For decades, the Israeli and American approaches to resolving the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict have rested on the key assumption that Palestinian
self-determination and a peace agreement are two sides of the same coin. It is
increasingly apparent, however, that these two concepts are distinct.
international community, ostensibly concerned about Palestinian rights,
seemingly tired of the conflict, and understandably sensitive to its real and
perceived effects on the national interests and domestic politics of many states
(especially in Europe), now has focused its attention almost exclusively on
advancing Palestinian self-determination. With numerous South American and
European states recognizing Palestine even in the absence of peace talks and in
advance of September’s planned UN General Assembly vote calling for the creation
of a Palestinian state, the link between peace and Palestinian
self-determination has been all but severed.
This is no trivial matter.
Creation of a Palestinian state in the absence of a peace agreement stands to
incentivize perpetual Palestinian aspirations – and official Palestinian policy
– to “liberate” the rest of Palestine, thereby guaranteeing that the conflict
will go on for as long as the two states exist.
Given the political
mileage Palestinian and other Arab leaders continue to squeeze out of the
Israeli scapegoat, a state born into conflict might be more appealing to the
Palestinian government than a state with no one else to blame for its inevitable
problems. The Palestinian interest in reaching a peace accord after the
establishment of a state is not immediately apparent.
danger of this potential outcome, President Barack Obama tried to head it off in
his speech on Thursday: “For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel
will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in
September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not
achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection.
And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of
Israel to exist.”
Unfortunately this important message was undermined by
what Obama said just a few minutes later: “Palestinians should know the
territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic
security concerns will be met. I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve
the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future
of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.”
In other words, in
trying to avoid decoupling self-determination (“the territorial outlines of their
state”) and a final peace agreement, Obama essentially called for separating
them. Or more simply, the president has moved away from “land for peace” to
“land now, peace maybe later.”
Obama did mention the need to “end the
conflict and all claims” in his AIPAC speech Sunday, during which he tried to
clarify and correct misunderstandings of his remarks last week. However, he
remained silent on the refugee issue at AIPAC, suggesting that the now-and-later
approach presented Thursday requires no clarification.
AS WAS clear from
the Nakba Day demonstrations on Israel’s borders, the refugee issue threatens to
extend the conflict into perpetuity. It is difficult to believe that Palestinian
Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would interpret Obama’s words as anything but
a validation of the bifurcated approach the former has championed – pushing
relentlessly for Palestinian independence, while attacking Israel in
international forums with the same vigor – since his election in
One other critical factor weakened Obama’s message: the United
States currently lacks the political influence in the region and in the UN
General Assembly to enforce his vision. It cannot stop the PA’s efforts to
delegitimize Israel, cannot prevent Israel’s isolation at the United Nations,
and cannot veto a General Assembly resolution. The international community’s
desire to push forward the issue of Palestinian self-determination is stronger
than America’s ability to keep it linked to a peace
Politicians and generals can argue about the defensibility of
Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries (though Obama arguably neutralized this issue at
AIPAC), but the real problem with Obama’s recent remarks is much more
fundamental. However well-intended his approach to the conflict may be, its
inherent contradictions have reinforced the foundations of the current impasse
and increased the likelihood of a diplomatic crisis in the fall.
writer is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at
Tel Aviv University.