This column is part of a series based on seven days of meetings in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv, Israel, with top officials and experts from the Israeli government, Palestinian Authority, and other international organizations.
As President Barack Obama prepares to make his first visit to Israel as president, one of his main goals will be to reaffirm the U.S.-Israeli relationship. He is also expected to underline once again the importance of achieving a durable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which remains a core national security interest of the United States.
Conversations over the past week with a number of officials and analysts in Israel and the West Bank, however, indicate a very tough environment for peacemaking. Israeli and Palestinian officials alike do not appear to have a return to direct talks high on their agenda. In Israel, fiscal concerns, including the need for budget cuts, will preoccupy the government in the immediate term, as will the contentious issue of public subsidies for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities. Furthermore, the likely makeup of the new Israeli government—led by one party, Likud-Beitenu, which has not formally endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state, and including another, Habayit Hayehudi, which is directly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state—does not bode well.
Given the composition of this new Israeli government, a number of analysts and observers I spoke with in Israel voiced strong concerns that a “surge” in settlement building is coming. According to Aluf Benn, the editor of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, “The third Netanyahu government has one clear goal: enlarging the settlements and achieving the vision of ‘a million Jews living in Judea and Samaria.’” Others dismissed these concerns, saying that it remains unclear how the new Israeli government will proceed on the Palestinian front.
In the West Bank the Palestinian Authority has seen its standing and credibility steadily deteriorate among its people, resulting from the perception that in the almost 20 years since it was created under the Oslo Accord, it has not been able to deliver on the goal of ending the Israeli occupation and creating a viable state.
Asked about the benefits of the Palestinians’ U.N. strategy last year—which succeeded, against U.S. and Israeli opposition, in upgrading Palestine’s U.N. status to “non-member observer state”—one Palestinian official was blunt: “What benefit?” While announced with much fanfare, the upgrade did nothing to improve the daily lives of Palestinians. From the Palestinian perspective, the U.N. strategy was aimed at keeping alive the possibility of a two-state solution in the face of continued settlement building and stalemate in the negotiations, but the costs of going down that route have been considerable. In response to the U.N. bid, Israel withheld tax revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, announced plans for new settlements in a particularly sensitive area in the West Bank, and increased the number of military incursions into Palestinian-administered areas, all of which served to further weaken and embarrass the Palestinian Authority.
While the Obama administration and its partners in the Quartet on the Middle East—the group made up of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, and Russia, established in 2002—have stressed the importance of returning to direct talks over the past few years, some analysts I spoke with suggested that this may not be a good option at the moment. Given the level of frustration among Palestinians at their own government’s failure to deliver, it’s possible that the Palestinian Authority could not survive another round of failed negotiations.
“We are the ones who will benefit the most from a peace agreement,” said Mohammad Shtayyeh, a close adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “We are not avoiding negotiations, but we need a meaningful process.”
“I want President Obama to regenerate hope for the Palestinian people,” Shtayyeh continued. “Abu Mazen [Abbas] is prepared to make his mission as successful as it needs to be.”
In the absence of a formal re-launch of talks, there are a number of key issues of concern to the Palestinians that the United States can address quietly with Israel in order to bolster the Palestinian Authority’s credibility. One issue is that of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons, which has enormous resonance in Palestinian society. The release of a thousand prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011, who had been held since 2006 by Hamas—the Palestinian terrorist organization and political party—in Gaza, significantly boosted Hamas’s political standing at the expense of the Palestinian Authority.
Another issue is a cessation of settlement construction. This does not have to be publicly announced, but the United States should make clear to Israel that the constant encroachment of settlements—clearly visible out of the office windows of the Palestinian leaders with whom I met—on Palestinian communities discredits moderate Palestinian voices, empowers extremists, and threatens to solidify a one-state reality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. President Obama should also remind Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that such a cessation is a pre-existing Israeli commitment under the 2003 road map.
For their part, leaders of the Palestinian Authority, particularly President Mahmoud Abbas, should use every opportunity to make clear to the Israeli public their commitment to a two-state solution. Abbas’ speech at the 2012 U.N. General Assembly, which was perceived by Israelis as highly inflammatory, was not helpful in this regard. While polls show that the Israeli public is still solidly in favor of a two-state solution, the memory of the Second Intifada—the 2000–2005 Palestinian uprising in which numerous terror attacks were carried out inside Israel—makes Israelis extremely cautious about ending their military presence in the West Bank. More assurances from Palestinian leaders that they have a partner for peace could help change that.
It’s very important, however, that the Palestinian Authority not be supported simply with the aim of prolonging an unsustainable status quo. With this in mind, the United States should work with the parties to establish clear terms of reference for the eventual return to negotiations toward the end of occupation and conflict, based on the general parameters set out by three U.S. administrations since President Bill Clinton was in office.
One item on which Israelis and Palestinians continue to agree is that the two sides simply cannot make progress toward a resolution without the active and engaged leadership of the United States. A two-state solution is not only in the interests of Palestinians and Israelis, but is also in the interest of the United States. President Obama should remind us all of this when he visits Israel next week.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress at the Center for American Progress.