The conventional route will not bring us peace

The most recent public opinion poll conducted in the Palestinian territories by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center has shown a dramatic decline in the Palestinian public’s evaluation of the Obama administration’s role in promoting peace in the Middle East.

Up until this poll, Barack Obama had enjoyed an unusually high approval rating for an American president in the region and among Palestinians. This was a consequence of his positive and inclusive rhetoric as well as his early engagement with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other Middle East issues that marked a clear departure from the previous administration, which was perceived by Arabs and Palestinians as the worst American administration in history.

One of the positive signs was the early appointment of a dedicated peace envoy, George Mitchell. Among Palestinians, Mitchell was known for the report that carried his name and is incorporated in the roadmap. Palestinians have mostly fastened on Mitchell’s insistence, in that initial report and since, that there has to be an end to Israeli settlement construction in occupied territory in order to lay a solid foundation for potentially fruitful negotiations.

During the course of his mission, Mitchell seemed to be following the logic and the sequence of the roadmap in trying to pave the way for successful negotiations, partly by ensuring a settlement construction freeze. He thus acknowledged the detrimental effect on previous peace efforts that continuing Israeli settlement expansion has had. Indeed, the two processes are logically incompatible. One is about ending the occupation; the other is about consolidating it.

The main challenge facing Mitchell has been the attitude of the right-wing Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu. The Israeli government has, apparently, relied on domestic US factors as well as the limitations on any administration’s attempts to put pressure on Israel in order to weather Washington’s attempt to convince Israel to freeze settlement construction. The US administration, like all administrations, needs substantial achievements to maintain its public approval ratings in anticipation of congressional elections and, further down the line, new presidential elections. The pro-Israel lobby in America has shown itself capable of withstanding the administration’s pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction and this appears to have left Mitchell squeezed between the logical requirements of a meaningful political process and the domestic political realities of the administration.

Washington now appears to be turning to the conventional route of pressuring the Palestinian side rather than the Israeli side in order to launch a political process. The Palestinian leadership already paid a substantial price for this policy u-turn when it was "persuaded" to meet Netanyahu in New York and pressured into supporting deferral of the vote in the UN on the Goldstone report on war crimes in Gaza.

This price could have been fatal had it not been for the Palestinian leadership’s own swift u-turn in bringing the Goldstone report to a vote in the UN’s Human Rights Council and its insistence that while indirect negotiations with Israel through Mitchell are acceptable, there can be no direct negotiations for as long as settlement construction continues.

Overcoming the challenges facing Mitchell’s mission at the expense of the Palestinian leadership may save face for the US administration, which has clearly lost the first round to Netanyahu. Ultimately, however, it will lead us nowhere near real peace. Rather, it will simply serve to reinforce the trends of radicalization among Palestinians while marginalizing a Palestinian leadership that needs to be empowered in order to deliver any future agreement.