israel’s murderous assault on the Gaza Strip, in which some 1,400 Palestinians, the majority of them civilian non-combatants, were killed. Six months later, in his heralded Cairo speech, his lengthy denunciations of violence were directed exclusively at the Palestinians, just as Bush’s had been. On the Israeli colonization of occupied territory, Obama did not go beyond stating that Washington would not recognize the legitimacy of additional — as opposed to existing — Jewish settlement activity.

Obama’s overall plan was to revive the Clinton-era “peace process,” pursuant to the 1993 Oslo accords. The Oslo process had fizzled out precisely because it postponed the most contentious issues to the end, did not specify a basis for resolving them (making no mention, for example, of an end to occupation or Palestinian statehood), and lacked a schedule to which the parties could be held accountable along the way. Nor was there a mechanism for restraining Israel from altering the landscape of a future Palestinian state: From 1993 to 2000, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem doubled.

By the time Obama arrived in Norway in December 2009 to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, his initial and to date sole effort to promote Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was already sputtering toward failure. That effort was headed up by the president’s special envoy, retired Sen. George Mitchell, who was charged with restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks on the basis of a freeze on new settlement construction. The Israeli premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, resisted the idea of a freeze for months before taking what he called “a very big step toward peace”: a ten-month building stoppage that did not apply to East Jerusalem or to sites where work was already underway. Mitchell’s response: The measure “falls short of a full settlement freeze, but it is more than any Israeli government has done before.” The special envoy spent the remainder of his tenure trying, alternately, to lure or railroad Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud ‘Abbas to the table despite the fact that Israel had not met the Palestinian (and, ostensibly, the US) precondition for talks. In the end, Netanyahu declined to renew even the slowdown in settlement construction and Obama declined to renew Mitchell’s mandate.

Thus, rather than augment the existing Oslo framework with a plain agenda, firm objective and clear timeline, Obama ditched his Cairo proclamations and settled for Israel’s temporary and partial reduction in colonial expansion. Instead of pressuring the Netanyahu government for more, Washington browbeat ‘Abbas into fruitless discussions with an interlocutor who Israeli historian Avi Shlaim terms “a man who pretends to negotiate the division of a pizza while continuing to gobble it up.” [1]

Under Netanyahu, indeed, settlement budgets have risen steadily, from $202 million in 2009 to almost $276 million in 2011. [2] These figures indicate the costs of new construction, but also road maintenance, investment in schools and other measures of the settlements’ envisioned permanence, as well as various incentives to persuade Israelis to populate the settlements or stay put within them. According to Israeli activist Daniel Seidemann, as of early December 2012 the government had issued tenders for 2,366 new units in the West Bank, more than double the number over the period 2009-2011. [3] This number does not include the 3,000 units in E-1, whose impending construction Israel announced on November 30. E-1 is an area lying between Jerusalem and the West Bank colony of Maale Adumim; its development will conclude the isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank while bisecting the latter.

Despite his poor personal relationship with Netanyahu, and perhaps his real resentment of Israel’s battering of his standing in the region, Obama has done nothing to rein in Israeli settlement activity. In sharp contrast to the Bush years, Washington came simply to ignore announcements of further construction, no longer registering even pro forma reservations. When, on November 30, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the E-1 plans “set back the cause of a negotiated peace,” it was akin to an exception that proves the rule.

Siege, Disunity, Impunity

During Obama’s first term, the United States additionally retained an unrelenting commitment to the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Washington’s embrace of Husni Mubarak until his very final days was in no small part based on the ex-Egyptian president’s willingness to enforce that siege, as well as other US-Israeli efforts to keep the Palestinian Authority (PA) split between ‘Abbas in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza, and keep the former excessively cooperative with Israel. The Obama administration remained unequivocally hostile to the prospect of Palestinian reconciliation, to the extent that Clinton rejected the 2012 Doha agreement between ‘Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, which would have seen ‘Abbas assume a unified premiership with the Islamist movement’s support.

But the hostility toward Hamas was not matched with equivalent levels of friendship for the Ramallah fragment of the Palestinian Authority. With genuine fervor, the Obama administration backed West Bank PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his plan to divert Palestinian energies toward economic and institutional development, in no small part because it hoped to see Fayyad succeed to the PA’s helm. But then Washington stood idly by as these dreams collapsed into the most serious Palestinian fiscal and budgetary crisis since the PA was established. While investing heavily in Israeli-Palestinian security coordination, Washington invested much less in efforts to persuade Israel to take meaningful measures, such as revisions of the 1994 Paris Protocol, that would help transform the Palestinian economy into a self-sustaining market free of Israeli control. It also failed to provide sufficient direct aid to make the West Bank’s a successful aid-dependent economy. As of late 2012, PA employees in the West Bank live hand to mouth, typically receiving their salaries late and in installments. And at certain points in Obama’s first term, the chorus line in Congress has even imposed sanctions on Ramallah.

