President Obama's agenda for the Middle East, and his ideas related to the Israeli/Palestinian (I/P) conflict, is at the center of great speculation. There are signs that his Administration is committed to pragmatism and patience, which was not found in the last two Administrations. Their focus, at least in the outset, will likely be on improving the West Bank economy, attempting to curb or stop Israeli settlement construction, pursuing reform of Palestinian security forces, and improving relations between Israel and Arab nations. After that, the Administration seems prepared to devote considerable economic, diplomatic, and political capital to push for a comprehensive final two-state agreement.
For President Obama, there are great difficulties in dealing with Israeli and Palestinian officals. In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu has not appeared supportive of the two-state solution. In addition, he has surrounded himself with a mix of right-wing, xenophobic, and religious partners who are even less inclined to resolve the conflict. On the Palestinian side, there is a bitter division between Fatah and Hamas, and a lack of progress on Egyptian-mediated reconciliation talks.
If there is a lack of movement on the final agreement, President Obama may decide to bypass negotiations altogether. With support from a broad coalition of nations, including Arab countries, Russia, and the European Union, he could present the Israelis and Palestinians with a detailed two-state agreement which would be difficult for either party to reject. The danger in this action is that it provides no guarantee to an end of the conflict since it fails to address the historical concerns of both peoples.
Before fine-tuning the final status issues of territorial annexation, land exchange, sovereignty over Jerusalem, attributes of a Palestinian State, and refugee settlement and compensation, it is important to look at the aspirations and experiences of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. For Israel's Jewish population, there are fears and memories of displacement, persecution, life in ghettos, the Holocaust, and the quest for a recongnized and accepted homeland. There is a desire for a future that does not echo the past, and security that military might alone cannot bring. Also, for a significant group of Israelis, there is a deep-seated religious attachment to the land that constitutes Eretz Yisrael.
For Palestinians, there are memories of dispossession, expulsion, dispersal, massacres, occupation, discrimination, denial of dignity, persistent killing of their leaders, and the fracturing of their national political organizations. These issues are so powerful that any final agreement that does not appropriately deal with them may lead to a short term co-existence, but not a long-lasting peace.
The idea of creating a Palestinian State alonside Israel has not been an indigenous Palestinian desire. It has, mostly, been the idea of foreign governments. To Palestinians, partition meant accepting less than the whole of the area of the British Mandate of Palestine. It also meant barring the return of refugees that were expelled or fled in 1948. Jewish Israelis have not, historically, been warm to the idea of two-states. They have viewed the idea of Palestinian statehood as artificial, since no entity existed in the past, and dangerous, because most Arab and Palestinians denied Israelis the reciprocal right to a Jewish homeland.
Palestinians came to grudgingly accept the two-state solution in the 1980s. For them, statehood was a useful way to achieve greater goals, but not the objective in and of itself. Among Palestinians, the concept of statehood has not improved since there has been dissatisfaction with the people and reasons behind its promotion. At the beginning of this decade, there was universal acceptance of a Palestinian State. Foreign leaders, especially President Bush, framed it as "the" answer to the I/P conflict, and rushed towards the creation of state institutions. For the majority of Palestinians, however, the revolutionary struggle was gone and replaced with the mundane task of building responsible structures of government.
Today, the idea of Palestinian statehood is most desired by non-Palestinians. The Europeans feel that it is crucial to stabilized the region and curb the growth of Islamic extremism. The Americans believe it is the centerpiece of its efforts to contain Iran and radical Islamists, and forge a coalition between Israel and "moderate" Arab States. For a large number of Israelis, it is the answer to any threat to their existence by Arab demographics. For Palestinians, these reasons are not relevant, and serve to alienate them from any idea of statehood.
The more that the two-state resolution looks like it serves American, Western, and/or Israeli interests, the less it appeals to Palestinians. It is hard to gain any Palestinian excitement for an ideas that serves to protect the interest of its historic foe (Isreal), defeat a Palestinian political organization (Hamas), or rescue pro-Western Arab regimes (Egypt, Saudi Arabia). Many Palestinians feel that the idea of statehood has now been hijacked by their historic detractors, who rejected it when it was originally a Palestinian idea, in order to promote their own interests.
Additionally, many Palestinians have lost interest in the present two-state ideas, since those Palestinian Authority (PA) officials who promote it appear to have given up nationalist ideas for the agendas of foreign officials and a small group of "respectable" Palestinians. The ultimate result is a loss in confidence in the two-state solution, President Abbas, the PA, and Fatah, while there is an increase in the support of Hamas.
Since the present dynamic seems to be losing ground with many skeptical Palestinians and Israelis, there needs to be a reformulation of the diplomatic process. President Obama needs to deal with the conflict's 1948 genesis, as well as the 1967 boundaries. He will have to acknowledge the difficulties of the Palestinian refugees, and put an end to the idea that an improvement in their economic status can eliminate their rights and nationalist cause. He must allow President Abbas the freedom to make his decisions independently. The U.S. must agreet to accept any Palestinian reconciliation agreement that is signed by their President.
There would, also, need to be an identification and recognition of fundamental Israeli and Palestinian concerns and aspirations. These issues need to be put at the center of any diplomacy. American discussions should reconnect with both sides by acknowledging and redressing injustices suffered by Palestinians and providing Israelis with recognition and non-military security historically denied them. While having the support from members of the peace camps on both sides, the Obama Administration needs to reach out to influential constituencies that are left indifferent by the current two-state conversations.
A more inclusive diplomatic effort would involve Israeli settlers and members of the Palestinian diaspora. These active and dynamic groups need to have their views, interests, and concerns recognized. This could allow Palestinians and Israelis to see the resolution of the conflict as a reflection of their own desires and needs, as opposed to a byproduct of other nations' strategic interests. While the two-state end result may be similar, this diplomatic concept would be more legitimate and acceptable to both peoples. Thus, leading both peoples away from more radicalization and moving toward a more permanent peace.
Hat Tip: Ron Kampeas at JTA's "Capital J" blog