The Middle East Channel

Obama’s three options

The Obama administration’s opposition to yesterday’s United Nations General Assembly vote on the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) bid for non-member observer state status once again places the United States outside the consensus of the vast majority of the international community. While the merits and usefulness of such a move by the PLO can be debated, ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration’s opposition to yesterday’s United Nations General Assembly vote on the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) bid for non-member observer state status once again places the United States outside the consensus of the vast majority of the international community. While the merits and usefulness of such a move by the PLO can be debated, the United States has once again made it clear that it lacks any new ideas as to how to move toward a just and lasting peace in the region and suggests that the administration is likely to continue to support blindly whatever the current Israeli government wants.

However, looking forward to his second term, President Barack Obama faces three basic options for dealing with the Palestine issue. Their outlines have not really changed since the most recent Israeli attacks on Gaza. The first is the tried and true method of simply ignoring Palestine and the Palestinians, while paying lip service to the "peace process" and attempting to extract unreciprocated Palestinian concessions to Israel. This approach was practiced during most of the administration of George W. Bush, and over the last two years by that of Obama. There are many pretexts for following this course of action today. These range from the persistent political divisions in Palestinian ranks and the feebleness of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, to the supposedly "terrorist" nature of the Hamas leadership in Gaza. They include as well the stubborn unwillingness of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to engage in serious negotiations to change the intolerable status quo of never-ending settlement growth and strict Israeli control over the millions of Palestinians who have lived under Israel military occupation for over 45 years. If, as clearly seems to be the case, the Israeli government is not fully willing to allow unfettered Palestinian self-determination, terminate its occupation, and remove its settlers, what is the point of "negotiations" for the Palestinians? Another reason for doing nothing is the unbroken record of failure of every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter in trying to stop the inexorable expansion of the Israeli settlement enterprise. This vast endeavor now comprises nearly 600,000 colonists — or about one in every 10 Israeli Jews, who live on stolen Palestinian land in a far-flung archipelago explicitly intended to make the creation of a contiguous, viable Palestinian state physically impossible, with majestic success thus far.

The second option is to make a major effort to revive a "peace process" which has been moribund for well over a decade, and was on life support long before that. There is a large body of pious conventional opinion in Washington and elsewhere that would back such an approach. Those who favor it ignore the various realities on the ground just mentioned, which make the two-state solution that is the ostensible object of this process well-nigh impossible. They ignore as well the question of why a Palestinian leader with any degree of self-respect should re-engage in a "peace process" that, far from bringing peace, has resulted in the further entrenchment of this colonial reality and of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian lands. Beyond this, the Palestinians have been imprisoned in a collection of separate, sealed Bantustans, with those in the West Bank unable to enter Jerusalem or Israel or Gaza, those in Gaza who cannot freely go anywhere at all, and those in Jerusalem who can move more freely, but are at constant risk of having their Jerusalem residency rights arbitrarily withdrawn. These are all realities that took on their full form during the 21 years of this misnamed and misbegotten "peace process," starting with the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, and it is these realities that are the most concrete results of this process.

Moreover, from the beginning, this process has been totally dominated by the United States, which is Israel’s closest ally, and a broker so prejudiced toward Israel it was once described by a senior American negotiator, Aaron David Miller, as acting as "Israel’s lawyer." Many of these officials have been blatant in their sympathy for Israel and in their antipathy for the Palestinians. During a recent televised discussion I faced two of them, Elliot Abrams, a senior advisor to George W. Bush (and who served under Reagan and George H.W. Bush), and Dennis Ross, a senior advisor to both Presidents Clinton and Obama (and who served under their two Republican predecessors). I was struck by how extraordinarily alike they sounded, and by the heavy responsibility they, their colleagues, and their superiors bore for the failure of this process.

The third and last option is one never before taken by U.S. policy makers. This would involve a complete reassessment of a thoroughly bankrupt two-decade old negotiating process. This process shoe-horned the Palestinians into an "interim" self-governing authority with no sovereignty, no jurisdiction, and no real authority that has been in existence for 18 years, and deferred discussion of "final status issue" — all the important ones like Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, water, and so forth. These core issues have never been seriously addressed in over 20 years of farcical negotiations. The Madrid-Oslo framework has produced not peace but a significant worsening of the situation of the Palestinians: it must be abandoned. Such a reassessment would require as well an acceptance that the United States, because of its profound inherent structural bias in favor of Israel, cannot monopolize peace making. This is necessary if the desired result is peace, and not yet another instance of blind American support for Israeli intransigence where the Palestine issue is concerned, which has been the outcome of every such attempt from the days of President Carter until the present.