At the United Nations, Washington’s ambassador Susan Rice worked hard to foil Palestinian initiatives and to shield Israel from even a smidgen of international opprobrium. First came her campaign against the Goldstone report, an accounting of Cast Lead that suggested both Israel and Hamas be investigated for war crimes. Rice moved to block discussion of the Goldstone findings, which she castigated as “anti-Israel” and “deeply flawed,” both at the UN Human Rights Council and in the General Assembly. Later came her assiduous efforts, matched in Washington, to deter Mahmoud ‘Abbas from asking the Security Council to recognize Palestinian statehood in 2011 and, when ‘Abbas demurred, to elicit “no” votes and abstentions from Council members. Still later, on October 25, 2012, came her strident attack on distinguished law professor Richard Falk, the UN’s special rapporteur for the Palestinian territories, whose reports she says “poison the environment for peace.” This statement was last in a litany of obstructionist vituperation that many could not help but recall when Rice characterized as “disgusting and shameful” the Russian and Chinese vetoes of Security Council action on Syria.

Finally, in November Obama offered a defense of Operation Pillar of Cloud, Israel’s latest bombardment of Gaza, that was indistinguishable from his excuses for Cast Lead in 2008-2009. “There’s no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” he told a press conference in Thailand. But Obama’s reference was not to the projectiles dropping on the length and breadth of the Gaza Strip; he was again censuring only Gazans for firing rockets into Israel and, in so doing, obfuscating the fact that Israel’s violence in Gaza was far greater and more lethal.

The Wider World

If there is no indication yet that US policy toward Israel-Palestine will change during Obama’s second term, there are other factors that mitigate against four more years of complete continuity.

The main overall difference between Obama and his predecessor was to be that Bush’s arrogant disdain for international partnership would be replaced by diplomacy and tact. Thus would Obama restore American prestige and primacy in world affairs. The supreme irony, then, is that it is Obama’s invisibility on the question of Palestine, rather than Bush’s insolence, that has pushed European officials today to speak in increasingly open terms about holding Israel to account and, if necessary, pursuing policy options that are no longer dependent upon US leadership. The unprecedentedly robust European response to Israel’s E-1 scheme, with promises of concrete measures to come if Israel does not reverse course, is one example. Britain, France and Sweden have even murmured about withdrawing their ambassadors from Tel Aviv if E-1 proceeds as announced. [4] European officials have also been speaking with less hesitation than usual about the prospect of formulating diplomatic initiatives of their own if the second Obama administration does not demonstrate seriousness of purpose within 6-12 months. While they have dropped such hints before, their impatience is more palpable than with presidents past.

The region surrounding Israel-Palestine, moreover, is most definitively in a state of transformation, with a clear impact on the dynamics of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The emir of Qatar paid a highly publicized visit to besieged Gaza in late October, promising $400 million in aid to the coastal strip. During Pillar of Cloud, Arab foreign ministers virtually rushed to convene an emergency summit, and thereafter were exceptionally eager to be photographed with Isma‘il Haniyya, prime minister of the Gaza PA. This attitude was a veritable sea change from what prevailed in late 2008-2009, when Husni Mubarak and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa led the campaign to prevent an Arab response to a much longer and more severe Israeli onslaught. They did so in close coordination with Saudi Arabia, which this time felt compelled to maintain radio silence from the outset to the very end of the crisis. During Cast Lead, Saudi diplomats had portrayed Hamas as responsible for the crisis while notably abstaining from the usual rote indictments of Israeli aggression.

Together with Turkey and Qatar, Egypt successfully lobbied Washington to persuade Netanyahu to accept ceasefire terms that were considerably worse than those in the offing on the eve of Pillar of Cloud. Thus Palestinians, pursuant to this agreement, will have unfettered access to Israel’s self-declared 500-meter buffer zone within the Gaza Strip, previously a no-go zone where much of the territory’s agricultural land is located and where many farmers died for the sin of tending their crops. Similarly, the maritime zone available to Gaza’s fishermen has been extended from three to six kilometers out to sea. And, for the first time, Israel has formally and unconditionally pledged to cease assassinating Palestinians. The improved military capabilities of Hamas and other Palestinian groups, which Israel was this time unable to neutralize, also played a part in extracting these terms from Israel.

