The Middle East arena has recently seen some unusually active diplomacy involving many of the prominent Arab and Israeli leaders as well as the US.
The most recent and significant such activity was the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama. Netanyahu’s election marked a shift from previous Israeli positions on the fundamental issue of two states, the international vision for a permanent peace in the region. At the same time, Obama’s election marked an important stage in moving US policy toward a more inclusive approach to regional diplomacy. This approach has created the kind of tension between Israel and the US not witnessed since the early 1990s, when President George H. W. Bush imposed financial sanctions on Israel to convince the country to stop its expansion of settlements.
Obama and Netanyahu have so far been unable to hide their differences. Netanyahu refers to Palestinian autonomy, while Obama has time and again reiterated his commitment to a Palestinian state. And in unequivocal terms, Obama has emphasized Israeli commitments under the American-brokered roadmap to stop building and expanding settlements. That elicited an angry reaction from the Israeli minister of strategic affairs, Moshe Yaalon, who said Israel would not be threatened by America and would continue building in settlements.
The reason behind the shift in US policy goes beyond the immediate Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is related to the growing realization in Washington that the failure of the peace process is a main factor behind the radicalization in Palestinian and Arab society. In Palestine, this culminated in the election of Hamas in 2006.
Indeed, Palestinians and Arabs in general cannot get behind a process that promises an end to occupation but is unable to stop Israeli settlement expansion, which aims at consolidating that occupation. Consequently the failure of the peace process, which was ultimately geared toward ending the injustice against Palestinians, proved an important factor in the deteriorating image of the US in the Arab and Islamic world, thus harming broader American strategic interests in the region.
Regionally, Arab leaders and governments, particularly the friends and allies of the US, are losing ground against their Islamic political oppositions. Unquestioned American support for the illegal Israeli occupation and Israeli practices in occupied territory including settlement expansion have embarrassed those who have nothing to offer their people except the promise of peace and the prosperity that is supposed to come with it. The status of the Fateh-Hamas dialogue under Egyptian sponsorship is a good example, where Israeli positions and practices strip Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of any kind of leverage.
Abbas is seen as a leader who promises to achieve legitimate Palestinian aspirations of ending the occupation by peaceful and negotiated means. Hamas, on the other hand, represents the position that Israel understands only the language of force. The failure of the peace process and the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon are oft-cited examples that are used to illustrate this position.
Continued political stagnation together with the creation of more and more Israeli facts on the ground will only contribute to further shifting the balance of power in the region in favor of the Islamists. Israel’s anti-peace measures, such as the announcement, only one day before the Israel-US summit in Washington, of a bid to build new housing units in a Jordan Valley settlement, will only further undermine US credibility.
The other reason for the shift in the American approach to the conflict is that the current administration better understands the linkage between the different Middle East conflicts and issues. This is particularly true of Iran and its nuclear program, but also of Iraq, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas.
Abbas seems to have noticed an opportunity in the shift in both the American and Israeli positions and is preparing to project a unified Arab position in his forthcoming visit to Washington. Thus, in addition to forming a new government that included members of most of the PLO factions, he has been touring Arab capitals including Damascus, Doha, Amman and Cairo in order to strengthen his position.
This is an important effort. There have been several Israeli attempts to create confusion regarding the Arab position by airing proposals to test if Arab countries would agree for example to accept changes to the Arab peace initiative or a gradual implementation of that plan.
Obama, meanwhile, has created constructive momentum in the region and sparked a healthy debate, particularly on a settlement freeze among both Israelis and American supporters of Israel. This debate is exposing Israeli violations of the roadmap and other terms of reference for the peace process to growing criticism. That has the very useful effect of reversing the negative trends in Israeli public opinion and potentially paving the way for a political environment more conducive to successful political initiatives.
The Obama administration is also invited to provide the Egyptian government with the necessary support in its efforts to secure Palestinian reconciliation. Providing the parties of that dialogue with the necessary incentives can make a big difference, especially since Palestinian reconciliation–reuniting Gaza and the West Bank and the rival Fateh and Hamas factions–is another prerequisite for a healthy peace process.