The Middle East is in turmoil, its political map being rewritten by revolts against the status quo. But in the heart of this region, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, actors, on all sides, appear to be stuck playing out the same stale scenes.
In recent weeks, the U.S. president, the U.N. Secretary General, and a host of other heads of state have weighed in on the importance of resolving this conflict. But other than to lamely insist that "the parties must return to the negotiating table", no one seems to have an original idea as to how to do it. This insistence on resuming negotiations, of course, ignores political reality.
There have been on again, off again negotiations for 20 years, all to no avail. With the Palestinians holding no cards and having no leverage, they come to the table more as supplicants, than negotiators. And the Israelis who, for their part, hold all the cards, and declare, in advance, which cards are "off the table"; they do more dictating than negotiating.
The Israelis insist, for example, that they want good faith negotiations, without preconditions. At the same time, they refuse to stop construction in West Bank settlement blocs, which they claim "everyone knows will revert to us in a final peace agreement" and in what they call "Greater Jerusalem" (an illegally annexed land mass that includes a number of Palestinian villages in the heart of the West Bank), claiming that "Jerusalem is our eternal capital" and cannot be negotiated. With the rights of Palestinian refugees and the maintenance of a security zone in the Jordan Valley also termed non-negotiable items, one can only wonder, what do the Israelis mean by "no preconditions"?
And so here we are two and one half years into the Obama administration's efforts to resolve this matter, and the only creative ideas have come from the Palestinians, the weakest and most vulnerable party to the conflict. On the one hand, Prime Minister Salam Fayyed has successfully reformed Palestinian governance on many levels winning endorsement from international institutions, all of whom now concur that the Palestinians are now prepared for statehood. Fayyed has endorsed other measures aimed at promoting self-reliance and passive resistance to the Israeli occupation. The prime minister knows he can't create a state while Palestine is divided, under military rule, and cut off from the outside world. But he is taking the steps to make sure that when Palestinians achieve independence, they are ready for good self-governance.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority has embarked on a campaign to win international support for their claim to statehood, pledging to go to the United Nations in the fall to seek a resolution recognizing a State of Palestine. While some analysts in the West dismiss this effort as a hollow gesture, insisting that no state can be achieved without negotiations, the Israelis have become mildly hysterical (they have termed this United Nation's vote "a diplomatic tsunami") with some threatening the equivalent of a political temper tantrum should the Palestinians persist in their efforts.
This overreaction is as hypocritical as it is downright silly. How, one might ask, can the Israelis and their supporters in the U.S. denounce this Palestinian diplomatic push for recognition as an "unhelpful unilateral act", while ignoring Israel's settlement and annexation program in Jerusalem and the West Bank? And where are the whoops and yells of displeasure when the U.S. Congress initiates its own "unilateral acts" (which in this case are truly "unilateral" since they involve one country and not the entire international community) pressuring the president to recognize Israeli "sovereignty over all of Jerusalem", or proposing to cut off U.N. funding should that body pass a statehood resolution or fail to denounce and rescind the Goldstone report?
And while those who insist that no U.N. resolution can, by itself, create a state (since the U.S. can still veto a formal acceptance in the Security Council), are right, why deny the Palestinians their right to a vote on recognition? And why is all this creating such hysteria both in Israel and among its supporters in the U.S? Is it that they just don't want to see a vote, or is it that they can't bear to lose a vote or fear just losing control of the discussion?
In any case, with the September U.N. session fast approaching, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preparing another grand appearance in Washington, in an effort to win the one and only vote he feels he needs to block international pressure. Concerned that President Obama may soon present his own plan laying out a U.S. framework for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, Netanyahu has wrangled an invitation to address the U.S. Congress. It is expected that he will attempt to preempt the president by unveiling his own proposal, which from all indications will amount to no more than an agreement to take the minimum steps he should have taken and refused to take 15 years ago when he rejected the Oslo process. While this will surely be seen by Palestinians and most of the world as "too little, too late", it will no doubt win the prime minister thunderous applause in Congress, emboldening the Israelis to stand fast and do no more.
This is the third time that Republicans in Congress worked with Netanyahu in an effort to undercut and sabotage peace-making efforts. The first of these came in 1996 when then Speaker Newt Gingrich hosted the Israeli to deliver remarks before Congress where he declared his intention to end the Oslo peace process. In 2002, once again a group of GOP Senators invited Netanyahu to speak to their colleagues. At that time, they were seeking to frustrate then Secretary of State Colin Powell's peace mission to the Middle East -- a role Netanyahu was only too happy to play.
The question remains, assuming that Netanyahu will emerge victorious in Congress, what will and can the U.S. president do in response? He can preempt the Israelis by delivering his own speech before Netanyahu arrives in Washington, laying down firm markers on outcomes and steps to be taken to achieve peace. But this will only be effective if the outline includes the sanctions that will be incurred should the parties fail to take the required steps. Here the president has limited leverage, since Congress will most likely not support any cuts in aid or other punitive acts against Israel (preferring to limit their use of such measures to the Palestinians). But should the speech fail to include real sanctions for non-performance, it will only be another speech and it will not be taken seriously by the Israelis or other parties for that matter.
Recognizing this weakness in the U.S. position, the president could decide to get out of the way and let the U.N. have its say by letting the General Assembly vote and declare Palestine a state, and then allowing the measure to pass in the Security Council. At that point Israel can be found to be in violation of international law since it is occupying, annexing and illegally settling on the territory of a member state. And the Palestinians will be free to take their case to other, more impartial, international bodies.
If the U.S. can't do more than it has done to date, then doing nothing, and letting Israel face the music in the fall, might be the smartest thing it can do.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.