US cautiously watches Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives

Sunday 07/08/2016

While the various Middle East crises have seemingly sidelined the Palestinians, the recent proliferation of Israeli-Palestinian peace initia­tives reveals the conflict’s continued regional and global salience, as well as its domestic political relevance for a number of countries involved. As yet, however, these efforts have produced no significant break­throughs.

Since the Madrid conference of 1991, which led to the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, the United States has played the role of moderator, broker and man­ager of the peace process. US President Barack Obama entered office pledging to make Palestin­ian-Israeli peace a priority of his administration and on his first day in office named former senator George Mitchell his Middle East Peace envoy.

Mitchell’s efforts ran into trouble almost immediately, as newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refused to meet the US demand for a settlement freeze (a pre-existing commitment under the 2002 road map, in addition to an obligation under international law) and Obama did not press him on it. Mitchell left the job in May 2011.

The Obama administration’s subsequent efforts met a similar fate. Following the collapse of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative in April 2014, Obama announced he was “reassessing” the US approach to the peace process. Shortly afterward, he acknowledged that the goal of a two-state solution would not be reached before the end of his presidency.

With the United States putting the peace process on the back burner, other actors have tried to fill the diplomatic void. In January 2016, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that France would host an international conference on the conflict. Many said this effort, driven by France’s desire to be more globally assertive and by sensitivities to its growing domestic Muslim population, would wither with Fabius’s resignation in February but his successor, Jean-Marc Ayrault, followed through with the conference in June.

The Palestinians welcomed the French initiative, seeing it as an opportunity to escape the confines of a US-dominated process that they feel, quite understandably, has not lived up to its promises and has become an impediment to achieving their national goals.

The Israeli government opposed the French initiative for the same reasons: Netanyahu is quite comfortable with a bilateral process in which Israel has a negotiating partner (the Palestin­ians) over whom it enjoys a massive power disparity and a broker (the United States) with whom it has considerable influence. It is understandable that Netanyahu would resist, as would any leader, moving into a process in which he would have to lobby multiple governments instead of just one.

In May, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced his support for Israeli-Palestinian talks, promising greater regional support and acceptance for Israel if the Palestinian issue were resolved. “I say we will achieve a warmer peace if we resolve the issue of our Palestinian broth­ers… and give hope to the Palestinians of the establishment of a state,” Sisi said.

Both the Palestinian and Israeli governments welcomed Sisi’s remarks for their own reasons. The Palestinians appreciate anything that maintains their national aspirations as an issue on the regional agenda; Netan­yahu saw in the Egyptian move an opportunity to sidestep the French initiative (and the Palestinian issue) by playing up the prospect of a regional agreement, consistent with his goal of forging an alliance between Israel and Arab Sunni governments based on mutual hostility towards Iran.

Sisi, however, made clear that he viewed Egyptian mediation as a complement to, not a substitute for, the French initiative. Simi­larly, in a widely publicised visit to Israel, a Saudi delegation reiterated that ending the conflict with the Palestinians was a critical condition for improving Israel’s ties with Arab states.

The United States has watched these developments cautiously. Kerry attended the French conference in June, though it produced little more than a statement reiterating commit­ment to the two-state solution and reaffirming the international consensus around the contours of a final agreement based on previous UN resolutions.

The United States has consist­ently tried to persuade Middle East regional actors to play a more forward-leaning role in creating incentives for peace, par­ticularly with Israel, though the offers of regional recognition and integration have done little to slow the continued growth of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.

As Obama nears the end of his presidency, he is widely assumed to be considering a last move on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which he has invested so much time with so little success. Among those options could be supporting a UN Security Council resolution on settlements, a resolution laying out Obama’s parameters for a final agreement or perhaps even US recognition of the state of Palestine.

The question, however, is whether any of these options can positively affect the situation on the ground and arrest the steady deterioration of the status quo.

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