A crucial but problematic triangle

For good but different reasons, their respective relations with the United States are of central and utmost importance to both Palestinians and Israelis.

As the US is the world’s leading power, it is the most influential potential mediator between them. Israel is completely dependent for its overwhelming superiority on the near unquestioned military, economic and diplomatic support it receives from the US. The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, is dependent on international support and international diplomacy, both shaped by the US.

Moreover, since the beginning of the peace process in 1991, the US has always played the leading mediating role, albeit to mixed reactions. On the one hand, both sides hold the US responsible for the shortcomings of that peace process, each for its own reasons. On the other hand, they also feel that the process could not move forward without serious US involvement.

There are of course fundamental differences in the relations between the two sides and the US. America makes no secret of its support for and bias toward Israel. This has caused the Palestinians to seek a greater role for other international actors in mediating the conflict as a way to mitigate this imbalance. The last round of negotiations, the Annapolis process, for instance, is an example of a process undertaken purely for American and Israeli interests. Israel needed to create an impression that it was involved in a serious process primarily for the domestic purposes of the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. The US administration, meanwhile, had been heavily criticized for not paying the conflict any attention and wanted to provide it some lip service at the last moment.

By contrast, when the current American administration under President Barack Obama took over, Washington initially showed a keen interest in pursuing a more serious and extensive engagement. This was signaled from the outset with the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy. As a result, the two sides become even more focused and sensitive about their respective relations with Washington.

The Palestinians became a little more hopeful for the same reason that the Israelis felt a little more tense: a serious process would of necessity have to be based on international legality. This in turn would expose the contradiction between the requirements of international legality and the position of the right-wing Israeli coalition government under Binyamin Netanyahu, which is based on continued control over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and continued expansion of Jewish settlements there.

Israel dealt with the situation in two ways, through public relations and by playing domestic US politics. First, the Israeli government engaged in a public relations campaign to head off any potential US pressure without at the same time having to make fundamental changes to government policy. Thus Netanyahu announced a settlement construction "freeze" that is so only in name. Before that he had announced an "acceptance" of the two-state solution so qualified that it similarly meant no such thing.

In both cases, Netanyahu overcame the potential contradiction between his position and that of the US with a public relations strategy that provided Israel with a pro-active and well-intentioned demeanor belying its actual intransigence. Meanwhile, Israel utilized its supporters in the US to exploit the president’s tussle with the US Congress over other issues. At this point in time it appears to have worked, and the US administration has backed down from its earlier enthusiasm for tackling the conflict.

Nevertheless, if for different reasons, the relations of both sides with the US are crucial to hopes for peace. The current administration has the potential to make a major difference. It is the only member of the international community that could successfully lead efforts to resolve the conflict. However, the US needs to act in concert with other members of the international community, especially Europe, otherwise all the potential of the Obama administration will be jeopardized.