The Middle East Channel

Is the Israel-Palestine Conflict “ripe” for Obama’s intervention?

In an op-ed essay in the Wall Street Journal (04/26/2010), Richard Haass, the President of Council on Foreign Relations, argues that advocates of a more forceful U.S. intervention in the Middle East peace process have exaggerated that conflict's impact on America's interests elsewhere in the region.

I don't know anyone among those who have cited the damage the Israel-Palestine conflict is causing U.S. interests in the region who believes this concern to be anything other than a secondary reason for a more muscular U.S. initiative to bring this conflict to a close. For everyone, the main reason is the human cost to millions of Palestinians who have lived under the boot of a military occupation for over 40 years, and to Israel's citizens who, while living increasingly undisturbed and prosperous lives, nevertheless exist in the shadow of the threat of recurring wars and Qassam rockets.

The second compelling reason for a quick end to the conflict for all those who advocate it is the unrestrained expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, whose undeclared but widely understood goal it is to make impossible the emergence of a Palestinian state. This outcome would leave Israel with the choice of granting Palestinians Israeli citizenship, thus giving up its Jewish identity, or ending its democratic character as it enforces a regime that denies millions of Palestinians their individual and national rights-in effect turning Israel into an apartheid state.

Oddly enough, these concerns find no place in Richard Haass's essay as he warns against exaggerating the bearing of a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict on U.S. interests.

Forty plus years into this conflict and into the creeping Israeli annexation of territory in the 22 percent of Palestine left the Palestinians, Haass pleads for patience for the situation to "ripen" before we try to end it by putting forward an American plan. He maintains that what is missing is not ideas, but the will and ability of the parties to compromise. Haass notes that "Palestinian leadership remains weak and divided; the Israeli government is too ideological and fractured; U.S. relations are too strained for Israel to place much faith in American promises."

One would have thought the problem has been placing faith in Israeli promises. But more to the point, it is precisely the ability to compromise that will be the victim of further delay-for it will discredit the moderate leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad who will surely not be replaced by greater moderates. Their replacement will be Hamas-if we are lucky-or the more extreme groups in Gaza that are now challenging Hamas for what these groups consider to be Hamas's excessive moderation.

It is true that Palestinian leadership, as Haass states, remains weak and divided. But their weakness and division is the result of Israeli and American failure to reward their moderation. As far as Palestinians are concerned, aside from marginal improvements in the economy, for which the international donor community is largely responsible, it has produced only a hardening of Israeli positions on the core issues.

More to the point, the Palestinian divisions that Haass deplores were deliberately planned and fostered by Israel and the U.S. during the previous U.S. administration. There is something less than honorable in pointing to problems that our own misguided policies created as a reason the victims of our policies are undeserving of our support.

Of course, the U.S. must stand by its commitment to protect Israel's security. Haass must know there was never any reason for Israel to doubt the solidity of U.S. commitments on this score. Indeed, the over-the-top American assurances that there will never be "any daylight" between us and Israel when it comes to security may come to haunt us. For if we heed the advice to delay stronger U.S. intervention in the peace process for future, riper moments, we may find ourselves tied solidly to an Israeli government that-in order to preserve Israel's Jewish identity-imposes an apartheid regime on a Palestinian population under its control that outnumbers its Jewish counterpart.

Most of the political parties that comprise Netanyahu's government, including Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu's Foreign Minister, and Shas, have left no doubt that if forced to choose between democracy and the state's Jewish identity, they would opt without the slightest hesitation to end Israel's democracy.

What exactly would an American president do when confronted with such a new reality, which undoubtedly would again produce a spate of full-page advertisements and AIPAC resolutions in the U.S. Congress stressing the Jewish people's biblical attachment to the land and demanding that we stand by our traditional ally? How would a less than forthright U.S. response to such a situation play in the rest of the world? Isn't it in America's national interest-not to speak of the interests of the State of Israel and its people and of the Palestinian people-for an American president to exert every effort to prevent such a likely deterioration that would force our policymakers to make the most agonizing and fateful decisions?

None of these concerns seem to find a place in Haass's calculations of a "ripeness" that should motivate an American president to move expeditiously to help put an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.  He is a former national director of the American Jewish Congress.  

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