US has run out of ideas for peace

By Robin Shepherd, November 11, 2010
Who are you looking at? Obama and Netanyahu were locked in a spat over settlement building this week

Who are you looking at? Obama and Netanyahu were locked in a spat over settlement building this week

However many times Barack Obama repeats mantras of the type "two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security", the conclusion that the United States has no further clue on how to forge alasting Middle East peace is increasingly inescapable.

This time the American president was speaking in Indonesia, his boyhood home and the largest Muslim country on the planet. But it could have been anywhere. In fact, it could have been any American leader, certainly either one of his two predecessors - Bill Clinton or George W Bush - who both (as Bush revealed in his memoirs this week) seemingly came within a whisker of forging a two-state solution during their presidencies.

If Mr Bush and Mr Clinton failed to bring an end to the conflict when Israel was offering everything but the kitchen sink, only to face flat out rejection from the Palestinians, what conceivable formulation could Mr Obama come up with to break the impasse now? The answer is that there is no such formulation, and he knows it. And he knows it because, like every administration before him, he has run into the problem that ultimately the Palestinians do not accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East and will therefore look for any excuse to avoid signing up to a deal - or in this case, even talking about one.

The excuse du jour, of course, is the settlements - an excuse so lame it would be laughable but for the fact that our senses have been numbed to reality by the fetishisation of the issue in the Western media. Why would the construction of new homes in areas which the Palestinians agree would become part of Israel under any conceivable peace deal pose the slightest obstacle to holding talks? Problematic settlements have been torn down before, and Prime Minister Netanyahu, this week on tour in the US, has in any case offered to freeze construction if only the Palestinians will recognise Israel as a Jewish state. This, of course, they will not do. But rather than face up to the implications of that stark and unyielding statement on Palestinian rejectionism, we are invited to engage in a fiction about the alleged centrality to peace talks of some Jewish family in east Jerusalem building itself a bathroom extension.

Even the Palestinians recognize this is all sounding like a broken record. Which is why they have been making loud noises in the past couple of weeks about shifting the whole pantomime to the United Nations. The latest ruse to avoid full recognition for a Jewish state in the Middle East is to get the Security Council, or at least the General Assembly, to recognise a (fully militarised) Palestinian state on 1967 lines following a unilateral declaration of independence in the middle of 2011.

It's a recipe for disaster since Israel would never acquiesce in it and Palestinian terror groups could use such a declaration as a justification for violence against an Israel no longer portrayed as a mere "occupier" but now as an "invader". Nonetheless, a shift along such lines is very much on the cards with France now the latest Western country to give it a nod of approval. Mr Obama's position remains that a solution can only be negotiated between the parties. But it will be interesting to see how long he can hold the line. At some point even he is going to get bored of repeating the same old mantras.

Robin Shepherd is Director of International Affairs at the Henry Jackson Society. He is the author of 'A State Beyond the Pale: Europe's Problem with Israel'

Last updated: 3:16pm, November 11 2010