The National (Editorial)
March 5, 2009 - 1:00am

Critics of the Middle East peace process deride it as elaborate summitry and slogans that try hard but fail to mask the fundamental gap between the parties. They have a point: Israel is further from peace than ever before, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to agree on anything and the US is blindly behind the Israelis.

Or is it? There is now reason to believe that the US and Israel are on a collision course. The contrast between the commitment of the Obama administration to Palestinian statehood and the uncompromising position of the Israeli prime minister-in-waiting, Benyamin Netanyahu, is growing sharper by the day.

On the first of what is expected to be many visits to the Holy Land, Hillary Clinton, the new US Secretary of State, unambiguously declared: “The United States will be vigorously engaged in the pursuit of a two-state solution every step of the way. It is our assessment that, eventually, the inevitability of working towards a two-state solution is inescapable.” Compare this with Mr Netanyahu’s limited proposal of an “economic peace”, in which Palestinians are allowed to have a semblance of economic development but certainly no sovereignty or political rights. Mr Netanyahu continues to have a hard time accepting that the Palestinians are a proud, committed people, let alone that they deserve a viable, independent state.

Put simply, Israeli intransigence no longer squares with US ambition. The Obama administration has made it a priority to repair the damage done by eight years of neglect of an issue that continues to move hearts and radicalise minds across the Arab world. On Day 1 Mr Obama appointed a high-level emissary, the former senator George Mitchell, with a broad negotiating mandate.

Oblivious to that clear signal of intent, the Israeli side has retreated into stubbornness. The performance of right-wing parties and the defeat of peace-leaning movements during the February elections reflect a deep shift in mood inside Israel that will eventually benefit the hardliners, settlers and other religious fanatics. After losing faith in the two-state solution, the Israeli public is now embracing the delusion that a combination of coercion and isolation will tame the Palestinian people forever. Worse, the expansionist intentions of the Israeli government persist: new plans have been exposed to expand settlements beyond the wall.

This time, though, settlements and their debilitating impact on the peace process, and the viability of a future Palestinian state, are front and centre. Reports that Israeli officials worry about economic sanctions by the US administration if settlement building continues are good news. Such menace can be effective: it was the Bush administration that in 1991 suspended financial guarantees to twist Israel’s arm and force it to sit at the negotiating table. The political cost for the elder George Bush was certainly severe, but such leadership is badly needed today.

America is increasingly irritated at seeing its wider interests endangered by lingering conflicts in the Middle East: the Obama administration should leverage that into a more forceful and frank dialogue with Israel. Mr Netanyahu will resist on the ground that he owes his election to his hardline position, but the US administration might retort that, in doing so, he only sabotages the prospect of a better Middle East for everyone.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017