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.

MORE: Worried About Israel Bombing Iran Before November? You Can Relax

But after two years of butting heads with Netanyahu over settlements, Obama was no longer willing to risk the domestic political cost of continuing to pressure a recalcitrant Israeli government. The Obama Administration essentially threw up its hands in December of 2010, forced to accept defeat after two years of trying to complete the peace process.

Today, there’s no prospect of achieving a two-state peace agreement through bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The only change to Jerusalem’s status quo currently underway is the expansion of Israel’s control of the eastern parts of the city it occupied in the war of 1967 — hardly a cause for concern among those who proclaim it the undivided capital of the Jewish State, even if it is routinely denounced as “unhelpful” by a U.S. State Department mindful of the damage that expansion does to the prospects for a peace agreement.

(PHOTOS: Palestinian and Israelis Clash in the West Bank)

So it’s plausible, albeit unlikely, that the Democrats’ initial omission of any reference to Jerusalem could simply have been an oversight. After all, who in Washington talks to or about the Palestinians any more? When it comes to Israel, the only topic of conversation these days is Iran’s nuclear program.

A few Israeli intellectuals glumly warn that Netanyahu has effectively buried the two-state solution, and that the result will be eventual Palestinian demands for civil rights within a single, common polity. Even Ehud Barak, Netanyahu’s defense minister and fellow Iran hawk, warned early in 2010, “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

Barak was describing the status quo in words that would bring a frenzy of denunciation if spoken in the U.S. domestic political mainstream. Apartheid, after all, is the South African term coined for the system of white domination in which black people were denied the rights of citizenship in the state that ruled over them — and it eventually prompted a campaign of international isolation and economic sanctions. The recent decision by South Africa’s post-apartheid government prohibiting products made in occupied territories from being labeled “Made in Israel” could be a portent of things to come in the wider international community.

(MORE: 10 Questions for Ehud Barak)

Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Having had no illusions about what to expect from Netanyahu, he can’t have any left, either, about what to expect from Washington. But having effectively mortgaged Palestinian independence to U.S. political whims — which the campaign platform spat confirms is tilted entirely in Israel’s favor — Abbas finds himself running a Palestinian Authority whose role is confined to administering and securing the status quo. His most recent attempt to shake things up by seeking U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state last year collapsed under U.S. pressure, and though he is threatening to repeat the exercise at this month’s session of the U.N. General Assembly, that threat may hold no more water than U.S. campaign promises on the location of the U.S. embassy in Israel.

Events in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere have confirmed that U.S. influence has waned across the Arab Middle East. Having little to offer the Palestinians beyond handouts to ameliorate the status quo, Washington’s ability to set the limits on their actions may also be on the verge of collapse. Recent days of have seen massive and growing West Bank protests over cost of living issues, and Israeli reports suggest that Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister appointed at Washington’s behest, is planning to quit. Abbas, for his part, sought to associate himself with the protests, proclaiming them the onset of a “Palestinian Spring.” If so, there’s a dark cloud gathering over the prospects of political survival for Abbas and his Authority.

If the Israelis pay little heed to the platforms of the Democrats and Republicans, the Palestinians pay them even less. As their economic and social well-being in the West Bank declines, there’s nothing going on in the Washington conversation that offers the Palestinians any reason to continue accepting U.S. tutelage, or being led by those who do. On the contrary, the spirit of the Arab Spring suggests they’ll take matters into their own hands — in ways that the Israelis won’t like, and which the U.S. will have little leverage to contain.

PHOTOS: Palestinians Protest in the West Bank

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