It seems the writing is on the wall for the Palestinians: should Governor Mitt Romney win November’s presidential election, they have no credible reason to expect any help from the U.S. in realizing their national aspirations. In a recent Florida session with donors, a tape of which was posted by Mother Jones, the Republican nominee made clear he believes that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the standing policy of the U.S. government — “is almost unthinkable to accomplish.” Acknowledging that failure could leave “a potentially volatile situation,” he drew a parallel with the conflict between China and Taiwan, suggesting that “we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”
Romney explained his conclusions by repeating long-standing Israeli talking points, blaming the Palestinians for the failure of the peace process and claiming they seek Israel’s destruction rather than peace. Echoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he also implied that Israel could not afford to hand the West Bank over to a sovereign independent Palestinian state because that would somehow deliver Iranian missiles to Israel’s doorstep. Instead, he argued, Israel would have to patrol the border between any Palestinian state and its Arab neighbors and also control its airspace — conditions that the Palestinians won’t accept.
Given that the Palestinians, and indeed most of the international community, tend to blame Netanyahu’s hard-line positions for the failure to make any progress in reviving the peace process, their takeaway from Romney’s speech would have been this line: “The idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world.” In other words, a President Romney would leave it up to Israel to decide when, how and whether to move toward a two-state solution.
Election politics has prompted some in Washington to proclaim themselves scandalized by Romney’s remarks — an Obama campaign official on Tuesday said Romney was “playing with fire” and that by making remarks so clearly at odds with official U.S. and Israeli positions, the candidate showed he was “not ready for prime time.” But don’t expect Ramallah to erupt in demonstrations amid cries of betrayal. For the majority of Palestinians, Romney’s remarks simply reaffirm, albeit with an honesty that wouldn’t do in the diplomatic sphere, what has been the de facto U.S. policy for the past decade. While their hapless President Mahmoud Abbas continues to hope against hope, most Palestinians long ago stopped waiting for the U.S. to deliver their freedom.
Washington gave up any pretense of playing the honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians with the election of President George W. Bush. The Oslo peace process ground to a halt after the Taba talks in January 2001. Israel’s new Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had declared the Oslo agreements “null and void” amid the clashes of the second intifadeh, and he eventually persuaded the Bush Administration to treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict primarily as an issue of terrorism and security. In the interest of its attempts to rally Arab support over Iraq and later against Iran, the Bush White House in its second term encouraged an entirely symbolic series of negotiations between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the goal being a “shelf agreement” — i.e., one that could be implemented in some better future rather than in the present. Even that failed.
President Obama came into office vowing to jump-start the process. On his second day in office, he named Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East tasked with restarting negotiations. He also immediately began pressing Netanyahu to freeze all settlement construction on lands conquered in 1967 to signal the Palestinians of his seriousness about a two-state solution. Two years later, faced with the recalcitrance of Netanyahu backed by a bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill that raised the domestic political risk of sustaining the standoff, Obama backed down. Mitchell’s resignation in May 2011 signaled the end of Team Obama’s Middle East peace effort in all but name. His reasons may have been quite different from Romney’s, but Obama had also concluded that pressing the Israelis to give up something they don’t want to give up is ill advised. Instead, like Romney advocates, Obama by the end of 2010 had opted to “kick the ball down the field” and hope for a better day.
Nor is this a temporary blip. Even under the most auspicious circumstances, the peace process was unable to bridge the gap between the minimum the Palestinians require and the maximum the Israelis were willing to give. And the shifts in both Israeli and Palestinian politics over the two decades since Oslo have considerably hardened the outlook on both sides. Israel today is ruled by leaders that vehemently opposed the Oslo process, while the last time the Palestinians got to vote (in 2006), the party they chose as their government was Hamas, which had been even more vehemently opposed to the peace process.
The prospect of achieving a two-state peace via a bilateral consensus at the negotiating table remains remote for the foreseeable future. Admitting as much, however, has been deemed unwise for the U.S., for Israel and for a Palestinian leadership that has invested the entirety of its political being in the Oslo accords. After all, admitting that there’s no prospect of ending the occupation through a “peace process” that survives only as a misleading label for the status quo would force all sides into an uncomfortable choice of accepting things as they are or finding new ways of changing it.
Netanyahu is being pressed by his own base in the direction of formalizing the de facto creeping annexation of the West Bank, while Abbas has become a kind of twilight figure, facing a rebellion on the ground that could sweep away the Palestinian Authority. He is once again threatening to walk away from Oslo and annul the agreement, to dissolve the Authority or to press forward with his bid for statehood at the U.N., but neither the U.S. nor Israel, nor many of the Palestinians on whose behalf he threatens these actions, appear to take such threats very seriously. Abbas may be waiting — in vain — for Washington to change course, but not many Palestinians believe that’s likely to happen.
Romney’s comments, and the extent to which they jibe with Obama’s default policies even as the catechisms of the peace process are duly recited, are simply a reminder that the game is up. No matter who wins the White House in November, the Palestinians aren’t going to get any change out of Washington. Even before Romney revealed his cards, it was clear to a growing number of Palestinians that their fate is in their own hands. And as they move to take control of their destiny, the “peace process” status quo will become increasingly untenable.