Why America Is Irrelevant to Middle East Peacemaking

With the U.S. having failed to use its leverage over Israel, the only way to convince Israelis to accept a two-state outcome is a Palestinian non-violent, anti-apartheid struggle.

Henry Siegman
Henry Siegman
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President Barack Obama walks along the West Wing Colonnade towards the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013.
President Barack Obama walks along the West Wing Colonnade towards the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013.Credit: AP
Henry Siegman
Henry Siegman

Secretary of State John Kerry’s extraordinary exertions to achieve a conflict-ending Middle East peace accord have been nothing short of heroic. He is as well-informed about the issues in this conflict and as familiar with the major players as any of his predecessors. So what is it that Kerry did not know that is responsible for this latest breakdown in the peace process?

Has the formula for a permanent status accord turned out to be so much more complex than even this well-informed statesman imagined? That is hardly likely, for the outline for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is better known and more widely accepted than for virtually any other international conflict. That “everyone knows” the shape of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement has been a cliché for years now. Virtually every detail of a permanent status accord has been known since President Clinton presented his formula for a peace accord in December 2000. No one, including Kerry, has deviated from that plan in any significant respect.

America has been seen by the entire international community as “owning” the peace process, not because its statesmen are believed to be wiser than all others, but because it enjoys leverage with Israel that uniquely enables it to influence the Jewish state’s policies. No other country possesses that leverage, for it is the consequence of the many decades of unprecedented U.S. generosity towards the Jewish state in the form of virtually unlimited military and economic assistance. Of no less importance, America has had Israel’s back against any and all efforts by the international community to sanction it for its repeated violations of international law with its colonial project in the West Bank, violations that continued even as the peace talks were underway.

It has long been assumed that a point would surely come when Washington would use its long-accumulated leverage to inform Israel’s government that it could no longer fend off international criticism of Israel’s occupation without incurring serious damage to its own credibility and national interests. It was believed that when the U.S. reaches that point, Israel would have no choice but to withdraw from the West Bank to the pre-1967 lines, subject to minor mutual border swaps and appropriate security guarantees.

But that moment of truth never came, and no one believes any longer it ever will. Not only is the U.S. no longer seen as the indispensable peacemaker, it is now seen as the leading obstacle to peace, for it is repeatedly threatening to veto all efforts to allow the Security Council to deal with the issue of Palestinian statehood or to adopt a framework for a two-state accord. The U.S. has therefore become as relevant to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking as Micronesia, the country with as impeccable a pro-Israel voting record in the UN as that of the U.S.

President Barack Obama’s key advisors, including Benjamin Rhodes, have now upbraided Israelis and Palestinians for their inability to make tough decisions. Secretary Kerry has fallen back on the chestnut that we cannot want peace more than the parties themselves in explanation of the latest break in the talks. These alibis are at best unseemly. For if the parties were able to make the tough decisions on their own, they would have been made long ago. From the beginning, they were in need of an outside party that they trusted, and about whom they could say to their respective constituencies, “We had to make these controversial compromises because otherwise we would have lost support that would have left us more insecure and worse off than we are now.”

The U.S. needed to say to Israel that its border is the 1967 line, clearly identified as such in UN Resolutions 242 and 339, and that neither the U.S. nor the international community would accept deviations from that line other than limited and mutually agreed territorial swaps. It needed to say to the Palestinians that its refugees cannot expect more from Israel than a sincere public apology and generous compensation and reparations for the crimes committed against them when Israel expelled them from their homes and villages in the areas assigned to Israel by the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and also from territories beyond those areas.

Kerry’s efforts failed because instead of telling the parties that the U.S. intends to establish red lines for a peace agreement, he allowed them to tell him what their red lines were for such an American framework. And by assuring Israel repeatedly that there could never be “any daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, Israel’s leaders were led to believe there would be no consequences for Israel’s rejection of America’s proposals and for Israeli actions that damage American interests.

Kerry should have known that the U.S. has no role in achieving an Israel-Palestinian peace if it is not prepared to use the leverage it possesses to get Israelis to abide by previous agreements and international law. Of course, there are domestic costs for any U.S. government that decides to get serious about demanding Israel to end its occupation. But there is something fatuous about our preaching to Israelis and Palestinians about the painful sacrifices they need to make to end this conflict when we refuse to do our far less painful part unless it is cost-free.

It is true that a majority of Israelis consistently tell their pollsters that they favor a two-state solution. But this has no practical political traction, for most of those who say this also believe that Israel has no Palestinian partners with whom they could reach a two-state accord. Their belief in a two-state outcome is eschatology, not politics. Still, a two-state solution would yet be attainable if Washington were to put Israel on notice that it will be on its own in dealing with the consequences of its occupation and settlement policies. But given our politicians’ addiction to the adulation and the other perquisites offered by AIPAC for their unquestioning support of Israel’s policies, that is about as likely as snow in July.

More realistically, a two-state outcome is still possible if Palestinians were to take their fate into their own hands, rather than waiting for a deus ex machina, by shutting down institutions such as the Palestinian Authority that serve their subjugators and launching a non-violent, anti-apartheid struggle for equal citizenship in the de facto Greater Israel to which they have been consigned. Such a determined struggle may even convince Israelis to accept a two-state outcome, for the loss of their state’s Jewish identity in a single state in which Jews are outnumbered by Arabs is a price most Israelis will not pay for a Greater Israel.

Should Israelis reject Palestinian statehood even in the face of a Palestinian anti-apartheid struggle, one that undoubtedly would have wide international backing, it would risk losing America’s friendship and support, also a price Israelis are not ready to pay. And while Washington has not abandoned Israel because of current differences over where Israel’s borders lie or the capital of a truncated Palestinian state should be located, in a struggle for equal rights, America could not support an Israeli apartheid for long. It is true of course that a de facto Israeli apartheid has been in place for some time now, without America calling it by its right name. That is because a dishonest peace process has served to mask that reality, by design. A Palestinian anti-apartheid struggle would put an end to that deception.

Henry Siegman is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He served as a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and as a non-resident research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He was the national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas in 2010. Credit: Reuters

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