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Waiting for Obama

January 28, 2014 at 6:40 am

US President Barack Obama will pay a visit to the Middle East next month. This will be his first trip to Israel in particular since his election in 2008 and it comes just after his re-election for a second term in office.

Palestinian and Arab expectations of Obama started on a high; the first African-American president has a Muslim heritage, and he expressed clear interest in the peace process. Sadly, Obama’s administration relegated the Palestinian issue to the bottom of its list of priorities, preferring to deal with it on the basis of conflict management rather than making efforts to find a solution.

America opposed the Palestinian Authority’s move to join the UN and its institutions and has used the financial weapon of blocking aid as a punishment for the PA’s successes. It has also used its Security Council veto to deflect criticism of Israeli settlement expansion and is using every tool at its disposal to block Palestinian reconciliation. Hamas must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to be part of a Palestinian government if the PA wants US support, even if Mahmoud Abbas remains as President.

It is important to point out that the Obama administration could go further in such efforts, including the closure of the PLO’s office in Washington and putting a stop to all political dealings with the umbrella body and the PA. On the contrary, though, it has tried to convince the US Congress to release American aid to the PA and helped to persuade Israel to transfer tax and customs revenues to the Authority, which have been frozen several times. The basis for such action is the recommendation of Israeli security service chiefs who fear that the continuation of disabling sanctions against the PA will lead to its collapse.

The US administration wants to stop Palestinian moves to internationalise the conflict; to restrict the benefits of acquiring non-member observer state status at the UN and use it instead to resume negotiations with Israel. Thus, the Obama team wants to manage the conflict because it does not have, and is not expected to have any time soon, the courage and vision necessary to end it. America does not have the political will to impose a balanced and just solution so the basis for serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is missing. The most that can be achieved by the Obama administration are some steps to provide a facade for the “peace process”, which actually died a long time ago, in order to block the progress of any other solutions which are not deemed to be in Israel’s best interests. As such, Washington is keen to lower expectations about Obama’s visit, stressing that he does not have any new proposals.

Nevertheless, the signs are that he hopes to repair his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; secure Israel’s agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue and political change in the region; and look into the possibility of resuming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations because the ongoing stalemate will lead to further unrest in the region and will harm American and Israeli interests severely.

Israel is being encouraged to offer some confidence-building steps, such as the release of some Palestinian detainees in its jails, a visible improvement in living conditions in the occupied West Bank, the transfer of tax revenues to the PA, the easing of the blockade on the Gaza Strip and discussions about a settlement freeze. In return, the PA will be asked to enter negotiations without preconditions which include a call for a complete end to settlement building and expansion, a clear and binding reference for the peace process based on the June 1967 borders and the PA’s new UN status, and the release of detainees serving long sentences, as well as those detained prior to the Oslo Accords.

America, Israel and some European countries are also demanding that the PLO/PA must agree not to join international agencies and sign international agreements, especially the international criminal court; they fear that Israelis could face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. If Hamas agrees and works towards “moderation”, its participation in the Palestinian political system could be accepted and Washington may lift its veto of the reconciliation process. However, even though the proposed Israeli confidence-building steps do not touch on the essence of Palestinian demands, it is extremely doubtful that the new Israeli government can or will meet them, especially with regards to settlements and Palestinian prisoners.

The Israeli election did not change the country’s position towards the Palestinians, the peace process and final status issues. In fact, the Palestinian issue was noticeable by its absence from the election campaigns of the winning parties. New golden boy Yair Lapid and his party are only now talking about negotiations to prevent Israel’s further isolation in the international community. With regards to his stand on Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, security and the sovereignty of the Palestinian state, essentially he is close to Netanyahu. He recently criticised an offer made by ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to President Mahmoud Abbas of the PA because it included the sharing of Jerusalem as a capital and hints at a more favourable position on Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

The Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, still counts on the revival of the peace process and America’s role, despite Obama’s visit casting some dark shadows over Palestinian reconciliation. Although senior negotiator Saeb Erekat has denied this, the visit has seen the reconciliation process put on hold until the results of Obama’s trip to the region have become clear. The PA does not want to be in a situation where the presence of Hamas may have a negative impact on Obama.

It is worth asking why everyone is acting as if nothing has changed, despite Palestine’s enhanced status at the UN. Why isn’t the PA acting, even gradually, like a nation state by holding elections for a parliament instead of a legislative council? What has happened to the committees formed to push through reconciliation? There is no other explanation other than that everything has been frozen so as not to affect Obama’s visit, and yet wouldn’t it have been better for the Palestinians to receive the US president with a united front and programme for joining the international community to give the nascent Palestinian state some real authority and strength for negotiations?

Resuming negotiations for the sake of negotiations is a big mistake, compounded by America’s one-sided sponsorship, and the false role of the Middle East Quartet. Without an adjustment to the balance of power, negotiations will continue to benefit Israel at the expense of the Palestinians by default. Without international guarantees for genuine and binding negotiations based on international laws and resolutions, under the auspices of the United Nations, Palestinian rights will still be denied. Indeed, the Quartet should be disbanded as it is ineffectual and merely circumvents those rights. Failure to do any of this renders the political, diplomatic, legal and moral achievement of Palestine’s new UN status practically useless.

Preserving this achievement and developing it requires a serious effort to obtain US and Israeli recognition of the Palestinian state before any other condition in order to launch negotiations on a more level playing field. More than 22 years have passed since the Madrid conference, and Oslo is now 20 years old, both having been a catastrophe for the Palestinians. Israel’s occupation is more deeply entrenched than ever before, its illegal settlements are growing daily, and the land available for a Palestinian state is shrinking. If this is not addressed, negotiations of any kind will be a waste of time, achieving nothing except allowing Israel to strengthen further its “facts on the ground”.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.