It has been reported that President Obama will pay a visit to Israel at the end of March. Whether he can provide impetus to the moribund two- state solution remains an open question. The portents are against it because the occupying power, Israel, represented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partners, appears reluctant to relinquish the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem conquered by Israel in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. These areas, (along with Gaza relinquished by Israel not for altruistic but strategic reasons in 2005) were expected to constitute the new Palestinian state adjacent to Israel in the final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2002 in support of the above initiative, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia representing all 23 Arab states, had stated that if Israel withdrew to its internationally recognized 1967 borders, and allowed a sovereign Palestinian state to come into existence next door, the entire Arab world would recognize Israel. The Abdullah plan did not gain much traction with the Israelis and reportedly only pro forma support from Washington.
The United States has been Israel’s staunchest ally since the latter’s creation in 1948. During Obama’s first term, some eye brows were raised when he failed to visit Israel. The snub was due apparently in large part, because Obama had got off to a rocky start with Netanyahu. The latter had refused to heed the American President’s sensible advice to him to desist from building further Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, since these were the areas where the State of Palestine would emerge as a part of the two- state solution. The personal chemistry between the two leaders became negative after this spat between them and has reportedly remained so to date. Meanwhile around half a million Israelis have been settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The settlement process continues.
Some knowledgeable analysts are suggesting that not much can be expected from Obama’s visit to Israel. From Obama’s point of view it may well be his last major push to persuade Israel’s rightist Prime Minister to allow the creation of the long awaited Palestinian state. Success for Obama will burnish his legacy. However moving Netanyahu and his coalition partners to change course will be no easy task. Israel feels it can hold on to these areas indefinitely in fulfillment of a vision of “Greater Israel” – in defiance of increasing international criticism – given the almost total support the United States has accorded to Israel. If Netanyahu sticks to his guns it is unlikely that Obama, given his cautious and deliberative style, would threaten to withdraw US support from Israel. Netanyahu knows the political constraints vis- a-vis Israel under which Obama operates. The constraint is mostly of domestic provenance which I need not go into here.
It is worth recalling that Jimmy Carter in his book Palestine: Not Apartheid (2007) had advised Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians in its own self-interest. He was branded as anti-Semitic by some in Israel and the US. Carter had given sound advice to the Israelis who spurned it. The consequence has been that even more European countries-previously supporters of Israel- are becoming disenchanted with it. A yard stick of this trend was evidenced last autumn, when an overwhelming majority at the UN General Assembly including major European nations such as Germany and France, voted in favor of granting Observer status at the UN to Palestine. This outcome was achieved by the Palestine Authority in the teeth of opposition by Israel and the United States.
Curtis Jones a senior retired US Foreign Service officer with extensive experience of the Middle East recently penned a perceptive article in American Diplomacy online. Jones traced the rise of anti- Americanism in the Islamic world to the “blank check” that the US has given to Israel to conduct policies towards the stateless Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, which are considered legally and morally untenable. Jones has stated, inter alia, that “America is the imperfect avatar of democracy. A destructive case of that imperfection is its anti-democratic Middle East policy… Those who have the power are prone to delusion that power is panacea – that adversaries can be beaten into submission. The occupation of Iraq was the most revealing example”. It is to be hoped that John Kerry’s State Department and Obama’s White House will give serious consideration to the views of an American career diplomat who has experience of knowing the Middle East region at close quarters.