Al-Jazeera Center for Research
The Obama administration has made the re-launch of the stalled ‘peace process’ between the Palestinians and the Israelis a top priority in the region with the aim of attaining the two-state solution. For this purpose Obama appointed former senator George Mitchell to be his special envoy for peace in the Middle East.
Mitchell made, as Obama himself did, strenuous efforts to try to achieve a significant breakthrough in this direction, albeit through the mere resumption of talks. They announced a project that is summed up as follows:
1. A total halt to settlement growth
2. The launching of US-sponsored bilateral negotiations
3. Initiating steps by Arab countries to normalise relations with Israel, especially by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Before the end of 2009 however, the Mitchell project had already failed and the US administration had abandoned it by accepting the project of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which can be summarised in two major points:
1. Partial settlement freeze in the West Bank whereby the units under construction would be excluded from any freeze and Jerusalem would be excluded altogether.
2. Launching peace talks without any conditions, which involve no commitment whatsoever to the outcome of past negotiations.
The overall US retreat on the settlement issue made the Palestinians doubtful about Obama’s ability – and maybe the credibility of his previously announced commitments, which was disappointing for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas who had raised the ceiling of his demands by requiring the total halt to settlement construction as a precondition for returning to the negotiating table, having pinned enormous hopes on the Mitchell project and Obama’s promises. His frustration led to him to announce that he would not run for the next presidential elections.
It is worth noting here that Abbas had engaged in negotiations with the Israelis since the Annapolis Conference and until the end of George W. Bush’s term without demanding the settlement freeze as a pre-condition, which suggests that Abbas was expecting that Netanyahu would succumb to Obama’s demands rather than the latter’s retreat from his promises, having been unable to stand up to Netanyahu’s intransigence.
The US retreat came as a result of the failure of Obama and his supporters to exert any pressures on Netanyahu. It was also part of a deal Obama had made with the Zionist lobby, which allowed the passing of his ‘health insurance plan’ that had been stumbling in the corridors of the congress and failed to be passed [even after being refined] throughout the year 2009.
The peace process therefore entered into a stagnation phase and it became no longer possible for President Abbas or the Egyptian government – that had largely adhered to Obama’s peace plan – to resume negotiations under such circumstances and in view of the conditions set by Netanyahu who arrogantly rebuffed the US calls for a total settlement freeze. It became necessary for Mitchell to embark on new endeavours to move the stalled peace process by including new ideas that would give all parties the chance to re-examine their options and re-locate themselves without being embarrassed by abandoning their demands or their pre-conditions.
Mitchell’s recent tours in the region were based on Netanyahu’s conditions. He seems to have carried with him a set of proposals in this respect, none of which was announced however. According to the leaked information, negotiations would start on a lower level of representation then would move up gradually. Also, Abbas proposed that Washington would act on behalf of the two negotiating parties rather than engaging them in direct and face-to-face talks.
The last proposal has no chance of survival because Obama and his administration desperately need to make some sort of achievement, albeit formal, following the series of failures they suffered throughout the last year, which could be achieved by simply ‘launching negotiations’ and overcoming the current phase of stagnation.
The proposal to gradually move up the level of negotiation is very embarrassing for both Abbas and the Egyptian government as it would mean giving Netanyahu the chance to prolong negotiations over detailed sub-issues to cover his settlements, Judaization and expansionist policies especially in Jerusalem [as was always the case].
During his latest visit Mitchell was unable to reach an agreement on launching the negotiations. He carried with him, however, a list of proposals including reducing the barriers, releasing a number of detainees and returning Zone a to the Ramallah authority, and letters of assurance. Media leaks revealed that Mitchell’s visit might be one of the last.
US secretary of State Hillary Clinton who was at first pushed away from the settlement dossier, then took advantage of Mitchell’s abandonment of his first project to intervene through an initiative she presented to the Mideast Quartet, in which she called for an adoption of Netanyahu’s settlement plan and his conditions for launching the negotiations. She supported the idea of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ [a state for Jews only]. This initiative nonetheless failed due to Russia’s reservation. As a result, Clinton demanded the declaration of the initiative, which reflects the US stance towards the Jewish nature of the state.
The following comments ought to be made in this respect:
First: the process of launching negotiations is still stagnant but with a kind of push and pull nature, through a multi-faceted political movement carried out by parties that do not want the negotiation process to reach a dead end for fear that it might destabilise the countries committed to the peace strategy. The recognition of a deadlock would consolidate the resistance and objection trends especially on the Palestinian and Arab levels.
Second: continuing to push forward the issue of negotiations and the ‘peace process’, albeit illusive, is the best option for the US, Israel and Europe as stagnation would necessarily lead to the predominance of the other options in the arena. Indeed, this equation has ruled the Palestine question historically: ‘keep hoping for a solution’, albeit untrue and meaningless.
Third: based on above-mentioned points, it is inevitable for these parties to search for an urgent way out of the current state of stagnation no matter how poor the output for those committed to the line of negotiations and settlement and even if this would deepen their crisis, which is likely to keep the door open for more initiatives and shuttling in this direction. This is what determines the political movement of Abbas, Netanyahu, Egypt, the US and Europe. However, it should not be mixed up with the political movement between Syria and Saudi Arabia in a different direction – the Egyptian president did not join the latest Syrian-Saudi summit in Riyadh – or the Turkish-Syrian political movement.
Fourth: while insisting on its efforts to follow-up the issues of Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, the Obama administration went on raising to the level of priority the imposition of severe sanctions on Iran whilst keeping a military option on the table, an option that the American Zionist lobby keep pushing forward, in line with Netanyahu’s government policy of laying the emphasis on stopping the Iranian nuclear program rather than moving the peace process forward.
Fifth: in his first ‘State of the Union Speech’, Obama avoided elaborating on the US foreign policy and the hot issues related to it including the Middle East crisis. That did not emanate from a mere failure but is rather a reflection of a state of ‘reconsideration’ of the previous policy and looking for new strategies and means to address those issues.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.