The view that Arafat’s intransigence and Palestinian militancy were the primary drivers of the conflict rather than Israel’s continued occupation took center stage under George W. Bush. Despite becoming the first American president to officially endorse Palestinian statehood, Bush’s alignment with Ariel Sharon following the 9/11 terror attacks amid a wave of terrorist attacks by Palestinian militants gave Sharon a relative free hand in his bid to quash the Intifada while systematically destroying Palestinian governing and security institutions along the way. The culmination of the Intifada and the election of Mahmoud Abbas following Arafat’s death in 2005 did not lead to a revival of the diplomatic process. Instead, the Bush administration abandoned its own peace plan, the internationally-backed Road Map, in favor of Israeli unilateralism in Gaza and elsewhere, while providing Israel with “assurances” regarding the fate of Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank, Palestinian refugees, and other issues. The failure of Israel’s unilateral evacuation from Gaza in 2005, which resulted in the closure of its borders, helped pave the way for Hamas’ surprise election victory in January 2006.
While the election of a designated “foreign terrorist organization” to head the PA posed serious legal and political challenges for Israel, United States, and international donors, it also presented an opportunity to encourage Hamas moderation and political evolution. However, American and Israeli refusal to consider any scenario other than Hamas’ removal from government, regardless of its legality or political ramifications, gave Hamas no incentive to comply and forced Abbas into an impossible choice between total international isolation and undoing the results of a democratic election, and likely civil war. Like all fragile objects subjected to mounting pressure, the Palestinian Authority broke. Open fighting between the two Palestinian factions ended in Hamas’ forcible takeover of Gaza and the ouster of Abbas’ Fatah forces in June 2007.
Whereas ordinary Palestinians saw the division as a blow to the national project, U.S. officials embraced it as an opportunity to advance the peace process with Abbas without the negative influences of Hamas, now presumably contained in Gaza by an international boycott and an Israeli blockade. Events took a very different course however. After a year-long and highly elaborate negotiations process launched at Annapolis in November 2007, the talks collapsed when fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas in late December 2008, the first of several deadly Gaza wars in the decade that followed. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who as Quartet envoy in 2007 was a champion of the Bush administration’s approach, has since concluded that “we should have, right at the very beginning, tried to pull [Hamas] into a dialogue and shifted their positions.”
Obama: Neither Peace Nor Process
The peace process inherited by Barack Obama therefore was far from promising. The return of Benjamin Netanyahu to power in 2009 marked a distinct rightward shift in Israeli politics as well as a boon for the settler movement, which was now represented in the Israeli cabinet. On the other side stood a weak and dysfunctional Palestinian leadership, which much like the peace process itself, had grown increasingly fragmented, ineffectual, and detached from the lives of ordinary people. Palestinian internal division and the continued isolation of Hamas and Gaza had remained a persistent source of instability. Massive settlement growth throughout the previous years, aided by various American-sanctioned exemptions and assurances for “natural growth,” settlement blocs, and East Jerusalem, had led to a doubling of the settler population in the occupied territories since 1993.
Obama was in a position to arrest these trends, and initially at least, had the inclination to do so—insisting on a comprehensive freeze on Israeli settlement construction, which he labeled “illegitimate,” and even hinting at a possible shift toward Gaza. In the face of stiff resistance from Congress and Netanyahu’s government, however, the administration backed down, focusing its energies on the resumption of negotiations. Even Obama’s attempt at reaffirming “the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps” as the basis of those negotiations—something each of his predecessors, including George W. Bush, had also done—triggered a storm of condemnation from congressional Republicans for having thrown Israel “under the bus.”
Obama’s contribution was not merely passive. In contrast to its treatment of Israeli settlements, meanwhile, the administration devoted considerable time and resources to defeating Abbas’ bids to gain recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in 2011 and 2012. Although largely symbolic, recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN would open the door for Palestinians to join a host of other international bodies, including the International Criminal Court, sparking fears that Israeli soldiers and generals could be prosecuted for their treatment of Palestinians. Despite the fact that it reaffirmed a two-state solution, the Obama administration’s response mirrored Israel’s, denouncing the move as an attempt to “delegitimize” Israel. While Congress put a hold on aid to the PA, the State Department announced that “a very broad and very vigorous démarche of virtually every capital in the world, [and] that this is high on the agenda for every meeting the secretary has with every world leader.”
