Almost two years after Barack Obama entered the White House, the United States’ ambitions in the Middle East look like a diplomatic wasteland. After his speech in Cairo in June 2009, which gave rise to hope, the American president squandered his credit with the Israelis, Palestinians and other Arab countries. The leadership of the U.S. became indirectly eroded in the eyes of those who turned to it for protection or to provoke it.
Like a tired actor who has been asked to play his scene over and over again for the umpteenth time, George Mitchell, the U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East, will revive his shuttle diplomacy in the area. For his interlocutors, he is now the representation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s admission of failure that she made on Dec. 10. The American administration admitted that it made a mistake for two years by insisting on the precondition that settlements in occupied Palestinian territories had to come to an end.
By doing so, she led Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority — who could not be less demanding than she was — to ask the existential question: How can the goal of creating a Palestinian state be reached if one of the parties — Israel — keeps methodically following its own goal of undermining the foundations of that state by constantly expanding the Jewish settlements that were declared illegal by the international community? The point of no return for the viability of such territorial entity may have already been passed.
As the Palestinians have no alternative strategy — except for the uncertain one of extending the list of countries that has agreed to recognize their country since 1988 — they keep demanding the halt of the settlement activity.
As a result, they are going against the grain of the new priorities of the only supporter they thought they could turn to in order to defend their positions against the Jewish state: the United States. The U.S. loathes any unilateral decision that is submitted to the U.N. for approval, falling back on the old method of repeatedly bringing up the stakes of the conflict for negotiations.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian negotiator, disenchanted with the situation, said: “We’ve seen this movie so many times before.” Saying that the Palestinians were disappointed by Clinton’s remarks is an understatement. The Secretary of State engaged in an astonishing defense of “the Zionist vision of a Jewish and democratic state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people,” which left many Israeli diplomats stunned. One of them, glad to hear that “the United States cannot impose a solution,” admitted: “This speech is very positive for Israel.”
This postulate is evidently a matter of political will: Washington is not considering reducing the size of military and financial assistance that is allocated to the Jewish state every year. On the contrary, the White House tried to buy the Israeli leaders off with a gift made up of twenty F-35 aircrafts, security guarantees and the American veto against any anti-Israeli U.N. resolution in order to get a settlement freeze for three more months.
In view of this retreat by Washington, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, said with delight that “the U.S. understood that we were in a pointless discussion about the marginal issue of building in settlements.” Therefore, settlement construction resumed with renewed vigor. From the Israeli point of view, everything proves that the stringency strategy is paying off: Poll results showed that Mr. Netanyahu has a lead over Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition.
The Israeli Labor Party is battered and its president, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, is giving his support — like Israeli President Shimon Peres — to the government that is leaning further to the right. This situation comes along with the evolution of the Israeli society in which signs of intolerance, especially of religion, increase.
As the United States cannot be a watchdog, has the time for Europe — which aspires to become an influential player in the area — finally come? Twenty-six former senior officials suggested some audacious ideas, like delivering an ultimatum to Israel in order to apply the U.N. resolutions!
This enthusiasm — which shows that it is easier to get tougher with Israel once one has left power — was dampened on Dec. 13, when the European Union said it was disappointed with the continuation of settlement activity and when it assured that it would recognize the existence of a Palestinian state at the appropriate time.
This pusillanimity — which is taunted in Jerusalem — convinces the Palestinians that they should not hope for reaching peace agreements through negotiations with Israel anymore.
They hope to get around the obstacles by creating an international dynamic that would advocate for the recognition of a Palestinian state and by relying on its economic, legal and political foundations. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund believe that this goal has almost already been reached. An Israeli official admitted, “It is true that almost everything has already been done and that it is above all a question of strengthening what they have already built.” The Palestinians are gambling on some sort of cathartic effect on the diplomatic scene. It is a faint hope, but it’s the only one there is.