3. The Palestinians: Forgotten in Washington, Still an Arab Priority
A drinking game for teetotalers might mandate downing a shot every time the word Palestinian is uttered on the U.S. presidential campaign trail. And last week at the U.N., Prime Minister Netanyahu devoted barely a sentence to the plight of the Palestinians, and then to simply bat aside the appeals of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for U.N. intervention to set terms for a two-state solution. Netanyahu has largely succeeded in his three-year effort to put Iran’s nuclear program at the center of Washington’s Middle East policy, at the expense of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama, in his own speech, hardly gave the issue any more attention than Netanyahu did, and then only to reiterate an anodyne exhortation to the two sides to work together for peace.
But Egypt’s President Morsy, a key voice of an emerging postdictatorship Arab public, presented an opposite set of priorities. He made clear that Egypt expects Iran to abide by its NPT obligations to demonstrate the peaceful character of its nuclear program — which it is currently failing to do — but in the same breath made clear that the Arab world also demands that Israel sign on to the agreement and embrace the effort to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East. (Israel is in no hurry to do either.) Even Hosni Mubarak’s regime had taken the same position, much to the chagrin of the Israelis and the U.S. The Arab public, Gulf monarchies notwithstanding, appears unwilling to support an Iran policy that protects an Israeli monopoly of nuclear force in the region.
Nor are they willing to accept that realizing Palestinian aspirations must be postponed until Israel elects a government more willing to accommodate them. Morsy made clear that the U.S. credibility in Arab eyes will be judged first and foremost on Washington’s willingness to act in support of achieving Palestinian national goals — an intention Obama had signaled in Cairo in 2009, but then effectively abandoned at the end of the following year in the face of Netanyahu’s defiance and mounting domestic pressure.
Washington is only able to ignore the Palestinians to the extent that their leaders are willing to play along by sustaining the impression that they believe the goal of ending Israel’s occupation of lands conquered in 1967 will be achieved under U.S. tutelage. Until now, despite his exasperation and disappointment, Abbas has declined to blow the final whistle on a peace process that effectively ground to a halt a decade ago. Abbas warned in his own speech that Israel’s responses had made clear that waiting for the two sides to agree among themselves while Israel continues to expand the grip of its occupation was to accept failure of the two-state solution. He insisted that only the U.N. Security Council prescribing the parameters for negotiating such a solution would save it.
But international enforcement of a two-state solution against Israel’s will is not an option any U.S. government is likely to embrace for the foreseeable future. If Abbas goes ahead with his threat to take matters directly to the General Assembly, and signals that Washington is no longer doing anything useful for the Palestinians, the White House will find itself diplomatically isolated and pressed to take steps that carry considerable domestic political cost. The problem is that Abbas has a domestic political problem too: a restive population sensing the winds of change blowing across the Arab world and increasingly unwilling to abide by the strictures of an authoritarian Palestinian Authority that has been reduced to being an administrative arm of the status quo.
Events on the ground may yet conspire to make it impossible for the next White House to keep the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the back burner — or the deep freeze, as the case may be.