With his decision to oppose the U.N. General Assembly’s granting Palestine non-member state observer status, U.S. President Barack Obama leaves no doubt he is not modifying his pre-election position that "There is no daylight between Israel and the United States," and that no matter how deeply Israeli behavior violates international norms and existing agreements, U.S. support for Israel remains "rock solid." This continuity of U.S. Middle East peace policy was promptly reinforced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she assured Israel that despite her condemnation of its decision to proceed with new construction in the E1 corridor of the West Bank that will doom the two-state solution, this administration will continue to "have Israel’s back."
The decision confirms America’s irrelevance not only to a possible resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict but to the emerging political architecture of the entire region, the shape and direction of which will increasingly be determined by popular Arab opinion, not autocratic regimes dependent on the United States for their survival.
The efforts promised by President Obama to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will be seen universally for the empty and purposeless exercise they will be. To be taken seriously, a new U.S. peace initiative would have to begin with an insistence that Israel’s government accept the pre-1967 border as the starting point of resumed negotiations. Without such a U.S. demand, backed by effective diplomatic pressure, the United States will have no right to ask Palestinians to return to negotiations that have no terms of reference, and therefore no prospect of producing anything other than cover for Israel’s continuing predatory colonial behavior in the West Bank.
The administration’s admonitions to the Palestinians that they find the political courage to return to negotiations with a government whose intention to prevent viable Palestinian statehood has been clearly and repeatedly demonstrated are singularly inappropriate. A U.S. administration that since the third year of its first term has been pandering to the Israel lobby by withdrawing its insistence that Israel’s illegal settlements project must end, followed by a muting of its demand that resumed negotiations be framed by reasonable terms of reference, should exercise considerably greater restraint before presuming to preach to others on the subject of political courage.
Netanyahu’s decision to proceed with massive new construction in the Jerusalem area and elsewhere in the Occupied Territories is not what doomed the two-state solution. It was always clear this is what he intended doing. What doomed the two-state solution was Obama’s decision to give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the veto over Palestinian statehood, which is exactly what he did when he and his representatives at the United Nations insisted that the only path to Palestinian statehood is through open-ended talks with the Netanyahu and Lieberman-led government.
Both formally and politically, the U.S. position is patently untrue. Formally, the right to self-determination by a majority population in previously mandated territories is a "peremptory norm" in international law. The U.N. Charter is clear that the implementation of that right is one of the primary purposes of the United Nations’ establishment, and international courts have confirmed it is a right that overrides all conflicting treaties or agreements. The only reason the U.N. Security Council has failed in its clear responsibility to implement the Palestinian’s right to self determination is this administration’s veto.
Practically, it is true that given its overwhelming military power, and given the virtually uncritical support it receives from the United States in the exercise of that power, Israel’s government can and will continue to block Palestinian statehood. But that is a reason not to subject the Palestinians’ peremptory right to self-determination to an Israeli veto. Instead it is a reason to demand that the United Nations exercise the role assigned to it by its Charter. Israel’s engagement with the Palestinians will cease to be the historic fraud it has been only when its government comes to believe that its continued stonewalling will lead to America’s support for intervention by the Security Council.
Previous failures of the peace process continue to be dishonestly attributed by the United States and Middle East experts (particularly former "peace processors" who have left government for various think tanks) to "the absence of trust" between the parties. It is an explanation that serves as a convenient way of avoiding hard truths. If the lack of trust were in fact the reason for past failures, why have the years of endless negotiations not produced greater trust, but instead eroded what little trust existed to begin with. The Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas have discredited themselves with their Palestinian public because they have been too trustful of Netanyahu and his government, in effect collaborating with the illusion so successfully promoted by Israel that they are overseeing a transition to a two-state solution.
The Palestinian people have known all along how utterly disingenuous was Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech of June 14, 2009 in which he pretended to accept the two-state goal. Not only was this possibility precluded by the facts that Netanyahu and his government were creating on the ground, but members of his cabinet were the founders and leaders of the "Whole Land of Israel" Knesset Caucus that was established officially for only one purpose: preventing a Palestinian state in any part of Palestine. At no point did that caucus provoke a murmur of protest from the United States or from the Quartet. Imagine their reaction — or the reaction of the U.S. Congress, for that matter — if President Abbas’s cabinet members had established a "Whole Land of Palestine" Caucus within the Palestinian Authority.
The credibility of any new U.S. initiative that seeks to restore the possibility of a two-state outcome depends entirely on President Obama’s willingness to identify the illegal "facts on the ground" unilaterally created by Israel in the West Bank as the fundamental obstacle to a two-state solution. To be sure, it is a solution that would now be difficult to achieve in the best of circumstances, but it is clearly entirely out of the question when the occupying power has made the prevention of such an outcome its overriding strategic goal.
There would be no better beginning for a change in U.S. Middle East policy than an unambiguous U.S. declaration of support of the Presidency Conclusions of the European Council of March 25 and 26, 2004 in which European leaders unanimously declared that "The European Union will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders other than those arrived at by agreement between the parties." Ironically, it is a position that was endorsed by — of all people — President George W. Bush.
Sadly, there is no reason to believe the Obama administration will do so, short of cataclysmic events in the region that threaten to damage U.S. vital interests so deeply as to offer him no choice. By then, however, the damage is likely to be irreparable — not only to U.S. interests, but to Israel’s continued survivability as a Jewish and democratic state.
Henry Siegman is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He also serves as a non-resident research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.