After a U.N. Moment of Truth, Obama Will Struggle to Restore a Broken Mideast Peace Process

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Palestinians watch their President Mahmoud Abbas on TV as he delivers his speech at the United Nations during the General Assembly on September 23, 2011 in Ramallah, West Bank. (Photo: Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

Perhaps nobody told President Barack Obama that last week’s United Nations showdown over Palestinian statehood was the proverbial “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment for his Mideast peace effort. U.S. officials are, this week, once again trying to herd the Palestinians back into the same unconditional talks that President Mahmoud Abbas had declared pointless and unacceptable all of last week. And, as if to amplify Abbas’ objection to talking while the Israelis continue to expand their grip on the occupied territories, Israel on Tuesday announced the construction of 1,100 new homes in the Gilo settlement the same day that its government accepted negotiating terms (coordinated with Israel) that were laid out last Friday by the Quartet [update: despite reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu favors accepting the Quartet terms, Israel’s cabinet continues to debate the issue] — the U.S. and a backing vocal section comprising the EU, Russia and the U.N. Secretary General. Business as usual, in other words, from Washington’s side. But Abbas’ U.N. speech stated unambiguously that the Palestinians are no longer willing to indulge the illusion that open-ended talks while settlements continue to expand is doing anything to resolve the conflict.

“It is neither possible, nor practical, nor acceptable to return to conducting business as usual, as if everything is fine,” Abbas had told the U.N. “It is futile to go into negotiations without clear parameters and in the absence of credibility and a specific timetable. Negotiations will be meaningless as long as the occupation army on the ground continues to entrench its occupation, instead of rolling it back, and continues to change the demography of our country in order to create a new basis on which to alter the borders.”

The pablum served up Tuesday by State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, however, suggests the U.S. has chosen, once again, to ignore Abbas. Saying the U.S. is “deeply disappointed” by the Israelis decision to build in Gilo, Nuland added, “We consider this counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties, and we have long urged both parties to avoid actions which could undermine trust… That doesn’t change the fact that we believe that the only way to get to two states living side by side in peace, in security, is through direct negotiations… and we are urging both parties to take advantage of the proposal that the Quartet put forward last Friday to come back to the table.”

Undermine trust? That’s a bit of sarcasm, right? Abbas doesn’t trust Netanyahu as far as he could throw the Israeli leader, believing the Palestinians have jumped through every hoop put before them, only to see new and more obtuse hoops placed in their path. And Netanyahu insists — contra the insistence of the likes of President Shimon Peres and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Abbas is the best Palestinian leader Israel could hope to deal with — that Abbas ultimately seeks Israel’s destruction.

The Quartet, of course, has followed the Obama Administration’s own retreat from demanding that Israel halt settlement construction, and it also refrained from specifying parameters long sought by the Europeans, i.e. to specify that the parties are expected to reach a solution based on the 1967 borders and sharing Jerusalem. The Quartet did specify an ambitious timetable, however, although every previous timetable adopted in the course of the peace process has been ignored.

And Israeli officials made clear Tuesday that while they were saying yes to the Quartet, they assumed the Palestinians would say no. That would, at least in U.S. public opinion, ensure the Palestinians are blamed for the stalemate.

Even if he were so inclined, Abbas would find it hard to return to unconditional talks after effectively telling the U.N. last week that the “peace process” — as defined, managed and monopolized by Washington over two decades — has become an integral part of the status quo, providing political and diplomatic cover for the ongoing expansion of the occupation, and offering no prospect for ending it. By going to the U.N. over the strenuous objections of his longtime handlers in Washington, he was effectively calling for the matter to be taken out of U.S. hands, where domestic politics precludes the Administration from serving as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians.

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy seemed to like that idea, appealing to U.N. members to “stop believing that any one country, or any group of countries, can solve so complex a problem.” Speaking to TIME the day after Abbas’ speech, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan questioned the sincerity of the Quartet, and argued that a sanctions threat for Israel maintaining the status quo has been the missing ingredient from the peace process. The same thought seemed to be on Abbas’ mind — he used the trigger word “apartheid” three times, the emotive reference to the South African system of minority rule brought down in no small part thanks to an international campaign of sanctions.

Having effectively declared a failure of his own strategy of waiting patiently for Washington to deliver over the past two decades, Abbas has moved out of his own comfort zone. Although his bid for U.N. membership is likely to remain parked in the Security Council for some time yet, he could still take advantage of the invitation of the Europeans to approach the General Assembly for an upgrade of Palestinian status and codification of the 1967 parameters for statehood, which would likely be carried by an overwhelming majority, immune to U.S. veto power which doesn’t apply in the Assembly.

Most of the international community has little sympathy with either Netanyahu’s hardline message to the U.N. — or with Obama’s insistence that the Palestinians have no choice but to talk on Netanyahu’s terms. In a speech may have cost the U.S. much of the goodwill in Arab public opinion accrued through backing the Libyan rebellion, Obama effectively scolded the Palestinians for drawing attention to his failed peace efforts, and demanded that they return, chastened, to talks with Netanyahu, even though there’s little basis to believe that such talks can yield progress.

“The Quartet’s apparent continued faith in the idea that negotiations between the parties can be fruitful and that trust can be built seems ever-more detached from reality,” wrote former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy last Friday. “A realistic basis for any future direct-negotiations would have to address the asymmetry between the parties and the Israeli sense of impunity for maintaining and entrenching a status quo of occupation.”

While Netanyahu’s speech will have resonated with sections of U.S. and Israeli public opinion, for much of the rest of the world, it might as well have been Exhibit A in Abbas’ case that negotiations have failed because the Israelis refuse to heed the will of the international community on terms for a two-state solution. The Israeli leader began by expressing at length his abiding contempt for the United Nations, asserting Israel’s ownership of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem on the basis of Biblical claims, which together with his security perspective effectively signaled a rejection of the 1967 borders as the basis for a settlement.

Abbas had made clear in his own speech that the peace process itself had become part of a status quo intolerable to the Palestinians — although comfortable for the Israelis — and challenging that status quo would be the Palestinian priority. Returning to talks based on the Quartet’s terms would look like accepting defeat given what Abbas has said in the past week. Indeed, he may have created a momentum that may not be entirely under his control as other Palestinian and international actors move to raise pressure on Israel. The spirit of the Arab spring will spur many young Palestinians to loosen the restraints on taking their fate into their own hands. It’s a course fraught with peril, and the ever present danger of an explosion of violence regardless of the intentions of leaders on both sides. President Obama would undoubtedly like the Israeli-Palestinian issue to simply go away, at least until he’s assured his reelection. But events on the ground in the coming months may not afford him that luxury.