Some pretty tough words were spoken by US Vice President Joe Biden at the annual J Street Conference in Washington on Tuesday: “We have an overwhelming obligation, notwithstanding our sometimes overwhelming frustration with the Israeli government, to push them as hard as we can toward what they know in their gut is the only ultimate solution, a two-state solution, while at the same time be an absolute guarantor of their security... the steady, systematic expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied land wanted by the Palestinians moved Israel in the wrong direction... They are moving toward a one-state reality and that reality is dangerous.”
There is no doubt Biden was mouthing the opinion of US President Barack Obama. For those who are thinking Obama is a lame-duck president, make no mistake: he has 274 days left in office and he intends not to waste a single one.
On the domestic agenda, there is no doubt Obama has made an amazingly positive impact – just ask all of those millions of Americans who now have health insurance. A look at all of the economic data show how Obama saved the American and global economy after the disasters of George W. Bush. He promised the American people to withdraw US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and he delivered on those promises. He is now in the process of making good on his promise to shut down Guantanamo prison. He turned the page on America’s failed policy on Cuba and brought home American Jewish prisoner Alan Gross from Havana. He reached an agreement with Iran on rolling back its nuclear policy, with the support of most of the world. The Obama administration’s one major foreign policy failure is of course in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace, and not for a lack of trying.
Obama is searching for one last, bold step on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, knowing that there is no political will in Israel or Palestine at the moment for a genuine negotiated agreement. Biden made this statement as well in his J Street speech. So there will not be another American attempt to broker negotiations between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The US is working with other supporters of Israeli-Palestinian peace to bolster the Palestinian economy. The Ad Hoc Liaison Committee of donor nations to the Palestinian Authority is holding its annual meeting right now in Brussels. But the Americans know quite well that without Israeli cooperation, little economic growth in the Palestinian economy is possible.
There is much that Israel can do to enable the Palestinian economy to grow, and Israel has done some of what is necessary, but Israeli obstacles to Palestinian economic growth are enormous and there is little Israeli goodwill to address those in any significant way. The American and European frustration with Israel’s settlement expansion policies also confront the economic difficulties that full Israeli control over 62 percent of the West Bank impose.
Area C of the West Bank, as designated by the Oslo agreements, is where all of the Israeli settlements are and where all of the available Palestinian land is for economic development and growth. Israel refuses to allow the Palestinians to develop major projects in Area C. The Paris Protocol guiding economic relations between Israel and the Palestinians was signed in 1994 and was meant to be in place for five years. It is outdated and causes real harm to the Palestinian economy, along with the water agreements, tourism, electricity and more.
There is a strong possibility of the US supporting a new United Nations Security Council resolution that would adopt parameters for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This could be the Obama legacy for Israeli- Palestinian peace. There is a lot of anger within the Israeli government toward the US for even considering such a move and lobbyists for Israel in the US are already on the attack in Washington against it. The fact that the new US-Israel security agreement has not been concluded yet, despite Vice President Biden’s most recent Israel trip which aimed at reaching agreement between the sides, is also raising deep concern in Jerusalem. There are debates within the Israeli Cabinet on whether or not to conclude that agreement now or wait until the next president comes in. But there is no way of telling who the next US president will be and no way to know what his or her Israel policy will be.
Public opinion on Israel is changing in the US. Senator Bernie Sanders’ explicit comments, made in New York, the most Jewish state in the US, that the US needs to be more even-handed in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and needs to treat the Palestinians with more dignity is definitely putting a challenge in front of Israel’s government. What is even more significant than Sander’s statements is the growing support among young Americans for that new American sentiment. Sanders may not win the Democratic nomination, but his campaign is a sign of the generational and demographic shift in American politics. And for those praying for a Trump presidency – think twice. Trump has made so many contradictory statements on Israel it is impossible to predict what he will do.
I have written before that young American Jews are disengaging from Israel. That is what I have witnessed in my lectures on US campuses over the past few years. On those campuses where there are organized Jewish Israel support groups, organizations like J Street that support Israel but are against Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, or groups further to the Left such as Jewish Voices for Peace which support boycotts, as well as the number of Jewish supporters in Students for Justice in Palestine – are all growing faster than those groups that support the Israeli government.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even when the security situation is better than now, cannot be ignored or shoved into the “inactive” file on the prime minister’s desk. It is an existential issue for Israel. It is the make or break issue in the current and future relations between Israel and the United States. It is a flashing red light that most of the Israeli public refuses to see. It cannot be resolved by outside forces. It is the issue which will determine the quality of life for Israelis. It will determine Israel’s relations with its own Arab citizens. It will determine how the world perceives Israel. It is not going away.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.