Last Chance for Obama in Middle East

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Last Chance for Obama in Middle East

President Barack Obama is just beginning his first visit to Israel and the West Bank since he assumed the presidency, but skeptics have already been suggesting that those expecting much more than a photo-op are destined for disappointment. Indeed, the reality is that even if there is a desire within the Obama administration to cajole the two sides into resuming an active search for peace, this visit is unlikely to bring the results the president may be hoping for.

Why? The most obvious reason is the inability of President Obama to persuade Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop building settlements on occupied Palestinian lands, making it impossible for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to come to the negotiating table while preserving credibility among an already highly skeptical constituency. It is ironic that despite U.S. aid to Israel running at about $3 billion a year, Israeli influence in Washington far outstrips American influence in West Jerusalem.

The pessimism this engenders is compounded by the fact that policymakers and members of the U.S. Congress appear to have bought completely into the Israeli narrative of the conflict, marginalizing the Palestinian point of view, a situation that has prompted Middle East historian Rashid Khalidi to describe the United States as a “broker of deceit,” undermining peace in the Middle East rather than promoting it.

The truth is that no American administration can further the prospects of peace between Israel and the Palestinians unless it recognizes and acknowledges the Palestinians’ experience of dispossession, exile and occupation – and their right as a people to a state of their own, one that enjoys full sovereignty and the right to self-defense on an equal basis to Israel.

Sadly, mainstream U.S. media coverage of Obama’s visit – and indeed more generally – is hardly conducive to such moves, paying little attention as it does to the Palestinians’ rights and their plight under the occupation, and instead portraying Palestinians as bit players in an Israeli narrative, or as pawns in a larger plan to secure American strategic interests in the Middle East.

This is reflected in the fact that, with certain honorable exceptions, opinion formers in the United States backing a two-state solution appear to do so for largely tactical reasons, especially to prevent a demographic time-bomb from exploding in Israel’s face.

Obama’s visit to the West Bank appears to be based on the assumption that it will boost Fatah’s standing vis-à-vis Hamas and that a grateful Fatah-led Palestinian Authority will once again agree to become a pliable partner in a “peace process” that has so far turned out to be all process and no peace. However, even the accommodating Abbas no longer finds America’s stance on Jewish settlements of the West Bank acceptable.

This should come as no surprise – 2011 was a record year in terms of settlement building in the West Bank, according to Israeli group Peace Now, while 2012 saw significant settlement activity in East Jerusalem.  The question now is whether this trend is irreversible, because if it is, then a two-state solution is doomed, and Israel will be left with a one-state solution choice of apartheid or a bi-national state. Neither of these approaches is likely to end the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and both have the potential ultimately to spiral into civil war.

Washington will only be able to help shape events – and advance creative solutions – by unreservedly acknowledging the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause and pushing Israel not merely to stop further settlement activity, but also making it clear that it agrees with the proposition that all settlements in occupied lands are illegal under international law. Failure to do so will not only undermine America’s ability to influence the course of the conflict, but will also jeopardize its larger security and economic interests in a rapidly democratizing Middle East.

Above all, though, the current U.S. approach will add to Palestinian despondency and encourage the outbreak of a third Palestinian intifada that is bound to be met by overwhelming force by Israel, a development that could prove to be the opening salvo in what is likely to become a long-running civil conflict in the area between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

Past experience does not leave much room for optimism that President Obama will choose to alter the course of U.S. policy. But freed from the constraints of having to seek reelection, one can only hope that he takes what may be this last chance to head off yet another downward spiral of violence in the Middle East.

Mohammed Ayoob is a distinguished professor of International Relations at Michigan State University and adjunct scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. 

This article was originally published on CNN.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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