Roger Cohen
The New York Times (Opinion)
July 14, 2011 - 12:00am

WASHINGTON — Almost a year ago, President Obama declared to the United Nations General Assembly: “When we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

Just about everywhere in the Middle East there has been movement — stirring, remarkable, uneven — as the region breaks old chains of despotism and seeks its slice of the modern world. But Palestinians and Israelis remain stuck in their sterile and competitive narratives of victimhood, determined, it seems, to ensure past rancor defeats promise.

It’s been a year of terrible waste.

There is no alternative to resolving this most agonizing of conflicts but neither party ever quite gets to that realization. After 63 years the balance of power is overwhelmingly skewed in Israel’s favor and the one country that might redress that balance — the United States — is unwilling to because its politics allow no room for that. In general when power is so skewed between two parties peace is elusive.

Obama, when he returns to the U.N. in a few weeks, will face the consequences of a wasted year.

As usual, there’s plenty of blame to spread around. Obama had one of his worst moments last September when he brought the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the White House to announce renewed talks, only for them to unravel as Israel refused to extend a moratorium on settlement expansion. Now, when the United States says to the Palestinians — “Trust us, come to the table, we can deliver” — they scoff.

It’s been a year of squandered opportunity.

The Palestinians, with ample cause for frustration at the sterile maneuvering of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have lost the sense of direction that had been growing for two years under the direction of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. They seem to have opted for an act of political theater that will get them nowhere and place them in confrontation with the United States.

Fayyad’s state building in the West Bank — schools and roads and institutions and security forces — led the World Bank to declare last year that the Palestinian Authority was ready for a state “at any point in the near future.” But Fayyad never got recognition from Israel for his achievements: Terrorist violence is down 96 percent in the West Bank in the past five years.

Israel snubbed a viable partner — criminal waste.

So the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, became tempted by the notion of going to the U.N. in September to seek recognition for a Palestinian state. It’s not an idea Fayyad likes because he’s a pragmatist interested in results not symbolism. The results of this approach, if adopted, will be negative.

The U.S. will veto the Palestinian demand in the Security Council. It is possible major European allies will vote with the Palestinians and a 14-1 vote would be embarrassing for Israel. A vote in the General Assembly would go overwhelmingly in the Palestinians’ favor. But this would not get Palestine anywhere.

It would not gain membership in the United Nations. U.S. funding, to the tune of about $550 million a year, would be cut off because Congress would be incensed. The Israelis, angered, might also cut off tax revenues. The occupation would continue, along with its humiliations.

Abbas also decided to sign a reconciliation agreement with Hamas that was not thought through. It has since proved stillborn because Hamas will not accept Abbas’s insistence that Fayyad remain as prime minister. Instead, Abbas should have negotiated a truce pending elections in a year that would allow Palestinians to decide who should represent them. An empty reconciliation with Hamas only gave ammunition to Netanyahu, incensed Congress and embarrassed Fayyad.

The waste is so crushing that the Quartet, meeting this week in Washington, was unable even to agree on a statement. The Palestinians liked the mention of a peace “based on the 1967 lines” in Obama’s recent Middle East speech. Netanyahu loathed the speech but liked the mention of “Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people.” Between the 1967 lines dear to the Palestinians and the Jewish state obsession of Netanyahu, finding a suitable form of words to encourage talks proved beyond the Quartet.

The Israeli insistence on up-front recognition from the Palestinians of Israel as a “Jewish state” is absurd — a powerful indication of growing Israeli insecurities, isolation and intolerance. There was no such insistence a decade ago.

States get recognized, not their nature, and the Palestine Liberation Organization has recognized Israel’s right to “exist in peace and security.” Palestinians are not going to elaborate on their recognition ahead of negotiations, while Netanyahu refuses to elaborate on what his vague formulation of “two states for two peoples” might actually mean.

The Jewish state issue is a cherry-on-the-cake issue for the last stage of any talks. So pushing it to the front of the agenda is just Netanyahu’s way of putting delaying tactics ahead of strategic thinking once again.

The waste is staggering and the looming train wreck appalling.


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