The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations never had a chance -- and unless the United States asks itself some tough questions, its days as peace broker are numbered.
The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, once again, are on the verge of collapse. This places the Middle East peace process back on familiar ground: The blame game is already being played energetically by officials in Washington and Jerusalem. The question to be asking, however, is not why the process appears to have failed -- but why anyone thought it could succeed.
Indeed, the process was effectively pre-programmed to fail. More than eight months of U.S.-led negotiations came to an abrupt end last week after Israel decided to cancel a pre-scheduled Palestinian prisoner release and the Palestinian leadership decided to join various international treaties. As a result, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been forced to shift his focus from brokering a "framework" that would have allowed negotiations to move forward, to merely keeping the process from spiraling out of control.
As some analysts pointed out at the start of negotiations last July, however, the problem has never been getting the parties into the negotiating room -- but getting them out with a substantive agreement. This latest round of talks drove that point home, as eight months of negotiations have produced very little by way of substantive progress. Several reported leaks suggest that the two sides made little if any headway on the core issues of the conflict like final borders, Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
While there is currently speculation about a potential deal -- possibly involving the release of convicted U.S. spy Jonathan Pollard, among other incentives -- to bring the parties back to the talks, more time sitting at the negotiating table is unlikely to produce a different outcome. While Kerry's desire to "keep the process moving" is understandable, there is no reason to believe that another six or 12 months of negotiations would have allowed the process to succeed where the last nine months -- or for that matter, the last 20 years -- had failed. If there is one thing the Middle East peace process has not lacked over all these many years, it is time.
The problem is even more basic and straightforward than any of the proximate causes for the breakdown of the talks. The latest negotiations failed because what was being discussed inside the negotiating room was utterly disconnected from the realities that exist on the ground, both physically and politically.
Nowhere is this more evident than with Israel's vast and ever-expanding settlement enterprise. While U.S. officials may believe they are doing much to restrain Israeli settlements, the reality is that the settlement project is thriving like never before. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has advanced plans for another 10,500 settler homes in the last eight months alone -- on top of the well over half a million Israeli settlers already living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Indeed, the rate of Israeli settlement construction in 2013 was more than double that of 2012. Despite occasional expressions of displeasure, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration continues to treat Israeli settlement expansion as though it were a meteorological phenomenon rather than a conscious Israeli policy decision that is demolishing chances for a two-state solution -- both by pre-determining facts on the ground and destroying Palestinian confidence in the process.
The tremendous success of the Israeli settlement project, along with the absence of any cost to maintaining the status quo, has left Israel with little to no incentive to take the kinds of steps that are needed for a genuine two-state solution, such as dividing Jerusalem or evacuating tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank. It has also led to a sense of triumphalism within the current Israeli government, some of whose members openly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state or feel emboldened enough to actively sabotage the negotiations.
The Obama administration is no less blind to the realities of the Palestinian side. The Palestinian leadership suffers from exactly the reverse problem as Israel: It has the will to conclude a deal but lacks the capacity to deliver on one. The Palestinian Authority is virtually bankrupt, has no functioning parliament, and continues to suffer from a debilitating split between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The notion that such a divided and dysfunctional leadership, which lacks electoral and consensual legitimacy, would have a mandate to negotiate the sort of compromises that a peace deal with Israel would require is fanciful at best. Meanwhile, the Obama administration remains opposed to internal Palestinian reconciliation or to a lifting of the Gaza siege -- as though Hamas and Gaza were somehow separate from the peace process.
The source of Israeli impunity and Palestinian weakness, of course, is the substantial and growing power imbalance between the two sides. But any serious attempt to level the playing field -- by putting pressure on Israel to impose a genuine settlement freeze, for example, or allowing the Palestinians to enhance their leverage either through internationalization or national reconciliation with Hamas -- would necessarily entail a political cost for the United States. That's something both Obama and Kerry, like most of their predecessors, have assiduously sought to avoid. Until this paradox can be resolved, the United States will continue to be both the only party that can broker Middle East peace -- and the only party that refuses to make the tough decisions to get the job done.
As long as the United States refuses to deal with realities like Israel's settlement enterprise and the vast power imbalance between the two sides, any negotiation process is destined to fail. In this case, it may become necessary to begin considering alternatives to American stewardship of the peace process or a two-state solution, or both.
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