The Mideast Peace Process in 2011: Hopes and Disillusionment

The Mideast Peace Process in 2011: Hopes and Disillusionment

Israel has turned the peace process into a farce. The international community is taking notice.

This past December, four European countries—the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Portugal, all members of the UN Security Council—harshly faulted Israel for its violation of international law and the rights of the Palestinian people by continuing the expansion of illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel’s intemperate response to that criticism exposed for all to see the moral and political obtuseness of its settlement policy, telling these European countries to mind their own business instead of interfering in Israel’s “internal” affairs.

The Israeli notion that the Occupied Territories beyond the 1967 border are “internal,” allowing Israeli governments to do with them as they please without regard for the rights of the Palestinian people or for international law, has not just “complicated” the peace process, as the United States and other governments have often put it. It has turned the peace process into a farce, for it exposes the strategic choice of Israel’s current and previous governments of territory over peace, and leaves no doubt that the goal of Israel’s settlement project is the prevention of Palestinian statehood.

Mostly ignored or forgotten is the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ran on a Likud party platform that explicitly opposed Palestinian statehood; later, after he made his speech claiming to have been converted to acceptance of a two-state solution, key members of his government established the “Entire Land of Israel” parliamentary caucus whose official goal is the prevention of a Palestinian state anywhere in the West Bank. It is the largest of the Knesset’s many caucuses. There is no record of Netanyahu ever having criticized this caucus or having ordered members of his government to leave it.

Even as Netanyahu proclaims how desperately he wishes to renew peace talks with President Mahmoud Abbas, his government distributed hateful and defamatory accusations against Abbas, describing him as a “radical” who glorifies and perpetuates violence and terrorism—this of the man who not only publicly opposed the violence of the second intifada but whose collaboration with Israeli security forces put an end to violence and terrorism in the West Bank. A “circular note” issued to foreign governments by Israel’s Foreign Ministry in October 2011 reaches the “inescapable” conclusion that “no agreement will ever be possible [with the Palestinians] as long as Mahmoud Abbas leads the Palestinian Authority.”

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, President Obama asserted that Palestinians can achieve statehood only through direct negotiations with Israel, effectively subjecting the Palestinian right to national self-determination to Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman’s veto. If Netanyahu and his government choose to present Abbas terms for an agreement that no Palestinian leader could conceivably accept—which, by insisting on Israel’s annexation of all of Arab East Jerusalem is exactly what they have done—they will be able to keep the West Bank and its population under permanent subjugation.

Before demanding that Palestinians return to bilateral talks with Israel, and certainly before punishing Palestinians for refusing to do so, President Obama had an obligation to answer a simple question: What would he have done if Palestinians acceded to his demand and resumed bilateral talks, but continued to encounter Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate territorial issues from the 1967 border, or to limit changes in that border to territorial swaps? Would he then have allowed the Security Council to address Israel’s rejection without resorting to a veto? His September speech left little doubt about the answer to that question.

So as 2011 ended, the Middle East peace process became history. Despite the U.S. administration’s rhetorical objections to Israel’s settlements and its equally rhetorical support of Palestinian statehood, Obama’s rejection of international intervention and his insistence that a Palestinian state can come about only as the result of a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement sent a clear message to Netanyahu’s government. For all practical purposes, a Palestinian state is no longer on America’s political horizon.

But for this very reason, 2011 was the year in which the international community, including America’s most important European allies, realized the groundlessness of their long-standing belief that the United States is uniquely positioned to leverage its unprecedented support for Israel into pressure to accept a just and balanced peace accord. The international community now sees that the United States is uniquely preventing an agreement, repeatedly using its Security Council vote, or the threat of a veto, to shield Israel from international pressure that might have changed its cost-benefit calculations.

It is this new awareness of an intolerable American bias that provoked four European members of the Security Council to drop the pretense that their governments believe Netanyahu is committed to a two-state solution. Following a closed meeting of the Security Council at which its members received a briefing on Israel’s newly announced construction plans, which would effectively exclude a Palestinian state from any part of East Jerusalem, and therefore rule out a two-state solution, these key European governments described Israel’s continued territorial confiscations as sending “a devastating message” about Israel’s intentions. One senior European official who did not wish to be identified said, “We don’t know where this government is leading Israel to, or what its position is regarding the peace process.” That is diplomatic-speak for “We know where this government is leading Israel and what its position regarding the peace process is, and it can no longer count on our complicity.” India, Brazil and South Africa also condemned Israel’s behavior, as did Russia’s UN envoy.

As long as the peace process was based on the illusion that Israel was always ready to return the Occupied Territories in exchange for Palestinian and Arab recognition, and that America would use its leverage to bring Israel into line if it failed to do so, there was no chance that the peace process could lead to a two-state solution. Now that Netanyahu and Obama have put an end to these two illusions, international sanctions fairly applied to both parties for illegal and predatory behavior are no longer inconceivable. If such intervention were now pursued by an international community no longer willing to accept an American Middle East peace policy that is hostage to its Israel lobby, a Palestinian state living in peace alongside an Israel reconciled to its internationally recognized borders may yet be achievable.

Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a non-resident research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.