The announcement of President Obama’s upcoming Middle East excursion has, predictably, sparked a debate among commentators and policy wonks. Should the President focus on imminent crises in Syria and Iran, or a renewed effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?
In his recent op-ed in the Times of Israel, J-Street’s Alan Elsner calls on President Obama to “kick start a sustained, concentrated, focused and determined push to finally end this conflict.” The time is ripe, he argues, because the political realities in the US and Israel have changed. At home, President Obama is “relatively immune to right-wing groups that reflexively oppose almost everything he does” due to his re-election. Abroad, the President will encounter “a new, more centrist Israeli government” when he touches down in Ben Gurion Airport.
I share Mr. Elsner’s belief that only sustained, high-level US engagement can facilitate Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. I also share his desire to see an end to this tragic conflict. But I do not share Mr. Elsner’s assessment that a conflict-ending agreement is possible in the near future. At the moment, an American push for a final-status agreement is more likely to produce a diplomatic breakdown than a breakthrough. Instead of aiming for a full blown peace-accord, the Obama Administration should take an incremental, step-by-step approach.
The political environment in Israel and the Palestinian Authority is hardly conducive to a conflict-ending agreement. The next Israeli government will almost certainly oppose a Palestinian state. The prospect of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party joining the coalition is certainly encouraging. However, the Likud party, which will lead the government, has taken a sharp turn to the right. Prime Minister Netanyahu is the only Likud MK who (supposedly) supports a Palestinian State. Moreover, the next government will almost certainly include the Jewish Home party. Along with hardline Likudniks, Jewish Home supports annexing the vast majority of the West Bank and opposes a Palestinian state.
On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas has abandoned the path of negotiations in favor of unilateral gambits aimed at isolating Israel in international institutions. The Palestinian national movement remains divided, and Mahmoud Abbas is more inclined to talk with Ahmadinejad than with Netanyahu. The main commonality between Israelis and Palestinians is a deep sense of mistrust, and the belief that the other side is not serious about peace.
Sadly, the time is not ripe for a conflict-ending agreement. However, while President Obama may not be able to mediate a peace accord, that does not mean that the President can afford to do nothing. The present situation in Israel and the West Bank is deceptively calm and dangerously precarious. In 2012, not a single Israeli was killed in a terror attack in Jerusalem or the West Bank. Yet, in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Defense and the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, tensions in the West Bank have simmered amid low-level violence.
The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has long been unstable. Yet it is now teetering on the brink of fiscal collapse. This is due to the failure of Arab donors to make good on their pledges and Israel’s withholding of tax revenues. Given the Palestinian economy’s reliance on foreign aid and public sector employment, and the lack of a social safety net, Palestinians are feeling serious economic pain.
As Palestinians watch their economy plummet, they also see Israeli settlements expanding beyond the blocs into areas that Israel would not retain in any agreement. As a result, the PA and its security forces are increasingly viewed as “subcontractors for the ‘occupation,’” protecting Israel and its settlers in the West Bank while the prospect of a Palestinian state becomes increasingly remote.
Fiscal crisis, economic woes, settlement expansion, and the lack of a political horizon are causing West Bank Palestinians to lose faith in Salam Fayyad’s project to build the institutions of a future Palestinian state alongside Israel. As Palestinians see the collapse of their economy, the West Bank state-building project, the expansion of settlements, and continued diplomatic stalemate, increased violence and a turn toward Hamas’s strategy of “resistance” become increasingly likely.
While the present situation in Israel and the Palestinian authority puts a conflict-ending agreement out of reach, there is still plenty that the United States can do to improve the situation on the ground and make progress in the short run.
First, the US can help the PA shore up institution-building and security-coordination efforts under Salam Fayyad. President Obama should lean on Arab donors to make good on their commitments. Israel should unfreeze all withheld tax revenues, so that PA Security Forces who are combating Hamas and other armed groups in the West Bank can get paid. In addition, the US should facilitate efforts to increase the PA’s role in governance and security in Area B and parts of Area C. The US should also pressure the PA to stop trying to litigate the conflict in international bodies.
At the same time, the President should facilitate a modus vivendi on settlement building. Israel would build in major settlement blocs that would be annexed to Israel in any peace deal, while completely halting construction in isolated settlements which are too deep in the West Bank to be included in Israel’s future borders. This sort of practical arrangement would demonstrate to the Palestinian public that building in the settlements need not prevent a future Palestinian state, while removing the settlement issue from the arena of international “lawfare” and easing Israel’s international isolation.
While putting an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not currently feasible, President Obama’s upcoming trip is an opportunity for the US to begin a process of incremental, step-by-step diplomacy. Negotiations should focus on achieving short-term progress and producing arrangements which stabilize and strengthen the PA, taking the settlement issue off the table, and ending Israel’s international isolation. This would break the current stalemate, begin to rebuild trust between the parties, and lay the foundation for a future peace.