For the first time in almost half a century, the United States has acknowledged that it is “out of ideas” about how to address Israel’s occupation and fulfill a declared American interest in establishing a Palestinian state at peace with Israel.
In a speech Secretary of State John Kerry delivered last month at the National Defense University, entitled “Remarks on the United States Foreign Policy Agenda for 2016,” the words ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ were conspicuously absent. In contrast, the Syrian civil war was referenced 20 times. Even “Ebola,” which is no longer an urgent crisis, was noted twice.
As Kerry’s speech illustrates, the attention of the international community is focused elsewhere, even while still in the Middle East. But alternative strategies to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain viable, most notably France’s recent push for a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for negotiations, backed by the readiness to recognize a Palestinian state.
However, all such options continue to hover in the diplomatic ether; unrealized, if not stillborn. The United States—even if it has no serious diplomatic alternative to offer—has shown no interest in ceding its diplomatic leadership of the issue to the French or the United Nations.
It is no secret that Israel is celebrating the Obama administration’s failure to achieve its declared objectives. The most viable evidence of this is the relentless expansion of Israel’s settlement enterprise—today more than 550,000 settlers and counting.
In addition to settlements, incidents in the West Bank and Hamas’s ongoing military preparations in Gaza dominate Israel’s Palestine security agenda. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is focused on how to keep PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas just above water, rather than on making historic concessions to him.
Nevertheless, the cooler heads in the Netanyahu government understand that the current diplomatic vacuum poses dangers of its own. They worry about new initiatives that Israel cannot control.
"It must not be allowed in the current absence of a political process, that we will be condemned to passivity,” explained Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin on January 31. “The improvement in the state of the relations between the two peoples is a distinct Israeli interest, which must go alongside the active and assertive defense of the State of Israel and its citizens. Such a policy proves that Israel is cautious, not reactionary, and that the security of its citizens together with efforts for peace stand at the forefront of our national priorities.”
The hopes of the PLO are the mirror image of Israel’s concerns. The PLO looks to the world to accomplish what it has been unable to do on its own: successfully confront Israel’s rejection of the international consensus favoring an end to occupation, the evacuation of settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.
As a consequence, the PLO supports almost any initiative that challenges Israel’s settlement and occupation agenda. These initiatives range from the PLO’s own effort to extend international protection over Palestinians to France’s push for an international conference on Palestinian statehood.
There have been two types of response to this unprecedented crisis in Israel-Palestine diplomacy. One is focused on implementing third-party administrative and declarative measures opposing settlements. The European Union’s action on labeling settlement products is the most obvious example. Washington’s less consequential “guidance to the trade community regarding the country of origin marking requirements for goods that are manufactured in the West Bank” is another.
The other response is to mount sincere and well-intentioned rhetorical challenges to Israeli policies. Critical observations and heartfelt lamentations, however justifiable, are not surprising after half a century of occupation, settlement, and diplomatic stalemate. If such observations are not fortified by a determination to establish a productive diplomatic context in which they can be addressed, then they simply reaffirm the international community’s willingness to defer to Israel’s power to control the international diplomatic agenda.
Sadly, the critiques of Israeli policy by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and others fall into this category.
Ban recently told the Security Council that "continued settlement activities are an affront to the Palestinian people and to the international community. They rightly raise fundamental questions about Israel's commitment to a two-state solution."
“Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of a half century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process,” he said. "As oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism."
Not surprisingly, such comments fail to move the Israeli prime minister.
The comments of the U.N. secretary general encourage terror, Netanyahu said in his reply.
Such public dust-ups are well within Netanyahu’s comfort zone. They play to his preference—and seemingly not only his—to play to the international stage rather than the negotiating table where hard decisions have to be made.
The more successful effort to establish administrative mechanisms that give practical expression to settlement opposition—such as the labeling of products originating in settlements—risk falling into the same category.
In the current environment, these efforts, however laudable, reflect a desire to do something in the absence of an effective diplomatic framework designed to end occupation and establish a Palestinian state. Israel is on guard against efforts to question its occupation policies, but it views these efforts as less threatening than broader diplomatic initiatives aimed at ending occupation.
The long-considered French effort offer hints of such an alternative strategy, and one that should be explored. Palestinians, for reasons noted earlier, have applauded the French ideas. Others too believe that the time has come for an international initiative.
Like the recent earnest comments by Ban and Kerry, however, merely giving voice to such concerns only highlights the ongoing failure to transform an unsustainable status quo, rather than to stand effectively to confront it.