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Obama and the Israel-Palestine Peace Process

Dr. Samuel J. Kuruvilla is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. Click here for more details.
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  • February 27, 2012

    When Barack Hussein Obama assumed office as the 44th President of the United States of America in January 2009, the world truly assumed that the US was poised for the change that the new President had so eloquently campaigned for during the hard-fought Presidential race. Particularly for the Arab and Islamic worlds, there was a special interest in the election of a new US President with such an interesting pedigree. It was hoped that Obama with his unique part-Muslim heritage would be able to make a suitable contribution towards overcoming the historical animosity in the US and the Western world in general towards the Islamo-Arab worlds.

    In June 2009, six months after his inauguration, Obama made his famous Cairo speech in which he sought to enunciate his administration’s new approach towards the Arab and Islamic worlds and indeed the whole non-Western world. To quote him, “America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.”1

    This statement was at odds with what has often been the US historical praxis in the region and the rest of the ‘developing’ world at large, where elected governments led by parties whose ideological moorings were perceived to be anti-Western (such as the Communists during the Cold War or the Islamists later on), have been discouraged from taking office or even continuing in office. A classic case in this context is the US effort, along with that of Israel, to sideline, boycott and deny Hamas its electoral victory in the January 2006 elections and the right to form the Palestinian government. Fatah, the main Palestinian Liberation Organisation grouping, too contributed to this effort and the resulting clash between the two rival Palestinian factions led to Hamas taking over the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Palestinian internal politics since then has been characterised by a fractured polity, with Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip meaning almost total isolation for the people of the Strip from the outside world, as Israel has enforced a strict blockade of the area from both land as well as sea to put pressure on the radical Islamist grouping, thereby putting the people of the Strip under incredible economic and social hardship and suffering.

    Most ‘visionary’ Presidents in Washington have run into rough weather as far as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is concerned and Obama was no exception to this phenomenon. His first Presidency did not come at the right time for the solution of the conflict unlike former President Bill Clinton’s first and the end of his second presidency that saw positive movement towards a possible resolution of this long-standing sore in Arab West Asia. Obama from day-one of his Presidency had to deal with the hawkish Israeli Premier Binyamin Netanyahu who was always known to be against making a negotiated peace with the Palestinians, having played a major role in delaying and eventually all but wrecking the Oslo process in the late 1990s. Diplomatic interactions between the Israelis and Palestinians started with the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991 and the substance of negotiations has since meandered from ‘self-rule’ (as in the Oslo Agreement, September 1993) and the ‘final settlement’ negotiations at Washington (Camp David, July 2000) to the so-called ‘road-map’ for peace touted by the Bush administration and the present Obama administration’s insistence on preventing the Palestinians from seeking recognition for their state-building efforts on the multilateral level (such as at the UN), in the absence of a bilateral negotiated settlement with the Israelis, under the tutelage and patronage of active US mediation. But none of these efforts have so far been successful in ending the hostilities and resolving the conflict.

    The Oslo Process collapsed over mutual distrust and acrimony on the part of both the Israelis and the Palestinians, with both sides accusing the other of having reneged on aspects of the Contract mainly relating to adequate and timely Israeli withdrawals from the occupied Palestinian Territories and the Israelis equally if not more concerned about the rise of terrorist activities in the Territories targeting Israeli civilians. Coupled with this were the intense differences in perceptions over critical areas of the dispute regarding the future status of Jerusalem and the potential return of hundreds of thousands of refugees as well as the descendents of refugees who fled the region after 1948, when the state of Israel was established.

    It is generally accepted that the Camp David II Summit Process in July 2000 broke down over differences in perceptions on the status and ownership of the ‘holy’ city of Jerusalem and its suburbs as well as the whole vexed issue of the Palestinian refugees and their purported ‘right of return’ to the territories that now form part of the state of Israel or Palestine. Following the failure of the Camp David Process and the electoral failure of Ehud Barak to secure a second term as Israeli premier, Ariel Sharon took office in 2001 roughly coinciding with the arrival of George H. W. Bush as President of the United States. Bush was initially hesitant to enter into the turbulent world of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process and Sharon capitalised on this hesitation as well as the extreme frustration being felt among the Palestinian populace at the state of the ‘no-peace’ process. He provoked an intense backlash known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada by making a trip to the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Esplanade above the Wailing Wall plaza right in the burning heart of the Old ‘Holy’ City of Jerusalem. In 2002, Sharon sent the Israeli army back into all the Territories that they had withdrawn from in the previous decade under the Oslo Accords and managed to cause serious damage to the Palestinian Authority and all the infrastructure that they had built up over the previous decade or so since the Palestinian Liberation Organisation had returned to the Occupied Territories from exile abroad.