By 2013, the peace process had effectively ceased to exist—at least as a means for resolving or managing the conflict. The resignation of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad put an end to his famed state-building” project in the West Bank, which was hailed by Americans, Europeans, and even Israelis, as a great success. Fayyad’s reforms, affectionately dubbed “Fayyadism,” were credited with restoring basic law and order and scaling back corruption as well as a record low in attacks on Israelis. Yet, neither the success of Fayyad’s reforms nor the improvement in security generated movement toward Palestinian statehood or an end to the occupation. Rather, Congress imposed new sanctions on the PA. In response to Abbas’ internationalization campaign, Congress enacted two new laws conditioning the ability of the Palestine Liberation Organization to operate in the United States on the president’s certification that the Palestinians had not joined any other UN agencies or taken “any action” against Israel at the International Criminal Court. Tellingly, the latter explicitly tied the future of the organization’s office in Washington to a presidential determination that the Palestinians were engaged in “serious peace talks” with Israel.
The collapse of a second round of negotiations in 2014, followed by a another Gaza war and renewed violence East Jerusalem underscored the double failure of the peace process, which had neither the capacity to resolve the conflict nor the means to manage it; that the two areas most prone to violence were also beyond the reach of the PA and the peace process was not coincidental. Nevertheless, despite and its own warnings that “the window for a two-state solution is shutting,” the Obama administration continued to play it safe. In the final months of the administration, speculation mounted that Obama might introduce his own “parameters” on the core issues of the conflict, including Jerusalem, whose fate was rapidly being determined by Israeli facts on the ground, or perhaps take the more radical step of recognizing a Palestinian state. As the clock ran down, however, and with a Donald Trump presidency waiting in the wings, Obama again opted against breaking new ground, settling instead to abstain on an anti-settlements resolution at the Security Council.
The inertia of the Obama years left an opening for the Trump administration, which has been less shy about tipping the scales in Israel’s favor and more explicit in its attempts to re-write the rules of the peace process. Trump’s approach to the conflict portends a shift in American policy from ambivalence to indifference. Despite repeatedly stressing his desire to broker the “ultimate deal,” Trump has said that the United States would support a two-state solution “if agreed to by both sides,” but has declined to commit to an end to the Israeli occupation or a sovereign Palestinian state as explicit goals of the peace process as all three of his predecessors have done. Moreover, by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump not only surrendered a major point of American leverage over Israel but also removed one of the few remaining incentives Palestinian leadership had for participating in an American-sponsored peace process. In doing so, the administration has forced the Palestinians into yet another lose-lose choice: to go along with a peace process in which Jerusalem was “off the table” and genuine sovereignty was not an option would likely evaporate what remains of Abbas’s domestic legitimacy. On the other hand, to continue to boycott the United States would be to invite even more punitive action by the Trump administration.
One State or Two?
As the weakest link in the political chain, it was perhaps inevitable that Palestinians would bear the brunt of the chronic failures of the peace process—though the results have been no less damaging because of it. Abbas’ dilemma highlights the fatal flaw in America’s handling of the peace process over the last quarter century. Washington’s ever-expanding arsenal of “sticks” has succeeded in making Palestinians leaders more pliant but also left them too weak to serve as effective negotiating partners. Instead of facilitating peace, the peace process has helped to weaken Palestinian leaders and political institutions while fueling instability and violence. The seemingly endless supply of “carrots” likewise did not make Israeli leaders more amenable to compromise or encourage them to “take risks for peace,” but instead helped to defray the political, economic and other costs of the occupation. In the absence of meaningful pressure, Israeli leaders had no incentive to undertake the difficult and politically unpopular decisions that a two-state solution required, such as evacuating Jewish settlements, transferring territory to Palestinian sovereignty, or dividing Jerusalem. Even if American officials somehow manage to convince—or coerce—Abbas back to the negotiating table, he would be too weak to agree to peace agreement much less implement one. For all intents and purposes, an American-sponsored peace process no longer exists.