When I first arrived in 2012, there was very little attention being paid to the peace process – either internationally or within the US government. It was the post Arab Spring period: the situation in Syria was getting progressively worse, there were protests in a number of countries throughout the region, and in September we lost Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. I should mention that Chris, who I knew for much of my Foreign Service career, had served at the US Consulate General in Jerusalem for four years and felt passionately about resolving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
My first months in Jerusalem were a difficult time – with a great deal of uncertainty among Palestinians about where things were headed, and what role the United States would play. But in March of 2013, at the very beginning of President Barack Obama’s second term, things started to change. The president’s very first foreign trip of his second term was to here – to meet personally with both Israelis and Palestinians.
I was with him when he helicoptered into Ramallah, right into the Muqata compound, to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The president found in Abbas a strong partner for peace. And he brought with him a very determined new secretary of state, John Kerry.
I should add that when he was in Ramallah, President Obama made it a point to meet with more than just the Palestinian political leadership. We organized for him a low-key, off-therecord meeting with Palestinian youth, and it was a meeting that I know made a real impression on him.
In fact, it made such an impression, that hours later, as he delivered the major speech of the trip to a huge audience of Israeli students in Jerusalem, he went off-script specifically to tell those thousands of Israelis in attendance about it, about the simple humanity he found in those students, to remind his Israeli audience that those Palestinian 15- and 16- and 17-year-olds were not so different from Israeli or American 15- or 16- or 17-year-olds. I think all of you – as Americans and Palestinians – understand that simple truth better than I, but I assure you it is something that often strikes visitors who come here from the US above all else.
After that first trip, Secretary Kerry became a frequent visitor here in search of a solution – not a temporary fix – but a final and fully agreed resolution to the conflict that has plagued this region for generations. Over the course of the following 12 months Secretary Kerry was out here a dozen times and held countless more meetings in Washington, New York, Jordan, the Gulf and Europe. He brought on a team led by a seasoned expert on these issues, Ambassador Martin Indyk.
Then, as now, there was no shortage of critics. They said that Secretary Kerry would never be able to get the parties to the table. But he did, and for a period of almost nine months serious negotiations took place. During that time a lot of issues were discussed and, in fact – again, despite the critics – progress on key concerns was made.
We now have a new level of understanding of the parties’ negotiating positions, security considerations, and other important factors that will leave us better off in future negotiations.
We knew there might not be a final treaty at the end of the nine months that would cover every detail of the final two-state settlement, but we hoped we would be far enough along that the two sides, and the world, would have a clear idea what the end result was going to look like. But as a framework looked less achievable in the time remaining, we began looking toward extending the negotiations as the end of the nine-month period approached.
As you know, there was a series of what we considered unhelpful actions taken by both sides, and we’re left where we are today, in a pause in the negotiations, and at a very uncertain period politically – a period far more uncertain than when I arrived here two years ago.
Nevertheless, there are a few points to remember: First, Secretary Kerry remains passionate about this issue. The secretary knows the issue well, he knows the political players on both sides well, and he knows the pitfalls of trying to embark on something this ambitious given the political climate. So why does he do it? Because the secretary, like many of us, has recognized that the status quo is simply not sustainable.
Something is going to change and unless we endeavor to be a catalyst for positive change, the situation could get worse for the people on both sides of this conflict.
Next, the secretary’s efforts brought much needed attention to the issue.
There is a lot going on in the region and around the world. And yet the secretary recognized that it would be a serious mistake to simply forget the situation here until we’re faced with a grave crisis.
In doing so, the secretary’s efforts saw a third important factor, and that is that the world is keenly interested in contributing to a resolution, and wants the US to stay focused on it. I’ve heard the secretary say many times that regardless whether he was visiting leaders in South America or Asia or Europe, he inevitably found that among the first questions world leaders asked him was about Middle East peace. Whether it’s because people view this as an area central in importance to those of faith; whether they see it as a core issue that needs to be settled for the region’s problems to be addressed; or whether it is because so many American constituents – including each of you in this room – care so deeply about it, it was clear that the world wants us play a role in ensuring that a negotiated two-state solution is still achievable.
Of course, ensuring that a two-state solution will work requires building a Palestinian economy that is strong, stable and self-sustaining. This again is something that the United States has been committed to for a long time.
In fact, the US remains the largest single country donor to the Palestinians.
One of the sectors that the Palestinians and the international community, including the US, are working to develop is tourism. It’s great to see the members of the American Federation of Ramallah doing your part by putting money into that important sector.
We look forward to seeing all of you return in the future, both for tourism, and, hopefully, for many of you, to consider investing your time and money to continue building a prosperous and secure state of Palestine, living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security.
As Americans, and for many of you as businesspeople, you know that we succeed because we are pragmatic, we are resourceful and we are determined.
That is precisely what I have seen in young Palestinians. Palestinian youth and Palestinian entrepreneurs, when they sit at the table with even the most senior US officials or business people, can explain the difficulties of being Palestinian as articulately and as persuasively as any academic or politician or analyst – probably more so.
They might still criticize us, but they can also articulate their vision of the future and convince us that they are doing the hard work now that will help them build a state that is prosperous and democratic.
Please don’t be fooled by those who sell the faulty premise that Israel would only make concessions and a state will only be achieved if the international community pressured them harder, or threatened them with boycotts.
The fact is that a viable Palestinian state will be built through hard work, tough negotiation and peaceful, well-reasoned activism. We will start seeing positive momentum behind the two-state solution when the world recognizes it as an investment and not a charity, and when Israelis and Palestinians see each other as partners, not as adversaries.
Right now we are perhaps in the moment of greatest uncertainty since I got here two years ago. We are watching very closely how the recently formed interim PA government develops, how the reconciliation effort evolves, who makes decisions and what decisions are made.
Creation of a Palestinian state will ultimately take strong leadership. It will mean saying things that are right, even if they might not be popular. It will mean working for an end to the era when groups still exist that would undertake despicable acts like the kidnapping of those three young Israeli students. And it will mean articulating a vision of the future that inspires young Palestinians who want that future to be prosperous and safe and dignified.
I hope that you, as Palestinians and as Americans, do everything in your power to educate and inspire both Palestinians here and Americans in the US and to help build the kind of positive momentum that is required for a just and lasting peace to be reached.
This op-ed is based on a speech by US Consul-General Michael A. Ratney to the 56th Annual American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine (AFRP).