Many Palestinian, Israeli and international proponents of a just peace took heart in Obama’s early gestures. Beginning with the appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell as special envoy and continuing through the president’s June 4 speech in Cairo, these proponents allowed themselves, after years of disappointment and struggle, a cautious hopefulness. Some of the speech’s formulations, like the nods to the “pain of dislocation” felt by Palestinians and the “daily humiliations” of occupation, had been heard before. But one sentence had not been: Obama said that a two-state solution “is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest and the world’s interest.” Obama seemed to “get it,” that is, he seemed to understand that the US is isolated politically by its unquestioning backing of Israel, which is seen as obstructing a solution to the conflict. And, for the first time, a US president actually said that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the vital national interest, not just a nice thing to do. These words significantly raise the bar. Framing the conflict in this way makes it easier for the administration to win Congressional support for tougher demands upon Israel while undermining the ability of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to mount an effective resistance, given American Jewish sensibilities about suspicions of dual loyalty.
Since the Cairo speech, however, fundamental doubts about US efforts have resurfaced. The only demand made by Obama upon Israel has been for a settlement “freeze,” a welcome symbolic gesture, to be sure, yet irrelevant to any peace process. Israel has enough settlement-cities in strategic “blocs” that it could in fact freeze all construction without compromising its control over the West Bank and “greater” Jerusalem, the Arab areas to the north, south and east of the city where Israel has planted its flag. Focusing on this one issue — which, months later, is still being haggled over — has provided Israel with a smokescreen behind which it can actively and freely pursue more significant and urgent construction that, when completed, will truly render the occupation irreversible. It is rushing to complete the separation barrier, which is already being presented as the new border, replacing the “Green Line,” the pre-June 1967 boundary to which Israel is supposed to withdraw, by the terms of UN Security Council resolutions, but on which even the most ardent two-staters have long since given up. Israel is demolishing homes, expelling Palestinian residents and permitting Jewish settlement throughout East Jerusalem, measurably advancing the “judaization” of the city. It is confiscating vast tracts of land in the West Bank and “greater” Jerusalem and pouring bypass road asphalt at a feverish pace so as to permanently redraw the map. It is laying track on Palestinian land for a light-rail line connecting the West Bank settlement-city of Pisgat Ze’ev to Israel. It is drying up the main agricultural areas of the West Bank, forcing thousands of people off their lands, while instituting visa restrictions that either keep visiting Palestinians and internationals out of the country altogether, or limit their movement to the truncated Palestinian enclaves of the West Bank.
“Quiet,” behind-the-scenes diplomacy is surely taking place, but the few details that have emerged are far from reassuring. The State Department has mocked as “fiction” a ten-point document given to the Arab press by Fatah figure Hasan Khreisheh that promises an “international presence” in parts of the West Bank and US backing for a Palestinian state by 2011. The component of this alleged plan that seems more likely is that the US wants a partial freeze on settlement activity from Israel in exchange for a pledge from Washington to push for more stringent sanctions upon Iran for its nuclear research. On August 25, the Guardian quoted “an official close to the negotiations” saying: “The message is: Iran is an existential threat to Israel; settlements are not.” By all indications, if the Obama administration does present a regional peace plan, which it is expected by many to do around the time of the UN General Assembly meeting on September 20, it will be nothing more than a “rough draft.” It is no exaggeration to say a two-state solution will rise or fall on the outlines of this draft — and may perhaps fall forever if no concrete plan is presented at all, which is also possible. Although the two-state solution has been eulogized many times in the past, Obama represents a best-case scenario. If he presents, in the end, a disappointing peace plan that offers no genuine breakthrough, then the shift to a one-state solution on the part of the Palestinian people and their international supporters will be inescapable. [continued…]