Commentary: U.S. politics will trump chance for Middle East peace

There is an old joke, of sorts, about conflicts in the Middle East that has been around for as long as there have been efforts by outsiders to end them. A mediator, frustrated at the lack of progress, asks both sides to get serious. The stronger side replies, "Why should I negotiate when I have such an advantage?" The weaker side asks, "How can I negotiate when I am at such a disadvantage?"

That pretty much sums up the situation today as Washington works to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Unfortunately the joke is on the United States. Not only is there no progress towards peace, but American ability to help achieve it is about to suffer further. That outcome might be avoided, but it won't be because politics at home is going to trump the chances for peace abroad.

The reason this will happen is because later this month, Palestinian officials will go to the United Nations and ask to be recognized as a member state, an upgrade from their current status as an observer. The U.S. has threatened to veto such a move in the Security Council, so the issue will be brought up in the General Assembly. There an overwhelming majority of the 193 member states will vote for it. The United States along with Israel, a few island nations of the Pacific, and at most a handful of others, will vote no.

The U.S. has taken the position that, while a two-state solution is the desired outcome, it must be achieved through negotiations between one state and the Palestinians. Any other attempt by the latter to become a state will, according to this tortured logic, harm their chances for becoming a state.

The problem is the prime minister of the stronger side, Benjamin Netanyahu, is not interested in negotiating seriously. There is a sizeable domestic constituency in Israel that believes it has a biblical right to cheap, heavily-subsidized housing on someone else's land. Those half a million West Bank settlers are key to Netanyahu's coalition and his government would fall if they walked out.

So he prefers to hold on to power rather than risk losing it by trying to lead his country to peace.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates found this attitude so frustrating that in a recent article in The Atlantic, Gates was described as telling a National Security Council Principals meeting shortly before he left government that Netanyahu was not only ungrateful for U.S. military assistance, but that he was also "endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel's growing isolation and with the demographic challenges it faces if it keeps control of the West Bank."

When President Obama gave his speech on the Middle East back in May, he said: "Everyone knows a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace."

A Palestinian state might feel encouraged enough to negotiate seriously even though it would remain the weaker side given Israel's military and economic superiority. A diplomatic solution where both states exchanged mutual recognition leading to a UN resolution that all could support should be the focus of American efforts, not punishing the Palestinians.

So why can't Palestinian self-determination allow for being recognized as a state now? The arguments against such a move amount to little more than a defense of Netanyahu's intransigence. By isolating itself alongside Netanyahu, the United States will only diminish its credibility as an honest broker. And as democracy grows in the region, American influence will shrink even further.

But no pressure will be brought to bear on Netanyahu and he will continue to thumb his nose at the White House. That is because Republicans are more interested in finding a wedge issue than they are peace.

For instance, they blasted the president for suggesting in his speech that the 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps should be part of the negotiations. Such a position has been American policy for some time, but they claimed it showed Obama was not supportive enough.

Israelis did not have the same reaction. According to an opinion poll done by Tel Aviv University in the weeks following the speech, only 31 percent of Israeli Jews believed Obama's position was pro-Palestinian, down from 58 percent in July of last year.

While 78 percent of Americans Jews voted for Obama, Republicans hope such baseless criticism will reduce his margin just enough to win Florida and Ohio next year. If the White House does not change hands, American policy may one day again serve American interests and Israel's as well. If there is a new occupant, what little influence and ability America has to help achieve peace will decline even more.


Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.