After two decades of a U.S.-led “peace process,” we are no closer to achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement today than we were in the early 1990s. Indeed, we’re probably much farther away now, as Israel took advantage of the so-called “peace process” to drastically expand its colonization of the occupied Palestinian territories (in direct violation of the spirit of Oslo), growing the settler population to more than 600,000 and making a viable two-state solution almost implausible.
The best Israeli offer for a Palestinian state was given in Camp David II in 2000. Without quibbling over the details, it suffices to say that the offer fell so short of being viable that even Israel’s foreign minister at the time, Shlomo Ben-Ami, said that had he been Palestinian, he would have rejected it. That offer was made back when Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, belonged to the left-leaning Labor party, when the Palestinians had a relatively popular leader, and when the Israeli settler population in the Palestinian territories was much smaller. Today, we’re in a much worse environment, as Israel is led by the notoriously difficult right-wing Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, the Palestinian leadership lacks legitimacy and is divided, and the extent of Israel’s integration of the occupied territories has made carving out a viable Palestinian state more complicated. Furthermore, Israel’s “exclusive negotiator with the Palestinians” under Netanyahu’s emerging coalition will be Tzipi Livni, who was a right-wing Likudnik back when Likud saw Ehud Barak’s grossly insufficient offer to the Palestinians in Camp David II as too generous.
Here in the U.S., things don’t look quite as bleak, as there are some indications that the Obama administration is serious about making a meaningful push for Israeli-Palestinian peace in its second term. There are high hopes for what Obama’s message could be in his upcoming trip to Israel. Chuck Hagel, Obama’s pick for Secretary of Defense, is a Republican centrist who, while having a solid pro-Israel record, gets it and has clashed with the Israel lobby because he wasn’t big on signing blank checks for Israel at every turn. And the new Secretary of State John Kerry is said to be “determined to the point of obsession” to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement before the end of President Obama’s second term.
But to be determined and relentless in the same old failed approach to peace-making won’t produce a different outcome. For that determination to matter, it requires a substantial shift in the U.S. approach to dealing with the peace process. We’ve already seen, under far better circumstances, that soft criticism of Israeli settlements does not hinder their expansion. The U.S. must show unprecedented boldness in conditioning U.S. military and diplomatic support for Israel on Israel’s compliance with its obligations, starting with permanently halting the ongoing expansion of settlements. That may strike many in U.S. policymaking circles as too drastic a step, but the severity of the situation does call for drastic measures. The two-state solution is now being artificially kept alive by the global consensus on how to resolve the question of Palestine; an unsustainable life-support system that can't go on for much longer. If the US is to breath real life into the two-state solution, there is no alternative to unprecedented boldness, as I agree with Lara Friedman’s assessment that Obama's legacy depends in part on his leadership in this make-or-break moment of the two-state solution. For Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel to be truly a “game-changer,” it must demonstrate a significant break from the policy approach of the last two decades.
Of course, this is understandably difficult for Obama, as the recalcitrant Republican congress continues to make everything a problem for his administration. But should there not be a breakthrough in Obama’s second term, we would in all likelihood be permanently closing the door on the two-state solution. If only a speedy transition to a one-state solution with equality for all were a probable outcome, we could all celebrate the death of the two-state solution together. Unfortunately, we’re far more likely to be looking at decades of occupation, oppression, and violence before any type of permanent solution arises; which is why it is hard to overstate the magnitude of this critical moment and what must be done to seize it.