WASHINGTON, DC – Leading up to President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel next week, speculation abounds about what the trip will mean for the currently dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The recent history of that process, however, indicates that the buzz might be unfounded.
Though the White House has denied that the peace process is at the center of Obama’s trip, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference that the peace process would be among his top three priorities when he meets with Obama (the other two, Netanyahu said, are Iran and Syria).
Yet there are significant obstacles for either leader if they want to move the peace process—which has taken a backseat on the Israeli agenda of late to issues such as the Iranian nuclear threat, Syria’s civil war and chemical weapons arsenal, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—from the back burner to the fore.
“It’s just on a slower track, because the gaps between Israelis and Palestinians are huge,” Aaron David Miller—the former Middle East peace negotiator under President Bill Clinton and an advisor to six Secretaries of State—said of the peace process in an interview with JNS.org at the AIPAC conference.
President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA) for the last two years has staged unilateral statehood bids at the United Nations, attaining nonmember observer state status last fall. The Palestinians’ unilateral moves have been widely viewed as a serious setback for the peace process.
Internal issues for both the Palestinians and the Israelis also contribute to the slow movement of the process, according to Miller.
“The Palestinian national movement is fundamentally divided,” he told JNS.org. “You see how much difficulty the [Israeli] prime minister is having trying to form a coalition.”
“[The peace process is] a back burner issue because we can’t resolve it now,” Miller said. “It doesn’t mean that people forgot about it, or that it’s off the burners. It’s just for now going to move forward at a much slower pace. Iran and Syria [are] much more kinetic and dynamic issues.”
Both American and Israeli leaders expressed similar sentiments at the AIPAC conference regarding the timetable for a potential Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
“I know a fully fledged agreement is probably not feasible today,” outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at a March 3 plenary session.
“We are under no illusions about how difficult it will be to achieve,” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said of peace at a March 4 plenary.
At an AIPAC breakout session, Miller, who currently works at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said a conflict-ending agreement is almost “unimaginable” right now. Despite the obstacles to peace, Bill Clinton had the attitude of “trying and failing is better than not having tried at all,” Miller recalled, proceeding to explain the pitfalls of that attitude for the U.S.
“But we’re not a high school football team,” Miller said. “This is not a strategy for the most consequential nation on earth.” He added that failure “has costs.”
Biden also quoted Clinton at the AIPAC conference, saying the U.S. needs to “get caught trying.”
“We make no apologies for continuing to pursue that goal [of Israeli-Palestinian peace], for pursuing a better future,” the vice president said.
David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East Peace Process, spoke at the same AIPAC session as Miller and said the tough sledding of the peace process partially arises from the fact that the Middle East is “a rough part of the world that doesn’t lend itself to law books.” Yet the peace process is not a futile exercise because of its upside, Makovsky said. He noted the 3,000 soldiers Israel lost in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the “peace dividend” resulting from an accord with Egypt preventing such conflicts.
“It has saved lives—Jewish lives, Arab lives—and it has saved a lot of money that can be used to raise the standard of living of people in Israel,” Makovsky said of peace.
Miller agreed, telling the breakout session crowd that despite the difficulty associated with the peace process, it is “too critical to abandon as well.”
The role America plays in the peace process will be determined by the decision Obama makes, specifically whether or not he chooses to use that process as part of his attempt to carve a “transformational legacy,” Miller said.
“Governing is about choosing, and Barack Obama has to decide, right now, where he wants to put his eggs, into which basket,” he said.
Obama is being pulled in two different directions, according to Miller. While he cannot afford to, on his watch, see the two-state solution expire, Obama also “looks at the [Israeli-Palestinian] war the way it is, not just the way he wants it to be.”
Biden told the AIPAC crowd that the U.S. will continue to oppose unilateral Palestinian actions that circumvent the peace process.
“There is no shortcut to peace, there is no shortcut to face to face negotiations,” he said.
Netanyahu, who like Obama did not appear in person at the AIPAC conference because of their upcoming meeting in Israel, told the crowd in a live satellite message that the U.S. and Israel have a “common quest” for “a peace that will end [the Israeli-Palestinian] conflict once and for all.” But Netanyahu stressed that peace must be “based in reality.”
“As Israel’s prime minister, I will never compromise on our security,” he said.
Barak said, “A two-state solution is the only viable solution.” He said Israel has a “compelling imperative” to maintain a democratic Jewish identity as a state, meaning a two-state solution would not just be “a favor for the Palestinians.” Barak praised Netanyahu’s “courageous steps” such as an unprecedented construction freeze in the West Bank, and said the Palestinians “still bear most of the responsibility for past failures” of peace efforts.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told the AIPAC crowd that the biggest obstacle to peace is “the lack of a credible negotiating partner on the Palestinian side.” While Abbas “continues to posture as a moderate,” the PA president has published a doctoral dissertation denying the Holocaust, Cornyn noted.