Obama and the Future of Palestinian-Israeli Negotiations

Published in Palestine-Israel
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By AlJazeera Centre for Studies

President Barack Obama's administration placed the stumbling Middle East "Peace Process" at the top of its list of priorities, with the intention of achieving a "two-state solution" for Palestine and Israel. To this end, Obama appointed veteran Congressman George Mitchell as his special envoy. Mitchell, and even Obama himself, have made strenuous efforts to achieve a breakthrough, albeit with the launch of new negotiations.



The result was a project that can be summarised in the following points:

  1. A complete freeze on the expansion of Jewish settlements;

  2. The launch of bilateral negotiations under U.S. auspices; and

  3. Steps towards the normalisation of relationships between Arab countries - especially Saudi Arabia - and Israel.

However, before the end of 2009, Mitchell's draft plan fell flat, and the U.S. administration abandoned it by announcing its acceptance of a proposal by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu's proposal may be summed up in two key points:

  1. 1.A partial freeze on Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank - with the exception of projects which have already commenced, and with the complete exclusion of settlement construction in Jerusalem; and

  2. 2.The launch of negotiations without any preconditions, meaning that no party is obliged to comply with the outcomes of previous negotiations.

This reversal in the U.S. position has damaged Palestinian confidence in Obama's ability, and brought into question his commitment to the positions he had previously announced. This back-pedalling by the U.S. has been particularly disappointing for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who had high expectations of Obama and - on the basis of those expectations - had been raising the ceiling of his demands, particularly by demanding a complete freeze of settlement activity in order to launch negotiations. His approach was premised on Mitchell's draft plan and Obama's promises. The disappointment led him to announce the withdrawal of his candidacy from the upcoming Palestinian presidential elections.

It must be noted that, after the Annapolis conference in November 2007, and until the end of the presidency of George W. Bush, Abbas had negotiated without any preconditions at all. This had led him to believe that the Israeli prime minister would comply with Obama's demands, not snub the American president as Netanyahu did.
The American about-turn was a result of the inability of Obama and his supporters to put pressure on Netanyahu. It was also the price for Obama's deal with the Zionist lobby in the U.S., which allowed him to pass his health insurance policy through Congress, a policy which had been sputtering throughout 2009 and had not been passed even after significant editing.

The negotiations process thus entered a phase of stagnation. After having been passionate about Obama's plan and adopting its conditions as their own, Abbas and the Egyptian government can no longer return to the negotiating table on Netanyahu's terms. It is necessary for Mitchell to start new endeavours to kick-start the peace process, with new ideas that may provide an opportunity for all parties to re-examine their options and re-redefine their positions without being embarrassed for having abandoned their previous demands or conditions.

Mitchell's latest tours to the region have been based on Netanyahu's terms. He carried with him, it seems, several proposals which he did not make public. For example, one of the proposals leaked to the media suggested that negotiations would start at a low level of representation, with representation gradually rising in stature to the average and then to the higher level. It was also leaked that Abbas put forward a proposal suggesting that Washington deals with each side separately instead of their meeting face-to-face.

Abbas' proposal has no future, because Obama and his administration are in a desperate haste to achieve something - even if superficial - after the series of failures in the past year. With that backdrop, even a superficial "launching of negotiations" in order to overcome the current stage of stagnation will be a face-saving achievement.

The proposal to stagger negotiations - starting with talks between low-level officials and slowly escalating the process - is very embarrassing to both Abbas and the Egyptian government. It will give Netanyahu the opportunity to prolong the negotiation period on the basis of trivial issues, during which time he will continue the expansion of settlements and the Israeli land-grab, particularly in Jerusalem.

Mitchell was unable, during his recent visit, to get agreement for the launching of negotiations. Nevertheless, the set of proposals he carried included ones regarding a reduction of Israeli roadblocks, the partial release of Palestinian detainees, handing over Zone A (in the West Bank) to the Ramallah authority, and a few other notes of assurance. As a result of his failure, some Israeli media reported (on the basis of leaks from officials) that this would be either Mitchell's final visit to the region or one visit before the final.

On the other hand, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had initially been excluded from matters regarding the Middle East peace settlement, has taken advantage of Mitchell's failures to intervene through a Quartet initiative calling for a deal based on the adoption of Netanyahu's plan. She supported the idea of a new set of negotiations which will be conditioned on the recognition of Israel as a "Jewish State", for Jews only. But this initiative failed because of the Russia's reservation, and, subsequently, Netanyahu called on Clinton to declare this as the U.S. position.
It is important to note the following:

  1. Although the negotiations process has stagnated, there is much scurrying around by those parties who are keen not to allow the process permanently to stall. Their fear is that a long delay might undermine the position of those countries and groups who are committed to the negotiations strategy, and will strengthen the hand of the resistance tendencies, especially within Palestinian ranks and the broader Arab community.

  2. For the U.S., Israel and Europe, the best option is to continue manipulating the idea of negotiations, albeit without any result, making it seem that there is some negotiations process to speak of, because a stalled or blocked process necessarily will result in the ascendancy of alternative strategies methodologies. Historically, this stop-start negotiations formula has dominated the Palestinian question. Their objective is to maintain "hope in the solution", even if commitment to such a process does not make any sense, and the process seems to be without end.

  3. Based on the above two points, it is inevitable that the parties concerned urgently will seek a way out of the current impasse, even if the outputs are weak and irrelevant, and will increase the crisis for those who are committed to a process of negotiations and deal-making. Thus, the door will likely remain open to further initiatives and tours of shuttle diplomacy. This idea is what determines the political direction for Abbas, Netanyahu, Egypt, America and Europe. The commitment of these parties to this form of negotiations must not be confused, however, with what the region is witnessing in terms of the political movement, in a different direction, of Syria and Saudi Arabia, as evidenced by the absence of Egyptian President Husni Mubarak from the Syrian-Saudi Arabian summit recently held in Riyadh, or the movement on the Turkish-Syrian front.

  4. While the Obama administration is determined to pursue its policies in Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, it has also raised the priority level of the question of Iran. It is determined to implement "crippling sanctions" against Iran, while keeping the military option on the table. This approach towards Iran is vigorously being pursued by the American Zionist lobby in harmony with Netanyahu's demand that the world focuses on the liquidation of the Iranian nuclear program rather than on the peace process.

  5. In his first "State of the Union" address, Obama shied away from focussing on foreign policy and on volatile issues, including the Middle East crisis. This avoidance is not simply as a result of his failure on this front, but also indicates that previous policies are under review, and that there is a search for alternative strategies and means to address or confront these volatile issues.

* This article is published in terms of a partnership agreement between the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) and the Doha-based Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies. The article was originally published in Arabic by the Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies, and has been translated and republished in English by AMEC.

Last modified on Monday, 16 February 2015 12:00

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