For good or for bad, no one is talking seriously about getting Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table these days.
Clearly, the focus in the region is elsewhere, with Syria imploding, ISIS expanding its terror front and Iran flexing its muscles, testing Washington’s tolerance for violations of ballistic missile tests.
For now the peace process is dead in the water.
But that may change if President Obama has his way before leaving office, and if Sen. Bernie Sanders’ public criticism of Israel gains traction, especially among younger Democrats.
The very fact that Sanders chose to go after Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in his debate with Hillary Clinton in Brooklyn last week, and received enthusiastic applause, indicates that ongoing American support for Israel — at least support that doesn’t come with some criticisms — is no longer a given among Democrats.
While Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and Palestinian Authority President Abbas espouse support for a two-state solution, neither is inclined to make a move in that direction, each for his own reasons. So the status quo prevails.
Major attempts at negotiation, with the U.S. playing the key role of broker, have all failed, most recently with the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s energetic but ill-fated initiative in 2014.
Abbas, now in his 80s and in his 11th year of a four-year elected term, is weaker physically and politically. He is hoping the UN will bring statehood to his people.
As for Netanyahu, his appointment of two outspoken critics of Palestinian statehood to key diplomatic posts here is causing confusion, if not disappointment, among many American Jews, who overwhelmingly favor a two-state solution. The prime minister named a former settler leader, Dani Dayan, as consul general of New York. This came several months after Danny Danon, who has said the Likud Party has no place for anyone supporting a peace deal with the Palestinians, was appointed ambassador to the United Nations by Netanyahu.
The implicit message is that top Israeli officials can say one thing in public and advocate for another. And that includes the prime minister.
Still, those who insist that the lack of movement in the Mideast spells disaster are busy exploring new initiatives. Those include modest, incremental steps from both sides — but mostly Israel — to build trust on the path to renewed talks, and a last-ditch major initiative from the Obama administration.
In the meantime, the situation on the ground has deteriorated, with a form of “lone wolf” terror warfare — stabbings, car rammings, etc. — by young Palestinians against Israeli Jews, an apparent expression of rage and hopelessness, now in its seventh month. And there are new fears that Monday’s bus bombing in Jerusalem could signal a heightened and more organized form of terror.
In response, Israelis have toughened their resolve, feeling misunderstood and unfairly blamed by the international community for the renewed violence and ongoing diplomatic impasse.
Is it time to reframe the Israel-Palestinian debate in terms of next steps?
Insiders I have spoken to in recent days, most of whom request anonymity to speak more freely, note that President Obama is seriously considering a major Mideast move before he leaves office. It would not be a new round of negotiations, but rather a policy speech that would put forward the parameters of a peace plan, which could lead to a controversial UN resolution Israel undoubtedly would oppose. Though highly unlikely to be enacted, the plan would establish a new marker for the discussion to follow — and give some Palestinians, and Israeli politicians on the left, an issue to rally around.
One version of the plan, still under discussion, would appeal to the Palestinians by calling for two capitals in Jerusalem — east and west, effectively undoing the annexation of east Jerusalem. And it would support the removal of all settlers and settlements from the West Bank, with one-to-one land swaps. But it would also define Israel as a Jewish state, include strong statements against violence, provide a wide range of security guarantees, and give Palestinian refugees the right to return only to the new Palestinian state, not Israel.
Administration aides are talking about Obama introducing the plan after the November presidential elections but before the January inauguration — that is, unless Hillary Clinton wins and strongly opposes the plan. (She told me, in an interview last week, that she opposes imposed resolutions and that the UN, with its “terrible track record in addressing these issues … is not the venue” for such diplomacy.)
If a Republican is elected, Obama’s dramatic move “would cause a firestorm,” one insider told me, “but it would be his last attempt to redirect the Israel-Palestinian debate.”
