The White House recently acknowledged that it was out of ideas on how to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, raising — for the first time — the prospect that Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank is permanent.
This admission highlights the regrettable conclusion of the Obama presidency’s Israel-Palestinian policy, which opened in 2009 with high expectations raised by the ill-conceived and ill-fated decision to put the demand for a settlement freeze at the top of his diplomatic agenda.
Obama quickly assembled a “dream team” to implement the settlement freeze, led by former Sen. George Mitchell, who brokered the historic Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, and who, as the head of the Mitchell Commission, in April 2001 called on Israel to “freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.”
In 2009 then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set the uncompromising terms of U.S. policy, declaring that Obama “wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions ... That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly.”
But Obama’s insistence on a settlement freeze failed spectacularly, convincing Israel’s combative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he could successfully oppose not only the demand to end settlement expansion but also Obama’s broader diplomatic program.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the recent meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, in which the U.S. surrender to Netanyahu’s West Bank agenda was finalized.
“A two-state solution was not going to happen while President Obama was still in office, and … even the possibility of talks about a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians was unlikely over the course of the next 14 or 15 months,” said a White House spokesman afterward.
Having failed to produce a two-state solution, the White House now warns that it is up to the parties themselves to stop the slide to a one-state solution.
“The onus is on the Israelis and Palestinians to say what they are willing to do … not only safeguard the possibility of the two-state solution in the future but to show there are ways to move there,” National Security Council official Rob Malley said.
It is clear that U.S. officials view the prospect of a one-state solution as a stick — so unpalatable that it should spur Israel to stop its settlement efforts and loosen its security and economic grip in order to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas.
But what Obama and his team see as a calamity — uncontested Israeli control between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — Israel sees as a victory. This fundamental mismatch is at the heart of Washington’s continuing failure not only to stop Israel’s almost 50-year campaign of de facto annexation but also to offer a compelling alternative.
U.S. officials have never understood that the challenge they face is not to prevent the one-state option but to undo it.
The die was cast in the first days after Israel’s decisive June 1967 military victory, which led to the occupation and settlement of the Palestinian territories. Ever since, Israeli policymakers — Labor and Likud alike — have operated on the assumption that Israel’s territorial goals had been achieved and confronted the question of how to manage this achievement.
The differences that exist within Israel’s political and security elite are, with few exceptions, differences of degree — the scale of settlement expansion, the extent of annexation or the degree of autonomy to be awarded Palestinians — rather than of principle. Israel’s actions in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank have all been an effort to remain permanently in control of these areas.
Since 1967 Israel has exhibited extraordinary flexibility in conducting its occupation policy. A series of dynamic tactical reforms — from the reconstruction of the laws governing the West Bank to the slow-motion destruction of Palestinian power in East Jerusalem and Hebron to the never-ending search for Palestinian partners prepared to govern on Israeli terms — has protected and enhanced Israel’s core interests.
On security, Israel has remained the absolute arbiter of security west of the Jordan River since defeating Jordan in 1967. Israel is prepared to entertain Palestinian security cooperation only as long as Palestinians remained committed to Israel’s settlement and security agenda.
On borders, the Knesset decision on June 27, 1967, to approve a law enabling the extension of Israeli law and administration “over the entire area of the land of Israel” provided the legal basis for the application of Israeli law over the area defined as East Jerusalem. The subsequent Allon Plan marked Israel’s eastern settlement and security frontier. And since 1996, Israel has created more than 100 settlements to claim space between existing settlement blocks in the West Bank. As a consequence, the writ of the Israel Defense Forces and civilian settlements remains largely unchallenged throughout the West Bank.
Settlement is the crown jewel of Israel’s occupation policy and the best barometer of its intentions. Over close to half a century and in the teeth of unremitting but ineffective international and Arab opposition, Israel has presided over a demographic revolution in the West Bank, transferring more than half a million Israelis to areas captured in the 1967 conflict.
From the beginning, to minimize its costs, Israel has sought Palestinian partners who are capable of exercising effective governance in those areas Israel chooses to rule indirectly. Since 1967, Israel has had varying degrees of success in maintaining such partnerships. For example, Israel’s first interlocutors were the mayors it inherited from Jordanian rule. The mayors were followed by the ineffective village leagues of the 1980s, which led to the first intifada. This crisis was resolved only when the Palestine Liberation Organization, the recognized representative of the Palestinian national movement, agreed in the Oslo Accord to limited autonomy on Israel’s terms.
Each of these models necessarily exhausted itself, succumbing to the crippling responsibility of serving incompatible Israeli and Palestinian interests. The Palestinian Authority is merely the latest of these experiments.
Israel’s policy of creating facts on the ground to further its control has always been a national enterprise. But it is also true that every diplomatic initiative — from the Roger’s Plan in 1969 to the latest effort of Secretary of State John Kerry — has failed to challenge the consolidation of occupation. Oslo was not the exception to this rule, but rather its best, most effective example.
The Gaza Strip stands out as the most significant arena where Israel’s interest in ruling forever was successfully confronted. Only in Gaza has Israel made the decision to withdraw and evacuate both settlers and troops and to restore a semblance of the pre-1967 territorial status quo by withdrawing to relatively secure and recognized borders. It is one of many ironies that this — Israel’s most significant territorial concession in Palestine — owed nothing to international diplomatic effort or to negotiations on the Oslo model.
As for the Obama administration, it has failed to achieve progress on any of these fronts. Such is the sorry legacy that it will bequeath to its successor.