No sooner did Israel’s F-16s return to base than ‘Abbas boarded a flight to New York, intent on requesting the UN General Assembly to elevate Palestine to non-member observer state status. As with his 2011 bid for full UN membership, Washington spared no effort — including threats to chop US financial aid to Ramallah — to dissuade him. But ‘Abbas was left with no choice, in view of the widespread Palestinian perception that Gaza had successfully confronted Israel while Ramallah had been reduced to irrelevance. And for this same reason, many otherwise unsympathetic European states found it ill advised to vote against the resolution. The UN’s approval of Palestine’s request on November 30 poses a new challenge for ‘Abbas, because it provides him with opportunities, such as joining the International Criminal Court and a variety of UN agencies, that are inimical to his predilection for a negotiated agreement with Israel. (Israel, indeed, has again withheld customs revenue due the PA under the Paris Protocol to punish ‘Abbas for his display of independence.) Yet if he neglects these opportunities in the face of further Israeli consolidation of occupation, his political survival may come to be at stake.

Similarly, ‘Abbas will be hard-pressed to continue to refuse reconciliation with Hamas in the months ahead, particularly if the Islamist movement shows greater flexibility rather than adopting the stance that, in the wake of its “victory,” it no longer needs to make concessions to Ramallah. Yet, even if Hamas subscribes to the main principles of the PLO’s political program as part of a deal, it will have a say in how this program is implemented. It is difficult, therefore, to see how ‘Abbas can avoid taking a firmer attitude with respect to preconditions for new negotiations with Israel or avoid taking firmer positions during such negotiations. With Hamas comes Islamic Jihad, a movement that unlike the former has consistently demonstrated more interest in the pursuit of its principles than political power. Furthermore, the integration of the Islamist movements into the Palestinian body politic is likely to empower or otherwise motivate other factions, particularly on the left, to begin showing increasing independence from Fatah, which under Yasser Arafat and ‘Abbas has dominated the PLO and the PA. Israeli and US punitive measures against the West Bank PA will only speed up this dynamic, because they simultaneously reduce external influence and leverage upon the PA while strengthening the position of those seeking an approach to Israel that fundamentally differs from that of the past two decades — and particularly the eight years since ‘Abbas assumed office.

Test of Intentions

President Obama stands before a fundamental choice: He can revamp the US approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or he can watch American influence over both the main parties and related actors such as Europe and the Arab world wane at an accelerated pace.

Many will view the course of the E-1 episode as a test of US intentions: If, as in the past, Washington confines its disapproval to statements at press briefings, then others are likely to conclude that the US will continue to protect Israel from any consequences for erecting more and more obstacles to peace. As of yet, the US has specified no penalty to Israel should the E-1 housing units be built. The State Department’s statement of December 3 was non-committal: “We have made clear to the Israeli government that such action is contrary to US policy.” Such mild rebukes contrast markedly with the material penalties that Washington holds over the PA’s head when it takes “unilateral” steps such as ‘Abbas’ pursuit of observer status at the UN. Comparing this bid to the E-1 announcement on November 30, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “We’re going to be even-handed in our concern about any actions that are provocative, any actions that make it harder to get these two parties back to the table.” It does not escape the notice of Europeans and others that such understandings of “even-handedness” equate a legitimate Palestinian diplomatic initiative with an act of colonial expansion that the Rome Statute defines as a war crime. Again, patience with Washington’s conceits is running out.

Still, there are those in Europe, Palestine and the broader Arab world who never lose hope that salvation is just an American election away. Yet for a host of reasons, among them the clout of the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, the unappetizing cost-benefit ratio of Middle East peacemaking efforts in the American domestic political arena, and the pressing demands of crises in Syria and elsewhere, the prospects of a reorientation of US policy appear to be dim. In the eyes of many Washington insiders, tight alignment with Israel (if often inconvenient) offers tangible strategic profit, whereas Palestinian statehood or other “solutions” to the question of Palestine promise only unproven and ephemeral gains. Israel and its backers can exact a price for policies that are not to their liking; Palestine cannot and its nominal supporters do not.

The most likely result of this logjam is the gradual re-internationalization of the question of Palestine, its removal from the grip of Washington and its simultaneous removal from the Oslo framework. It is an indisputably positive development, but a process that may prove to be extremely painful as well, for the Palestinians more than anyone else.

Endnotes

[1] Avi Shlaim, “Obama Must Stand Up to Netanyahu,” The Independent, March 5, 2012.
[2] Foundation for Middle East Peace, Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories (September-October 2012), p. 3.
[3] New York Times, December 3, 2012.
[4] Haaretz, December 3, 2012.



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