Washington – While a growing number of influential voices here and in the region insist that the nearly 20-year, U.S.-sponsored “peace process” has reached its terminal phase, the administration of President Barack Obama remains committed to reviving direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
“…[M]oving forward, we want to see progress on the peace talks,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner has emphasised repeatedly over the last two weeks, which have seen Washington's special envoy David Hale shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
“We want to see the two parties, the Palestinians and the Israelis, get back into direct negotiations. And that's where are our focus remains,” he said.
But there is little reason at this point to believe that Washington's efforts will bear fruit.
That conclusion was reinforced here Wednesday night by none other than one of the process's strongest Palestinian advocates. In a speech at the annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad indicated no great eagerness on the part of his regime to resume talks with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Our own assessment is that the conditions are not ripe at this juncture for a meaningful resumption of talks,” Fayyad told the upper-crust crowd.
That has been the standard line of the Palestinians who broke off talks 13 months ago when Netanyahu rejected a U.S. offer of substantially more military aid, as well as a host of mostly security-related guarantees, if his government agreed to extend a partial moratorium on building or expanding settlements on Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
That line has, if anything, grown firmer, particularly in the wake of last month's formal application to the U.N. Security Council by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, in his capacity as PLO chairman, to recognise Palestine as a U.N. member.
That Abbas followed through with the application over the vehement objections and a veto threat by Obama himself offered the clearest evidence to date of Washington's loss of influence over Palestinians, by far the weaker of the two parties in conflict.
And the fact that Netanyahu has shrugged off repeated U.S. objections to new settlement activity – including last week's announcement that it would build 8,000 new apartment units for Jewish settlers in occupied East Jerusalem – has made clear to all concerned that Washington enjoys little or no sway with the stronger.
“The notion that the U.S. has the wherewithal to get the parties to do what it wants them to do is …a thing of the past,” according to Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa programme.
“The U.S. made demands that both parties felt free to ignore,” he told a discussion at the New America Foundation (NAF) last week.
But even if both parties agreed to revive the “peace process”, there's little indication that the long-sought two-state solution would be advanced at the negotiating table.
“When people don't know what to do, they go to negotiations,” said Malley, who worked on the Israel-Palestine file at the Clinton White House. “[That's] probably the most unwise reason to go somewhere… [and is] a recipe for further polarising the situation and convincing the parties that there's no way out… [It is] a very short-term approach.”
“For last 20 years, negotiations have not brought anything tangible for the Palestinians,” Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent from the Middle East Broadcasting Center and a U.S.-based analyst originally from Gaza, told the NAF audience. In any event, she noted, while “both the (Obama) administration and the Israelis believe in the two- state solution, they don't have a vision for how to achieve it.”
Nor does it help that, despite an April reconciliation accord in principle between Abbas's Fatah and its Islamist rival, Hamas, the two main political parties remain deeply divided and unable to patch together a coalition government.
Hamas has been excluded from the “peace process” because it has not yet agreed to the three main conditions set by the U.S. and its Quartet partners, the U.N., Russia, and the European Union. They have demanded that the party, which beat Fatah in the PA's 2006 elections, reject violence, recognise Israel's right to exist, and accept previous treaties negotiated by the PLO.
Abbas received a major boost in popularity back home by defying Washington and then delivering a poignant speech on behalf of his cause and a two-state solution before the U.N. General Assembly.
But this week's prisoner exchange – an Egyptian- and Turkish-brokered deal between Israel and Hamas – has revived Hamas's fortunes at Abbas's expense, reminding everyone once again how little the PA has gained by committing themselves so devotedly to the nearly 20-year- old, U.S.-guided peace process.
The prisoner deal “levels [the] Hamas-Fatah playing field,” according to Mouin Rabbani of Al-Shabaka, an international Palestinian policy network. Under the deal, Israel agreed to release 1,047 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier captured by Hamas militants along the Gaza border five years ago.
The fact that Egypt and Turkey helped mediate the deal without any apparent support from the U.S. also underlined the degree to which Washington is no longer “indispensable” for getting things done and indicates that regional powers feel they have more freedom to assert their own interests independent of the U.S.
While both Hamas and Netanyahu praised the mediators, the White House reaction was more muted. “The connection between this and the peace process is not direct, at the very least,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “The road to peace is through direct negotiations.”
“[We] have to stop being such hypocritical advocates of pointless negotiations,” Yossi Alpher, co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian web magazine Bitter Lemons, said during his presentation to NAF.
Alpher, former director of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a long-time supporter of the two-state solution, has embraced the U.N. approach, although he admits it is more unpredictable.
“Once you start internationalising this conflict, it's a slippery slope and you don't know what comes next,” he told the NAF audience, adding that Israel should itself take the lead in recognising Palestine.
If it did so, the conflict would become a state-to-state issue and, as such, more manageable, he argued, because it would help balance the abiding asymmetry between the two peoples. Still, a multilateral role would be essential to the process, he argued.
“I could imagine a situation in which Israel welcomes an international force to get rid of these people (in Jewish settlements and outposts in the occupied territories) and thereby reduce the risk …of strife between Israelis,” he said.
Adding to the growing irrelevance of Washington's hopes to revive the peace process are recent actions by the pro-Israel lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, who vowed to punish Abbas if he pursued his statehood bid at the U.N.
While technocrats in the Security Council review his statehood application, key Republican lawmakers have placed holds on 192 million dollars in humanitarian aid to the occupied territories and another 150 million dollars in security assistance to the PA.
The Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee has even approved bills that would cut off all U.S. funding to U.N. agencies that grant recognition to Palestine, actions that provoked at least one strongly pro-Israel Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham, to suggest that Washington could lose whatever leverage it has left to influence the Palestinians.
“For the first time, there is a broad recognition of the emptiness of the American claim that the U.S. is uniquely qualified to bring the Israel-Palestine conflict to an end,” said Henry Siegman, a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress and director of the U.S.-Middle East Project (USMEP) at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
*Jonathan Guyer is a programme associate for the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force and assistant editor of The Middle East Channel at ForeignPolicy.com. He blogs atMideastbyMidwest.com.