Dim Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

The recent speeches by President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu haven’t advanced prospects for peace, which are crippled by disagreements over core issues and mistrust between U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian leaders, says CFR’s Steven A. Cook.

May 25, 2011

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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President Barack Obama’s speeches at the State Department and the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu speeches in front of Congress and AIPAC, did little to move the needle forward on the prospect of a two-state solution, says CFR’s Steven A. Cook. Obama’s praise for the Arab Spring "was a yawn" in the Arab world, which is feeling empowered and wants to craft its own future, says Cook. And profound differences over Jerusalem and the rights of return of Palestinian refugees, largely because of internal politics, have hamstrung both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Cook adds that the prospects for negotiation are further diminished because of mistrust between U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian leaders. The United States wants to prevent a vote in the UN General Assembly for a Palestinian state that is not the result of direct negotiations with Israel, but Cook is doubtful that anything will "head off a likely train wreck at the United Nations in September."

What is the sum total of all the speeches given over the past several days by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu?

With all the energy that went into the speeches and the anticipation and commentary around them, they did not amount to a lot. For everything the president said about supporting the Arab Spring, in the Arab world his speech generally was a yawn. Arabs are feeling empowered and don’t necessarily want American help. I’m not talking about the governments who are certainly ready to accept the economic assistance the president offered. But in general the people who made these revolutions are less interested in receiving help from the United States and more interested in building their own societies.

One of the real bright spots in the president’s speech last Thursday was when he said we need to approach the uprisings in the Arab world "with a sense of humility." And that’s exactly right, because the Arabs want to build new and decent systems on their own. I don’t think it puts us in a better position than we were had he had not said anything. There is a downside risk, because the United States [can’t] really fully support the Arab Spring because of problems in dealing with countries like Syria, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, where the president’s politics have been different from what they were in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, for example. They are slowly moving in the right direction in Syria.  In regard to the Palestinian and Israeli issues, the rhetoric hasn’t done anything to head off a likely train wreck at the United Nations in September, when the Palestinians say they will seek recognition from the General Assembly. There certainly is no indication of a negotiated solution or that the Palestinians will enter into negotiations. There was nothing, for example, in Netanyahu’s speech that would convince the Palestinians that they should forego their plans at the United Nations. Although Netanyahu’s speech was billed as a bold peace plan, there really was nothing new in the speech.

What is the problem? Is it how to get the parties to talk to each other?

There is a sense that the Palestinians have thrown in the towel. For many years now they have been willing to negotiate, but at the same time the Israelis have done things that have undermined the Palestinian negotiating position. The Palestinian Authority seems weak compared to Hamas. The Israelis quite obviously are unwilling to sit down with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. I don’t think the Israelis should be criticized for that. The Palestinian Authority believes they’ve been undercut and undermined despite their willingness to go forward with negotiations, and the Israelis believe that they cannot possibly sit down with people who want to seek the destruction of Israel, even though they talk about long-term truces and things along those lines.

Obama spoke about going to the pre-1967 borders with land swaps but said the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees should be left to the future. Are these issues non-negotiable for the Netanyahu government?

On Jerusalem alone, successive Israeli governments have been abundantly clear that they regard Jerusalem to be the undivided capital of Israel. Those who have indicated there was room for negotiation have run into political trouble, and as a result it seems to me that Jerusalem itself is nonnegotiable.

That’s correct. On Jerusalem alone, successive Israeli governments have been abundantly clear that they regard Jerusalem to be the undivided capital of Israel. Those who have indicated there was room for negotiation have run into political trouble, and as a result it seems to me that Jerusalem itself is non-negotiable. Netanyahu has a political need to stick with that position. But that’s not something Abbas can swallow. So if you are the president of the Palestinian Authority, you are not inclined to get into a negotiation if this major issue has been taken off the table by your negotiating partner.

On refugees, this is something that the prime minister of Israel is being very honest about. This is what Ariel Sharon and George Bush were saying in 2004 when they indicated that the United States supported Israel’s position on the return of Palestinian refugees. I think it is important symbolically to Palestinians, even though everyone knows that a return of the untold thousands of refugees and their descendents is not a viable position. Whether Abbas is right on the principles or not doesn’t really make a difference. He has a domestic concern that he cannot be seen as giving up on the right of return, which has become so important in Palestinian politics.

Beyond the differences on these positions, there is a structural problem in that Netanyahu’s domestic political needs make it impossible for him to negotiate on Israeli core issues, and Abbas’s domestic political position makes it impossible to negotiate on Palestinian core issues and so neither side can really show flexibility.

You said at the beginning that we’re heading for a "train wreck" at the General Assembly session in September. What is it that Palestinians are really seeking from the UN, and can the United States on its own block it?

It can’t block it in the General Assembly. It can block it in the Security Council if it comes up there, where it can use its veto, and it can use whatever its political influence is in the United Nations to try to prevent this from happening. The president is on record saying he supports only a negotiated solution and the emergence of a Palestinian state that way. If the Palestinians continue down this path, and feel the wind to their sails, they will go ahead. The issue is now not what happens in September, but whether the Obama administration begins working on allies in Europe and elsewhere to get them to soften or change their position. If the administration is not successful in doing that, you’re going to have a situation where you have major countries recognizing a Palestinian state, which creates a really difficult diplomatic situation for Israel obviously, and for the United States, which is on record as supporting a Palestinian state but not through a United Nations vote.

At Camp David in 1978, President Carter worked out the outline of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that was signed in 1979. President Clinton came very close to a deal in 2000-2001. President Obama has not really gotten his hands dirty, so to speak, in hands-on negotiation. Should he?

Right out of the box, he did work on this issue, with his declaration that there should be a settlement freeze by the Israelis on the West Bank and he applied pressure on the Israelis to move this issue to a negotiation. He declared that solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue was in the national interests of the United States. The White House seems to have determined now that there is nothing at this point that would be worthwhile for the president to spend the amount of time that he would require for him to really get deeply involved in a Camp David-type of situation.

There is not a lot to work with, and so neither the administration nor the Israelis nor the Palestinians has tremendous interest right now into getting involved in negotiations because they’re so far apart on the core issues.

There remains a tremendous amount of distrust, or mistrust, or uncertainty in the relationship between the president and the Israeli prime minister. The Israelis were blindsided by the president’s raising the 1967 borders issue in his Thursday speech. I think that they felt that they were not prepared for this, even though quite honestly, it is not a new formulation. There is not a lot to work with, and so neither the administration nor the Israelis nor the Palestinians has tremendous interest right now into getting involved in negotiations, because they’re so far apart on the core issues.

The Egyptians army said they were going to put Mubarak and his two sons on trial (NYT) for the death of protestors. Are Israelis alarmed because Mubarak was their great supporter?

They regarded Mubarak as a strategic asset, and the Israelis are quite concerned about what might happen in a country that they were not terribly concerned about for the last three decades. Public opinion matters more in Egyptian politics than ever before--and we saw the results of a recent Pew poll in which 54 percent of Egyptians said they wanted to bring an end to the Camp David accords and peace treaty. You have people running for president seeking to placate those kinds of sentiments. They are talking about renegotiating Camp David. No one has said they want to break the peace treaty. They want to downgrade the relationship between Egypt and Israel from a strategic to a normal relationship. The military is under a tremendous amount of pressure from the Egyptian public, and there are calls for a second Egyptian revolution on May 27. One of the reasons that they are calling for the second Egyptian revolution is that there were rumors in Cairo that the Supreme Council of the armed forces was preparing to pardon President Mubarak and his sons.