Can Obama Raise the Phoenix from the Ashes in the Middle East Peace Process?
US-Israel relations are described by some as at an all-time low. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, declared, “Israel’s ties with the United States are in their worst crisis since 1975… a crisis of historic proportions.” What was Benjamin Netanyahu’s response? He came all the way to Washington to make crystal clear that he has no intention of entering into good-faith peace negotiations. How bad is Israel’s current standing, not only with the US but also with the international community?
Europe, in particular the UK, and the international community have not been far behind the Obama administration in their recent criticisms of Israeli actions. The Middle East quartet (the UN, the EU, Russia and the US) strongly denounced Israeli’s “unilateral” construction plans to build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem and said the status of Jerusalem could only be resolved through negotiations between both parties. Lady Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, stunned by is her recent visit to Gaza, is reported to have described conditions as “worse than Haiti.” Perhaps the most stinging criticism came from the UK on two issues. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, son of Jewish immigrants, described the Palestinian-Israeli standoff is the “greatest recruiting sergeant” Al Qaeda has. In a related matter, Britain, after a lengthy investigation, accused Israel of forging British passports used by alleged assassins of a top Hamas official in Dubai and expelled an Israeli official, deepening an international furor over the killing and bringing new legitimacy to widespread suspicions of Israeli involvement. Members of the British parliament spoke of Israel’s conduct as that of a rogue state. The sense of outrage was the strongest since the Israeli invasion of Gaza when in Jan 2009 veteran British lawmaker, Sir Gerald Kaufman, compared the Israeli offensive in Gaza to the Nazis who forced his family to flee from Poland and other British parliamentarians called for an arms embargo on Israel.
So how has Netanyahu responded – an apology, a call for greater engagement with some concrete concession to signal a change of heart? If the Netanyahu government’s conduct during the recent visit of Vice President Joseph Biden was described as a slap in the face and an “insult to the US,” Netanyahu’s arrogant, rejectionist track record in both his terms as prime minister was once again in evidence with his obstinate performance this week which made it clear that the only way forward in breaking the log-jam in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations is a strong US-led initiative. Should Netanyahu’s response have been a surprise? Israeli prime ministers like Netanyahu have all, at the end of the day, gotten their way, they could always be sure, as seen more recently in Israel’s wars with Hizbollah in Lebanon and its invasion and devastation in Gaza, that they could ultimately do whatever they wanted to do with impunity.
Zeev Sternhell, an Israeli historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, captured Netanyahu’s provocative hardline policy in Haaretz: “Were Israeli society prepared to pay the price for peace, its government would not be fanning the flames of conflict at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Sheikh Jarrah and the Shoafat ridge, nor would it be wrestling with the United States over expanding the settlements….how is it possible to demand that the Palestinians recognize the results of the War of Independence and the legitimacy of the Jewish state if Israel takes the liberty of continuing to seize their lands? … if building in Shoafat and Silwan [West Bank Palestinian neighborhoods] is the same as building in Tel Aviv in the eyes of the Israeli government, the only solution is an imposed one.”
How will President Obama now respond? Will he seize this opportunity to turn the corner, and lead with other partners in bringing real pressure on the Netanyahu government?
The current impasse provides a unique opportunity for this US president to position the US as an honest broker and pressure all parties to come to the table. Obama, Biden, an ardent Zionist, Hilary Clinton, and many members of the administration, including three prominent Jewish officials, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod and Dennis Ross, have proven track records of strong friendship and support for Israel. Despite the continued strength of the Israel lobby, its hardline, uncritical stance does not represent the majority of the American Jewish community. A new poll of American Jews from the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby J Street reveals that Obama enjoys significant Jewish community support for a strong U.S. role in the peace process. His approval rating in the Jewish community remains strong, holding steady at 62 percent (Gallup previously reported 64 percent approval rating in an October 2009 poll). Obama’s approval rating among Jews is 15 points higher than among all Americans (47 percent) according to a Gallup poll conducted during the same period. American Jews by a four-to-one margin, 82-18 percent, support the United States playing an active role in helping the parties to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, with 73 percent of American Jews supporting this active role even if it means that the United States were to publicly state its disagreements with both the Israelis and the Arabs. 60 percent of American Jews believe Israel’s announcement of new housing in East Jerusalem caused damage to U.S.-Israel relations, and 55 percent say the United States was right to strongly criticize the Israeli announcement of new housing in East Jerusalem during Vice President Biden’s visit. All of this falls on deaf ears in Congress where bipartisan support exists openly, as seen in a recent Congressional resolution of support, and behind-the-scenes.
The clock is ticking in a dangerous and deteriorating situation in which Palestinian and Israeli lives alike are at stake and in which justice and an end to the occupation of internationally recognized Palestinian lands is long overdue. President Obama has shown remarkable courage in facing off with Netanyahu despite the latter’s intransigence. The administration could seize the moment and with the other Quartet members and support from Arab and Muslim allies move quickly and decisively, insisting on clear preconditions regarding the settlements and Netanyahu’s claim to all of Jerusalem. They must do more than simply urge Israel to lift its devastating blockade of the Gaza Strip and to open it to humanitarian and commercial traffic. They must also insist on the Quartet’s call for Israel to freeze all settlement activity “including natural growth”, to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001, and to “refrain from demolitions and evictions in East Jerusalem”. This would be a giant step but only a first step on the very difficult and rough road to peace. It would address the concerns of many in the Arab and Muslim world, who welcomed his election, were inspired by his Cairo speech with its clear recognition of the plight of Palestinians and a declared intention to make serious headway in the peace process in his first term, but now wonder whether he can deliver. However, given America’s historic tilt towards Israel, with its special status, favoritism and aid, widespread bipartisan Congressional support, and the vulnerability of the Democrats in 2010 and 2012 elections, Obama would seemingly have to be willing to risk his political future, as he did with passage of the Health Care Bill, to make the phoenix rise from the ashes.
John Esposito is Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. He is also on the Board of Advisors at ISPU.
This article appeared on Huffington Post on March 29, 2010.