President-elect Obama will be the last American president who has a chance to save the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. If he does not achieve this goal during the first year of his presidency, the two-state “horizon” that George W. Bush pursued so ineptly is likely to disappear for good. But even a quick engagement by the new president will fare no better than previous US peace initiatives–all of which have gotten nowhere–if Obama and his advisers approach the task believing that some more “peace processing” or “confidence-building measures” will achieve the goal.
The Israel-Palestine conflict has defied US “facilitation” over these many years not because of procedural shortcomings or a paucity of ideas. The terms of a workable agreement–formulated in the so-called Clinton Parameters of December 2000 and elaborated in the Taba discussions that followed in January 2001–are well known and enjoy near-universal support. They call for minor rectifications in the 1949 armistice line (which served as Israel’s pre-1967 border) in order to allow Israel to retain a cluster of nearby settlements based on an agreed equal exchange of territory on both sides of the border; a capital for the new Palestinian state in Arab East Jerusalem; a limited return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel in agreed numbers that do not significantly alter Israel’s ethnic and religious balance; a nonmilitarized Palestinian state that addresses Israeli security concerns while respecting Palestinian sovereignty; and a US-led international force that would ensure security and assist with Palestinian nation-building for a transitional period.
What has been missing is the political will to get the parties to act on these parameters–a political and moral failure that has doomed all previous efforts. This failure has not been the result of ignorance but of cowardice–a willful disregard by Israel and successive American administrations, as well as by much of the international community, of certain unchanging fundamentals that underlie this conflict. Peace initiatives that ignore these fundamentals and seek an agreement on the cheap cannot succeed.
None of what follows is intended to excuse disastrous choices Palestinians have so often made in pursuing their struggle for statehood–from egregious failures at institution-building, to murderous violence against innocent civilians, to the more recent fratricidal warfare between Fatah and Hamas (for which Fatah’s refusal to accept the democratic choice of the Palestinian people in the parliamentary elections of 2006, and US instigation of that refusal, deserve most of the blame). Rather, it is to say that the difficult measures Palestinians must take to put their house in order will remain beyond their grasp unless they are given a credible Israeli commitment to a state alongside Israel that is “independent, viable and sovereign” by right, not as a result of Israeli generosity. And because such a state is indeed the right of the Palestinian people, its acknowledgment must precede–not follow–conditions set for its implementation.
That such a clear commitment has not been made to this day is far more revealing of Israeli intentions and US/European indifference than any number of confidence-building measures that have left entirely unchanged the Palestinians’ status as a people under the heel of a crushing and open-ended occupation. Any credibility that President Bush’s call in 2002 for a Palestinian state might have had was dissipated by his letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, in which he called for Israel’s retention of “already existing major Israeli population centers” in the West Bank.