Jimmy Carter was the first U.S. president to recognize the need for a Palestinian homeland. Ironically, it was also his administration that first accepted former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s restrictive 1978 "autonomy plan" (an Orwellian term if ever there was one) as the absolute ceiling to which the Palestinians would be allowed to aspire. This plan was explicitly designed by Begin to prevent Palestinian self-determination and statehood, and to perpetuate and strengthen Israel’s occupation and its colonial enterprise in Jerusalem and the West Bank. It has done just that, with the blessing of every U.S. administration since Carter’s, under whatever rubric it was disguised since then. This path, of the 1978 Camp David agreements and the 1993 Oslo accords, which are both based directly on Begin’s restrictive autonomy plan, cannot lead to peace. It can only lead where Begin, the patriarch of the Israeli right wing, meant it to go and where it has so far gone: toward the permanent subjugation of the Palestinians and the annexation of all or most of their land.

The third path, the road never before taken, would require more than just a diminution by the United States of its heretofore pervasively dominant role, and the involvement of other more neutral parties in negotiations. It would require as well that the Palestinians finally get their act together, unify their splintered ranks, end the destructive political split which has debilitated them, and come to a consensus on an imaginative new strategy for Palestinian national liberation and an end to Israeli settlement and occupation. This in turn requires abandonment of both the PA’s approach of half-trying to negotiate from a position of abject weakness under the thumb of Israel and the United States under ground rules designed to favor Israel, and of Hamas’s dead-end approach of reliance on violence alone under the rubric of "resistance." This will be hard for both, especially after the Netanyahu government’s recent attacks on Gaza have massively enhanced the prestige and standing of Hamas among Palestinians, Arabs, and others. But it is absolutely necessary, since neither the Ramallah PA’s adherence to the "peace process" as it has been structured for decades, nor Hamas rockets, have yet liberated any part of Palestine. Indeed the Palestinians are far worse off today than they were at the time of Madrid in 1991. Such a shift by the Palestinians would need to be met by greater U.S. flexibility regarding both Hamas, and the idea of the unity of all major Palestinian factions, which Washington has worked against assiduously since that group won the 2006 elections.

Given the inflexibly pro-Netanyahu political realities of Washington DC, which on this issue are unreflective of American public opinion and indeed of American Jewish opinion (after an election in which 69 percent of American Jewish voters voted for Obama in spite of Netanyahu virtually campaigning for Romney), it may be hard to see the Obama administration doing any of these things. But a new reality is emerging in the Arab world, of which we have only seen a glimmer so far. The 2012 U.S. presidential election showed that the Republican Party has come to represent the fading demographic reality of older, whiter, male southern and western America. Similarly, the Arab upheavals of the past two years have underlined the fact that the old Arab world was represented mainly by entrenched despots who would do whatever Washington wanted and who saw Iran as more of a problem for the region than Israel. This is not how most of the largely young population of the Arab world (or most of the population of Turkey) perceive their region, and in particular how they perceive the issue of Palestine. There are just beginning to arise Arab governments which in some small measure reflect both that popular will and that growing demographic reality. That development may yet be short-circuited by the efforts of forces supported by the reactionary Arab Gulf autocrats, for whom constitutional parliamentary democracies are anathema. Nevertheless, the Obama administration would be well advised to respond to these new realities in the Middle East, before the United States is once again caught behind the curve in this vital region. Instead of continuing to align itself with the old Arab order, and with the Israeli government’s bullying of the Palestinians, it should help in the achievement of a just and lasting peace. This would greatly benefit not only Palestinians and Israelis, but also the standing of the United States in the Middle East and the world.

Rashid Khalidi is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, a former advisor to Palestinian negotiators, and author of The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, and the forthcoming Brokers of Deceit: How the US Undermined Peace in the Middle East.

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