Israel and Palestine. It’s an issue that many people refuse to touch with a 10-foot pole, dismissing it as a hopeless black hole of debate. Over the past 20 years, it seems the only thing the peace talks and diplomatic back-and-forth can achieve is the continuation of more peace talks … and this is perhaps the most important and enduring impact of the Middle East peace process. Whether in process, post-process or working towards a new process, its mere existence legitimizes the status quo of the situation, despite overwhelming international condemnation of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and a list of U.N. resolutions against Israeli policy almost as never-ending as the expansion of Israeli settlements.
For many powerful actors, reinforcing the status quo seems like the safest solution. With such an unstable situation, any change is threatening.
However, in this case, maintaining the status quo is not a lack of change. It means continued unlawful Israeli settlement into the lands of Palestine, the slow displacement and carving up of any would-be Palestinian land. This means that if the peace process crawls along at its current pace, in another 20 years, there would essentially be nothing left of which to create a Palestinian state.
One of the more powerful voices in avoiding change is America, who struggles to maintain a balance between a relationship with Israel that takes the word ”alliance” to the farthest limits, a role as a key mediator in the peace process, and the security implications that both have on America’s reputation in the Middle East. I believe our failure to establish concrete decisions leading to real change has more to do with the nature of America’s relationship with Israel than with the complexities of the situation in Israel and Palestine.
I’m reminded of a debate between Vice President Biden and Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign. When Israel came up in the debate there was a strange exchange where both tried to prove that they were more committed to Israel – not just as a diplomatic ally, but in terms of a strong, emotional bond. Palin, characteristic of her unique lack of political suavity, actually summed up the reality of U.S. politics on Israel quite accurately when she gushed, "I'm so encouraged to know that we both love Israel!"
The political-diplomatic American machine has funneled so much momentum into its nearly unconditional support for Israel over the past couple decades that it now seems to have lost control, plowing forward in this policy without revaluating its consequences or considering alternative solutions.
This relationship with Israel is dangerous for the United States, because we now lack the flexibility to adjust our policies to changing realities and shifting interests. Even if recent events in the Middle East fail to produce substantive change in the political structures of the region, they are changing the way that people see their relationship with their states.
As this transformation of socio-political worldviews occurs, it is important for the United States to prove that its relationship with the region is also changing, to close the book on an era darkened by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the War on Terror. This transformative period is still ongoing, but if the United States doesn’t take action soon, she will discover that she has lost the opportunity.
For people throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the issue of Palestine is the critical Arab-Muslim issue. Many see America’s role in the issue and her relationship with Israel as the embodiment of America’s obtrusive and problematic role in the Middle East as a whole. For this reason, the bid for statehood that Palestine submitted to the United Nations on September 23 represents an important opportunity for the United States to prove its commitment to reshaping its relationships in the Middle East.
The Palestinian statehood bid signals a shift in the age-old Israel-Palestine dispute. It is closely connected with the Arab Spring, representing Palestinians’ attempt to challenge seemingly unshakeable yet corrupt institutions just as so many popular movements in the region have tried to do. Leaders of the Palestinian National Authority have previously lacked almost any agency or leverage in the peace process. To gain international legitimacy, the Palestinian leaders had to conform to the requests of Israel and the United States, yet the same actions delegitimized them in the eyes of many Palestinians, again weakening their diplomatic authority.
With the statehood bid, though, the Palestinian leaders have asserted a degree of control, forcing other key players to react. The United States does not want to veto the request in the Security Council, particularly not in the current socio-political climate of the Middle East. However, her relationship with Israel requires her to do so, no matter how negatively it may impact other components of her policy.
The bid for statehood, then, at least forces the United States to confront the dangers and contradictions of its policy on Israel and Palestine and the strong influence Israel exerts over policy. There really is no better time to do so. The foundations of the status quo on Israel and Palestine are crumbling; the attack on the Israeli embassy in Egypt serves as a particularly vivid illustration of this fact.
In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is among the most confrontational and least capable of negotiations of any of Israel’s past leaders. In the eyes of many in the Middle East, Netanyahu publicly humiliated Obama on multiple occasions, reinforcing the belief that America is in some ways subject to Israel. Obama has tried twice to call for a settlement freeze, only to have Netanyahu force him to back down. The second time Netanyahu actually publicly scolded Obama. Democratic congressmen responded by publicly supporting Netanyahu over Obama. Now is the time to reassert the United States’ independence in policy and relationships in the Middle East, to return to the center and out from under Israel’s influence.
The alliance with Israel need not be dismantled by support for a Palestinian state. Supporting the statehood bid does not have to contradict support for Israel’s security. Were America and Israel to accept the bid, the more radical and violent groups in the situation would be marginalized. President Abbas and Fatha would enjoy new legitimacy and their diplomatic approach to the issue would be reinforced. Hamas and other groups would no longer be able to take as extreme or violent positions against Israel. Particularly in a time when the tendency is towards popular unrest, this could prove an important move.
Unfortunately, the current political climate suggests little hope for policy change. Democratic and Republican congressmen alike have both rushed to propose harsh sanctions against Palestine and even any country that votes for Palestinian statehood in an attempt to show their support for Israel.
For this reason, shifting popular opinions towards Israel and Palestine and popular action are some of the few forces capable of challenging American policy on this issue. However, Israel-Palestine remains more an issue of politicians than an issue of the general population. As long as this continues, as long as we refuse to even get within ten feet of the issue, this policy is unlikely to change.