Tony Karon
The National (Opinion)
August 30, 2010 - 12:00am

There is more chance of Saddam Hussein’s elusive weapons of mass destruction suddenly turning up in Iraq than there is of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas agreeing on the terms for a two-state solution in Washington this week. That does not mean the direct talks being orchestrated by President Barack Obama are pointless. On the contrary, they represent a moment of truth, not for the Israelis or the Palestinians, but for Mr Obama, who is creating a crisis by forcing irreconcilable differences between the two sides onto the table. The question now becomes, what is Washington prepared to do once the Israelis and Palestinians fail to agree.

A two-state solution to the conflict is dead and buried if it is left up to a voluntary agreement between a Palestinian leadership bereft of leverage and an Israeli leadership drawn from the traditional rejectionist camp. A majority on both sides tell pollsters that they support the idea of a two-state solution, but few on either side believe they will ever see one.

Mr Netanyahu says he has no intention of embracing the minimum terms for a two-state solution as defined by the international consensus – an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders (adjusted through equal land swaps) with East Jerusalem as its capital. It is hard to imagine why he would go to Washington and reverse himself when he’s not under any pressure at home or from the US. Indeed, it is worth remembering that the direct talks are happening not because of any progress in indirect talks, but because Mr Netanyahu demanded them.

The Israeli leader’s purpose is to engage noncommittally in the rituals of peacemaking. He will not make it easy for Mr Abbas to stay at the table, by, say, restraining Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. A peace agreement is not a goal that the Israelis value – their officials repeatedly have made clear that they believe Mr Abbas is too weak to deliver Palestinian consent for any deal. Mr Netanyahu’s priority is Iran, and he will chat with Mr Abbas as part of a quid pro quo to convince Washington to confront Tehran, not in the hope of a peace deal.

Mr Abbas, for his part, has made clear that he is going to Washington only for fear of losing US funding for his administration. In doing so, he has effectively signalled to his own people that any agreement reached in this process (unlikely as it may be) has been imposed on them. Even if Mr Abbas himself were inclined to accept whatever Mr Netanyahu offered – which, of course, he is not – he lacks the political authority to sell such a deal to the Palestinians. His term of office has expired, and the last time the Palestinian electorate was asked to vote, they preferred Hamas over his Fatah movement. Even in Fatah, Mr Abbas has minimal support for talking to Mr Netanyahu. In the interests of political survival, he’ll be looking for an early exit.

Hamas does not need to lift a finger to undermine these talks; it can be relatively confident that they will discredit themselves in the eyes of the Palestinians, as every previous round has done.

As inept as the Obama administration has been in its dealings with Mr Netanyahu, it cannot be naive enough to imagine that direct talks will produce an agreement. So, the real question is what it will do in the probable event of failure. There has also been talk of the US putting “bridging proposals” on the table if the two sides are near agreement but unable to bridge the gap. But saving the two-state solution from oblivion today could require a lot more – a readiness by the US to impose a deal based on the international consensus.

Washington has never had any compunction about making uncomfortable demands of the Palestinians, but imposing a two-state solution would require Mr Obama to take the domestic political consequences of a showdown with Israel. His record so far suggests that is unlikely.

At first glance, in fact, Mr Obama’s direct talks seem to be a move to “park” the Israeli-Palestinian issue: he has been unable to deliver the progress he promised, and now, like his predecessor, he is forced to offer the spectacle of “a process”. A year from now, the Democrats will not be facing a tough election battle in Congress, but Mr Obama could be facing his own re-election challenge, which would make it no more propitious a moment for a fight with the Israelis.

More important, however, is the fact that the reality rarely follows the terms and timetables of the diplomatic process. The two-state solution is premised on the Palestinians accepting statehood in Gaza and the West Bank rather than a return to land lost in 1948. But Israel currently controls 42 per cent of West Bank land, and it has illegally settled close to half a million of its citizens there, as well as in East Jerusalem. Half of that total were settled during the Oslo years, when the peace process was at its most promising. And the idea that Israel will have to end its occupation of that land as part of a peace agreement is no longer conventional wisdom in Israel.

On the Palestinian side, Mr Abbas’s discussions in Washington mean nothing to the residents of the vast open-air prison that is Gaza, or to the majority of residents in the West Bank. There are umpteen possibilities that could ignite a new wave of violence in either place.

The real importance of this week’s talks is the symbolic sense of the US taking ownership of the issue. An old line on the two-state peace in Washington, sometimes repeated by Obama administration officials, holds that the US “cannot want this more than the parties themselves do”. If anything, the process launched this week will prove that the reverse is true: unless the US is prepared to join with international partners and impose a two-state solution, Mr Obama is in fact presiding over its funeral.


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