Imposing Middle East Peace
President Barack Obama's capitulation to Netanyahu on the settlement freeze was widely seen as the collapse of the latest hope for achievement of a two-state agreement. It thoroughly discredited the notion that Palestinian moderation is the path to statehood, and therefore also discredited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, moderation's leading Palestinian advocate, who announced his intention not to run in the coming presidential elections.
Netanyahu's "limited" freeze was described by the Obama administration as "unprecedented," even though the exceptions to it--3,000 housing units whose foundations had supposedly already been laid, public buildings and unlimited construction in East Jerusalem--brought total construction to where it would have been without a freeze. Indeed, Netanyahu assured the settler leadership and his cabinet that construction will resume after the ten-month freeze--according to minister Benny Begin, at a rate "faster and more than before"--even if Abbas agrees to return to talks. In fact, the Israeli press has reported that the freeze notwithstanding, new construction in the settlements is "booming." None of this has elicited the Obama administration's public rebuke, much less the kinds of sanctions imposed on Palestinians when they violate agreements.
But what is widely believed to have been the final blow to a two-state solution may in fact turn out to be the necessary condition for its eventual achievement. That condition is abandonment of the utterly wrongheaded idea that a Palestinian state can arise without forceful outside intervention. The international community has shown signs of exasperation with Israel's deceptions and stonewalling, and also with Washington's failure to demonstrate that there are consequences not only for Palestinian violations of agreements but for Israeli ones as well. The last thing many in the international community want is a resumption of predictably meaningless negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas. Instead, they are focusing on forceful third-party intervention, a concept that is no longer taboo.
Ironically, it is Netanyahu who now insists on the resumption of peace talks. For him, a prolonged breakdown of talks risks exposing the irreversibility of the settlements, and therefore the loss of Israel's democratic character, and legitimizing outside intervention as the only alternative to an unstable and dangerous status quo. While the Obama administration may be reluctant to support such initiatives, it may no longer wish to block them.
These are not fanciful fears. Israeli chiefs of military intelligence, the Shin Bet and other defense officials told Netanyahu's security cabinet on December 9 that the stalled peace process has led to a dangerous vacuum "into which a number of different states are putting their own initiatives, none of which are in Israel's favor." They stressed that "the fact that the US has also reached a dead-end in its efforts only worsens the problem."
If these fears are realized and the international community abandons a moribund peace process in favor of determined third-party initiatives, a two-state outcome may yet be possible. A recent proposal by the Swedish presidency of the European Union is perhaps the first indication of the international community's determination to react more meaningfully to Netanyahu's intransigence. The proposal, adopted by the EU's foreign ministers on December 8, reaffirmed an earlier declaration of the European Council that the EU would not recognize unilateral Israeli changes in the pre-1967 borders. The resolution also opposes Israeli measures to deny a prospective Palestinian state any presence in Jerusalem. The statement's endorsement of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's two-year institution-building initiative suggests a future willingness to act favorably on a Palestinian declaration of statehood following the initiative's projected completion. In her first pronouncement on the Israel-Palestine conflict as the EU's new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Baroness Catherine Ashton declared, "We cannot and nor, I doubt, can the region tolerate another round of fruitless negotiations."
An imposed solution has risks, but these do not begin to compare with the risks of the conflict's unchecked continuation. Furthermore, since the adversaries are not being asked to accept anything they have not already committed themselves to in formal accords, the international community is not imposing its own ideas but insisting the parties live up to existing obligations. That kind of intervention, or "imposition," is hardly unprecedented; it is the daily fare of international diplomacy. It defines America's relations with allies and unfriendly countries alike.
It would not take extraordinary audacity for Obama to reaffirm the official position of every previous US administration--including that of George W. Bush--that no matter how desirable or necessary certain changes in the pre-1967 status may seem, they cannot be made unilaterally. Even Bush, celebrated in Israel as "the best American president Israel ever had," stated categorically that this inviolable principle applies even to the settlement blocs that Israel insists it will annex. Speaking of these blocs at a May 2005 press conference, Bush affirmed that "changes to the 1949 armistice lines must be mutually agreed to," a qualification largely ignored by Israeli governments (and by Bush himself). The next year Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was even more explicit. She stated that "the president did say that at the time of final status, it will be necessary to take into account new realities on the ground that have changed since 1967, but under no circumstances...should anyone try and do that in a pre-emptive or predetermined way, because these are issues for negotiation at final status."
Of course, Obama should leave no doubt that it is inconceivable for the United States not to be fully responsive to Israel's genuine security needs, no matter how displeased it may be with a particular Israeli government's policies. But he must also leave no doubt that it is equally inconceivable he would abandon America's core values or compromise its strategic interests to keep Netanyahu's government in power, particularly when support for this government means supporting a regime that would permanently disenfranchise and dispossess the Palestinian people.
In short, Middle East peacemaking efforts will continue to fail, and the possibility of a two-state solution will disappear, if US policy continues to ignore developments on the ground in the occupied territories and within Israel, which now can be reversed only through outside intervention. President Obama is uniquely positioned to help Israel reclaim Jewish and democratic ideals on which the state was founded--if he does not continue "politics as usual." But was it not his promise to reject just such a politics that swept Obama into the presidency and captured the amazement and respect of the entire world?