Once More Unto the Breach?

Once More Unto the Breach?

analysis by Warren Clark, Churches for Middle East Peace

The announcement that the president will be visiting Israel and the West Bank in March keeps hope alive that some real effort can be made to help overcome the political inertia that is perpetuating the insecurity and suffering created by intractable conflict in the Holy Land.

It is encouraging that President Obama now seems willing at the beginning of his second administration to take up the struggle once more – as requested in a letter facilitated by CMEP to the president in January from 36 national church leaders and over 2,400 supporters.  However, the president has learned there are real limitations on the U.S. ability to influence developments decisively.

Both sides seem dysfunctional and incapable of taking meaningful steps on their own to move towards stabilizing, reducing or resolving the conflict. Israel just conducted an election run mostly on domestic issues in which the conflict was hardly mentioned.  Israeli public opinion seems to live in a dream world where the occupation is out of sight, out of mind, and can be expected to go on indefinitely without major consequences. In Gaza, Israel and Hamas seem locked in an endless cycle of blockade, restrictions, and horrendous violence, including sometimes lethal rocket attacks aimed at non-combatants justified as political speech. Palestinian political factions in the West Bank and Gaza remain divided on the fundamental issue of whether the Palestinian Authority’s approach of security cooperation with Israel and the U.S. and occasional confrontational diplomacy will be more effective in achieving self-determination than the willingness of Hamas to use violence.

Many observers say they believe Prime Minister Netanyahu will not agree to creation of a Palestinian state anywhere between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. He sought to undercut the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s.  He declined to renew offers made to Palestinians by his predecessor government in 2008. His agreement in 2009 under U. S. pressure to the idea of a Palestinian state – the two state solution — has been contradicted by plans for accelerated and expanded Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.  In the fall of September 2010 he declined to extend a limited suspension of construction of new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank as urged by the president.  In May 2011 he rejected proposals by the president for negotiations for Palestinian self-determination based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps.  

It seems the Prime Minister cannot accept the parameters suggested by President Clinton in 2000 and the Palestinians cannot accept anything less.

Yet political circumstances today are not what they were even a few years go.

Internationally, Israel has experienced increasing diplomatic isolation, mostly because of unrelenting settlement expansion. In January 2012, all members of the U.N. Security Council except the U.S. voted to support a resolution calling the Israeli settlements “illegal”.  The U.S. vetoed the resolution, but in explaining the veto UN Ambassador Susan Rice stated that the U.S. rejected the “folly and illegitimacy” of continued settlement activity. Rice argued continued settlement activity “violates Israel’s commitments, devastates trust, increases justification for violence, and threatens prospects for peace.” Last fall the U.N General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to recognize “Palestine” as a non-U.N. member “state”.  Countries such as Germany and Australia that had usually supported Israel surprised many by voting to abstain on the resolution, citing settlement expansion.  In response Israel announced plans to build thousands of new settlement housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, to start building an entirely new settlement, and to build in area E-1, an area previously off limits to settlements.  Construction in E-1 has long been opposed by the U.S. and others as it would cut off the northern from the southern part of the West Bank, rendering impossible a contiguous Palestinian state. There was widespread condemnation of the Israeli move, especially from Europeans.

Domestically, the recent Israeli elections in January gave less than expected support to both Prime Minister Netanyahu’s party and a new right wing party that advocated annexation of parts of the West Bank to Israel.  Results have been interpreted as public rejection of extreme political views, discomfort at perceptions of Israel’s increasing isolation, and concern about tension between the prime minster and the American president. Election results left a fragmented constellation of political parties that have proved difficult so far for the prime minister to wield into a ruling coalition. One new sign has been Netanyahu’s expressed willingness to appoint Tzipi Livni as Minister of Justice in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians should he be able to form a coalition.  As Foreign Minister under the previous government in 2008 she came as close as any Israeli government has so far in succeeding to negotiate an agreement with Palestinian leaders.

2013 Scenario Choices

The presidential visit scheduled for March 20 is not likely to achieve any sudden breakthroughs, but it will set the tone and the context for U.S. peace efforts in coming months.

The President can be expected to try to smooth over his personal relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu.   On Israel’s security, the president can point out that the U.S. has faithfully carried out its qualitative military edge (QME) agreement to supply Israel with whatever it takes for Israel to defend itself militarily from attack by any enemy or combination of enemies in the Middle East. Diplomatically he can say the U.S. has given Israel unfailing, steadfast political support internationally in arenas such as the U.N.

Most importantly the visit is an opportunity to shape Israeli public opinion. The president can be clear about his view that Israel’s current policies threaten its security and well-being.  Israel’s self-imposed diplomatic isolation; its tensions with Arab governments that must now be more responsive to their own public opinion; and rapid changes in military technology and the potential availability of more accurate, longer range missiles in southern Lebanon and Gaza; all pose threats to Israel’s security over which the U.S. can have only limited influence.  Added to these trends is the demographic reality that Jewish Israelis will soon be a minority in the overall area of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, leaving the prospect of a minority ruling over a majority that will demand political equality.

He can point out the indefinite denial of self-determination for Palestinians is dangerous for Israel and for U.S. interests.  One possible outcome is radicalization of the West Bank.  Another is the destabilization of Jordan.

The president can suggest a better future for all concerned if Israel wishes to move now toward a deal with the Palestinians and Arab governments, all of whom will have a voice in any outcome dealing with the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.  In September 2010 President Obama said he believed an agreement could be reached within a year if Israel continued its existing suspension of new construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  That goal is still possible.

To Palestinians and others he can emphasize the importance of continuing to build the capacity for self-governance and civil society programs that emphasize non-violence.  Both sides must suppress incitement, intimidation, and disrespect.

It is too late for the old style peace process of drawn out, step-by-step confidence measures. But it is not too late for peace.  As Christians we, like the president, know it is never too late for hope to overcome dispair. The president can paint a stark contrast between immediate and accrued benefits that could be gained from an agreement and the consequences of inaction.  Palestinians and Israelis have suffered enough in this conflict; it is time for healing to begin.

*Amb. Clark is the Executive Director of Churches for Middle East Peace, of which the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ are members.