Never Mind the Democrats’ Jerusalem Kerfuffle, Where’s the Peace Process?

There may be a bipartisan consensus on backing hawkish Israeli positions, but Washington has little to offer the Palestinians for sticking to the U.S. script

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ABBAS MOAMANI / AFP / Getty Images

A Palestinian man holds up a poster that reads in Arabic, 'No to negotiations' as police control the crowd in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on June 30, 2012, during a protest against a planned meeting between Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and Israel's vice prime minister Shaul Mofaz

The Democratic Party’s clumsy, eleventh-hour re-jigging of its election platform to proclaim Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a but morbid sideshow when viewed against the greater drama of the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Proclamations over the status of Jerusalem are a well-established, if hollow bipartisan ritual of the U.S. election season. They may be deemed necessary to assuage the concern of a relatively narrow segment of activist voters and donors for whom Israel is a priority issue, but the Israelis themselves don’t set much store by them. After all, the record shows that campaign promises on Jerusalem have little bearing on how candidates behave once in office: Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both vowed, when running for the White House, to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — indeed, the Democratic Party platform on which President Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976 included the same promise.

President Obama, in 2008, vowed that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided”, at the same time as insisting that its status must be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But the embassy remains in Tel Aviv, and the U.S. has not formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Even the question of whether an American child born in the Holy City can be deemed to have been born in Israel at all remains at issue in the U.S. court system.

(PHOTOS: The Ultra-Holy City: Photographs by Oded Balilty)

Nor is keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv — an uncontested Israeli city — simply a case of benign neglect: President Clinton allowed to pass into law a congressional order requiring that the embassy be moved to Jerusalem, and requiring that the president sign a waiver every six months as long as the decision remains unimplemented. Clinton signed waivers for the remainder of his term. And then, despite having promised before his election that he would to move the embassy on his first day in the White House, President George. W. Bush signed the same waiver 16 times; if President Obama is reelected, it’s safe bet he’ll match that number. Governor Mitt Romney recently pledged to move the embassy — a promise curiously absent from this year’s GOP platform — but you’d probably get long odds on its implementation in any geopolitical betting shop.

“Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel,” goes the revised text in the Democrats’ platform, changed reportedly at the behest of President Obama. “The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter of final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.” While Israelis and Palestinians did agree in  the Oslo Accords of 1993 that Jerusalem would be discussed among the “final status” issues for a peace agreement — along with borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and of Israeli settlers, security and water rights — the two sides have been unable to agree for more than a decade now to hold such negotiations at all, much less to achieve consensus on the issues.

The last failed attempt to reach the final status agreement envisaged by Oslo came in January of 2001 at Taba, just weeks before Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel and declared the Oslo process null and void. Although the Bush Administration managed to conjure some talks between Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, these were largely hypothetical. Their stated objective was not a final-status deal that would be implemented, but a “shelf agreement” — a term that pretty much speaks for itself. Even a hypothetical agreement remained beyond reach.

(MORE: Hillary Clinton in Jerusalem: Subtle Diplomacy, Subtler Electioneering)

President Obama came into office determined to finish the peace process within two years, and demanded that newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrate good faith by freezing all construction on occupied territory in order to bring the Palestinians back to the table. But Netanyahu had his own ideas. He had led the opposition to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s peace process in the 1990s, and had boasted of his knowledge of America and how to move its positions. He raised some hopes in Washington by publicly endorsing a two-state solution, but optimism was premature.

Likud’s own party platform, after all, “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.” So, after Netanyahu’s public acceptance, in 2009, of the principle of Palestinian statehood west of the river, his father and ideological mentor deemed it necessary to reassure the Likud faithful that the Prime Minister was simply being cute. “He supports the kind of conditions [the Palestinians] would never in the world accept,” Benzion Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 2 news, as his son sat beside him. “That’s what I heard from him. Not from me. He put forth the conditions. These conditions, they will never accept them — not even one of them.”

That view would be shared by the retired intelligence and security chiefs that have lately ripped Netanyahu’s talk of launching a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a number of them accusing him of having no interest in seeking an agreement with the most pliant Palestinian leadership Israel is likely to encounter in a generation. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas concurred, and used Israel’s refusal to observe a complete settlement freeze as a reason to stay out of talks, hoping against hope that either the Israelis would elect a more dovish government, or that the Americans would somehow force Netanyahu into concessions.

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