‘Try To Hit Singles’
David Makovsky, a veteran Mideast expert who worked on the last Kerry initiative, is highly skeptical of the parameters approach. The U.S., he says, “has tried to hit home runs” in the past, referring to the total package style of peace talks. “In the Middle East,” he notes, “whenever it’s all or nothing, it’s always nothing.”
Carrying through on his baseball imagery, Makovsky believes that rather than going for the fences, Washington should “try to hit singles and doubles,” settling for incremental steps — most notably encouraging Israel to build only in settlement blocs inside the security barrier, and offer to financially compensate settlers who choose to move back to Israel proper. He sees these as ways to at least “defuse tension and restore a sense of possibility” for future peace talks.
The irony is that the Israeli government has largely refrained from building in the settlements for some time now. But given his precarious, one-vote majority coalition in Jerusalem, Netanyahu does not want to acknowledge this publicly, for fear of offending his political partners on the right. So he gets no credit from the left, or Washington, for the self-imposed moratorium.
Several prominent American Jews who have met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem in recent weeks told me the prime minister was most animated in describing opportunities for Israel in its relationships with major Asian partners. He was proud of doing increased business with India, China and Japan, and talking about common security interests with Egypt, Turkey and, to some extent, Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu also spoke of Israel’s start-up innovations and how European and other countries are seeking help regarding issues of cyberspace, water shortage and expert technology.
The prime minister’s message was that despite reports of Israel’s isolation in the international arena, it is deepening its ties around the world.
Worrisome, though, to these American Jewish leaders was how little the prime minister focused on the state of diplomatic relations with Washington these days at a time when he and Obama remain at odds.
“I hope Netanyahu is not misreading the nature of international relations,” one of those who met with him told me about the prime minister’s enthusiasm for his recent international dealings. “These countries may be happy to do business with Israel but that doesn’t mean they will be supportive on key votes at the UN on the Palestinian issue. The prime minister could be overreaching, confident that these associations would neutralize criticism of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. But that’s not likely.”
Another American expert on the Mideast called Netanyahu “self-delusional” in thinking he can “rub their [world leaders’] noses in his settlement policies” and expect support on diplomacy.
Does that apply to the Obama administration as well?
‘Go For The Fences’
Surely Netanyahu understands how vital the U.S.-Israel relationship is. He appears determined not to be drawn into partisan presidential politics this time around, after being criticized for hosting then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Jerusalem four years ago. The prime minister cancelled a planned trip by Donald Trump to Israel last December, just after the Republican frontrunner announced his plan to ban Muslims from entry to the U.S., which Netanyahu criticized.
But the prime minister does not appear sufficiently concerned about the impact his right-wing coalition is having on the majority of American Jews. They have witnessed an apparent collapse of the much-touted agreement to allow full egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and view with concern legislative efforts that seem aimed to chip away at Israel’s democratic values. Some say even support among American Jews, especially those under 40, is in jeopardy, citing the positive reaction to Sanders’ recent criticism of Netanyahu.
But in the calculation of Israeli politicians, it must be noted that diaspora Jews don’t vote in Israeli elections. And the No. 1 concern is doing what it takes to stay in power — a skill at which Netanyahu excels.
Frustration with the Israeli leader may well be a factor for those in the administration who advocate the “go for the fences” alternative to the current peace impasse. They say that small steps are not enough to placate the Palestinians. Further, they counter Israel’s “no partner to deal with” argument by asserting that the Palestinians could manage their affairs more productively “if only they could get out from under the occupation,” as one former diplomat told me. He pointed to the progress made when Salam Fayyad was prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, focused on building capacity for a state. “But the Palestinians can’t make progress on their own as long as Israel controls their economy, security, judicial system and more.”
It’s still too early to tell whether and how Obama will act on the Israel-Palestinian front before he leaves office. Much will depend on events here and in the Mideast over the next six months. But if no progress is evident by then, expect one more dramatic effort from the president, aiming to leave his mark, tilted toward goading Netanyahu to act.