Hussein Ibish
The Daily Star
October 7, 2009 - 12:00am

Under the administration of President Barack Obama, the United States has vigorously re-engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and made commitment to Palestinian statehood an American national security and foreign policy priority. Obama has said that it is “absolutely crucial” to US interests to resolve the conflict, and appears determined to persist despite all difficulties and obstacles.

There are several crucial reasons for this intensification. First, while the benefits to American interests of ending the conflict have been clear for many years, the substantial costs to the United States of failing to secure a peace agreement are becoming more widely understood. The conflict in the Middle East has become an exceptionally powerful weapon in the hands of fanatics throughout the region and beyond, fueling anti-American sentiment. The Obama administration has understood that ending Israel’s occupation would be a singularly effective counterattack against those manifestations of extremism.

Second, the Obama administration is taking a more holistic approach to retooling the American relationship with the region, when compared to its predecessors. Rather than viewing each regional relationship and problem independently, and dealing with it on a case-specific and usually bilateral basis, this administration understands that these problems and relations are both independent and interconnected.

Third, it has become increasingly clear to many American friends of Israel, including numerous prominent Jewish Americans, that a peace agreement with the Palestinians and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Arab land in general is not only in the United States’ national interest, it is also in Israel’s interest. If it persists with the occupation, Israel can be neither Jewish nor democratic in a meaningful way, and will not know either peace or regional acceptance.

This understanding has allowed many prominent Jewish Democrats, including key members of the US Congress, to support Obama’s push for an Israeli settlement freeze.

Indeed, Obama’s initial strategy for advancing the peace process was to secure Israel’s implementation of its commitment under the “road map” to peace, issued under former President George W. Bush, to freeze settlement activity in the Occupied Territories. Obama was also trying to secure diplomatic gestures from Arab states as a reciprocal move.

The US president met with only partial success on both sides, with Israel reportedly agreeing to a temporary settlement freeze in the West Bank, but not in occupied East Jerusalem. At the tripartite meeting held at the UN headquarters between Israeli, Palestinian and American leaders on September 22, Obama made it clear that he did not accept this proposed compromise on settlements by Israel, but was setting the issue aside for now and moving forward on permanent-status talks.

While previous US administrations would almost certainly have embraced the proposed Israeli compromise, Obama continues to reject the legitimacy of Israeli settlement activity and has left the issue unresolved. At his UN General Assembly speech the following day, Obama laid out a number of stipulations for the negotiations that strongly favor the Palestinian position, pledging to “end the occupation that began in 1967.” The president insisted, above all, that the status of Jerusalem was to be addressed in new talks.

Including Jerusalem in the talks runs directly counter to Israeli positions and strongly reinforces the Palestinian view that the city must be the capital of any future Palestinian state. It is, indeed, a central question that cannot be ignored. Perhaps even more than settlements, the issue will prove extremely challenging for Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, especially given his coalition partners’ uncompromising stance on the future of Jerusalem.

Ultimately, the main message senior administration officials, including Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are sending is that the administration is “determined” to achieve a two-state peace agreement.

This determination, a willingness to take political hits and keep on going, was evident in Obama’s words at the UN General Assembly meeting. There, he declared: “[E]ven though there will be setbacks, and false starts and tough days – I will not waiver in my pursuit of peace.” Any party counting on wearing down, waiting out or chasing this administration away from negotiations must now seriously reconsider its strategy.


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