Land now, peace...TBD

For decades, the Israeli and US approaches to resolving the conflict have rested on the assumption that Palestinian self-determination and an agreement are two sides of the same coin.

PM Netanyahu with US President Obama at White House 311 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO)
PM Netanyahu with US President Obama at White House 311
(photo credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO)
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.
The 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.
Recognizing the 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 2005.
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 agreement.
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.

The writer is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.