    Finally, Bush got involved with the so-called ‘Road Map to Peace’ in the region that sought to set out a point-by-point formula for achieving lasting peace and a Palestinian state into the bargain in the region. The onus in the Road Map was mainly on the Palestinians to develop responsible institutions that would last the test of statehood and to desist from violent activities like terrorism while the Israelis were asked to desist from or freeze activities such as settlement-building in the Occupied Territories that would add fat to the furnace as far as Israeli-Palestinian relations was concerned. The problem with the Road Map as with the Oslo Accords before it was that they both sought to postpone the resolution of contentious issues like the return of refugees and the status of Jerusalem until later on in the process. This approach ultimately undermined the peace process as invariably the in-built tensions burst out well before any suitable resolution or progress had been achieved on the main question, namely, the now 45-year long Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the presently five-year long blockade of Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal from the Strip in 2005.

    Obama initially opted to go along with the Road Map which had been drawn up as part of his predecessor’s plan for the region in 2003. However, he ended up losing his commitment to this process in the face of the roadblocks that he had to encounter along the way. The roadblocks included intense suspicion on the Israeli side towards Obama’s actual motives and sympathies.

    However, it is on record that during the ongoing first Obama administration, military to military relations between the US and Israel showed considerable upward growth on all fronts, including military aid. Israel is the largest recipient of US military and non-military aid in the world.2 The Obama administration has also consistently stood with the Israelis in ensuring that nothing inimical to their interests is passed at multilateral fora, such as the UN. For example on February 18, 2011, the US vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution which demanded that “Israel, as the occupying power, immediately and completely ceases all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem and that it fully respect its legal obligations in this regard.”3

    President Obama has also gone on record stating that "a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people."4 As regards the borders of a future state of Palestine, Obama has been clear that "The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”5

    Prime Minister Netanyahu, in particular, has led the pack of Israeli ministers in being especially critical of the Obama administration at a time when the conservative Republican Party as well as the ultra-conservative Tea Party Movement has become ascendant in US domestic politics. Obama’s main problem with the administration of Binyamin Netanyahu was the latter’s unwillingness to sanction a total settlement construction freeze which had been one of the original commitments under the Bush Road Map of 2003. The Palestinians, on their part, walked out of the peace process in September 2010 over the question of Israel’s continued building of settlements in the Occupied Territories, thus stalling the negotiations.

    Hamas’s control over the Gaza Strip and virtually half of the Palestinian political spectrum has also given the Israelis a good excuse to desist from serious or meaningful peace negotiations with the Palestinians on the pretext of not having a suitable partner for peace in the region, Hamas being ideologically committed to the establishment of an Islamic state on all of the historic territories of Palestine, much of which is now the state of Israel. The founding Charter of Hamas mentions that the state of Israel would be eventually destroyed by Islam.6 To date, Hamas has not formally repudiated this founding Charter of principles that seeks to guide the Palestinian Islamic Movement. Hamas and Fatah have periodically sought to bury their differences and come together in a show of unity to form a pan-Palestinian national government of unity, but these efforts have also been stoutly opposed by Israel and also by the US under the pretext of having nothing whatsoever to do with a ‘fundamentalist’ Islamist grouping such as Hamas. It remains to be seen whether Hamas and Fatah will really be able to cooperate together in forming a national government as being envisaged since the two parties have never had a history of collaborating effectively with each other and indeed have only had an experience of intense political and sometimes fratricidal rivalry and conflict.

    One thing only is abundantly clear as far as the peace process is concerned. We will have to wait for the next ‘Obama’ or any other administration to make the necessary moves for the resolution of this long standing sore in the field of Middle Eastern international relations. The new administration will need to be deft and adroit enough to project itself as an impartial mediator between Palestinians and Israelis while taking into consideration the vast differences in both the Palestinian and Israeli views of the conflict and will also need to be able to mediate between opposing Palestinian views such as that being held by the two main Palestinian political parties Fatah and Hamas. Another point to be considered here is that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is so dependent on the vagaries of the US political and electoral system that any change in administration in Washington at the next election in November 2012, would certainly make or delay the implementation of the steps necessary to secure a lasting peace in the region through the establishment of a Palestinian State in the fertile Levant.

    • 1. David Ignatius, ‘Obama wagers heavily on the Muslim Brotherhood,’ The Daily star, (Lebanon), February 16, 2012.
    • 2. Charles Levinson, ‘U.S., Israel Build Military Cooperation,’ Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2010. Accessed February 21, 2012.
    • 3. ‘United States vetoes Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements,’ United Nations News Centre, February 18, 2011. Accessed February 21, 2012.
    • 4. ‘Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa,’ The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, Washington D. C., May 19, 2011. Accessed February 21, 2012.
    • 5. Elior Levy, ‘PA challenges Netanyahu to accept 1967 lines,’ Ynetnews, May 22, 2011.
    • 6. See ‘Hamas Covenant 1988: The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement,’ The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, Yale Law School, August 18, 1988. Accessed February 24, 2012.