U.S. Vice President Joe Biden left the Middle East Thursday on a pleasant note. After talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, he visited the ruined city of Petra, one of the wonders of the ancient world. But he’s unlikely to be brimming with enthusiasm for a return visit anytime soon. On Tuesday, March 9, after Biden had professed unconditional U.S. support for Israel on the eve of indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that the Obama Administration plans to conduct, the Israeli government delivered the diplomatic equivalent of a slap in the face by announcing the construction of 1,600 new housing units in occupied East Jerusalem. The announcement underscored the failure of the Obama Administration to get the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to comply with its demand that Israel halt all construction on territory seized in the war of 1967. And it reinforced Palestinian and Arab skepticism regarding Netanyahu as a peace partner: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, with the backing of the Arab League, is threatening to stay out of talks unless Israel reverses its Jerusalem building plan.
While the international press wonders whether the peace process can survive, the reality is that Biden’s mission was doomed before arrival. The “proximity” talks require U.S. Middle East special envoy Senator George Mitchell to shuttle back and forth between Ramallah and Jerusalem to relay the thoughts of the two sides, because the Palestinians refuse to talk directly to the Israelis while settlement construction continues. And the Netanyahu government insists that Israel’s control over all of Jerusalem is nonnegotiable, despite the fact that finding a formula to share the city claimed by both sides as their capital has long been a feature of final-status negotiations. Meeting with Mitchell doesn’t constitute much more than Middle Eastern hospitality; both sides are recipients of massive amounts of U.S. aid, and neither is likely to turn him down if he wants to pay a visit. But holding separate conversations with Mitchell is hardly a peace process — it may be little more than political theater.
Abbas maintains the pretense of a peace process because he can’t survive without it. The Palestinian Authority that he leads is the creation of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was meant to be the precursor to a Palestinian state. But 17 years later, still stateless, the PA is largely propped up by U.S. support. Abbas’ term as elected President has expired, but the U.S. isn’t pushing for new elections because they could spell doom for moderates like Abbas. (His Fatah Party, after all, was trounced by the militants of Hamas in 2006 in the last Palestinian legislative election.) Ordinary Palestinians have grown tired of seeing their leaders shaking hands with Israelis and Americans to no avail while Israeli encroachment on their territory continues to expand. The only leverage Abbas has allowed himself to pursue is American support, which means he can’t reject negotiations with Netanyahu even though he expects them to go nowhere — and pays a domestic political price for just showing up.
Israelis previously did a better job of appearing to stick to the peace-process script, proclaiming their desire to see the conflict settled through the creation of a Palestinian state even as their own actions steadily precluded it. Settlement construction on occupied territory has mushroomed since Oslo, with the number of Israelis living on land captured in 1967 almost quadrupling since the beginning of the peace process. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was particularly adept at the game, unilaterally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2005 in the hope that it would, in the words of one of his top advisers, “pour formaldehyde on the peace process.” He was helped by Hamas, which took over Gaza and started using it as a rocket-launching pad, souring Israeli public opinion on the very idea of surrendering land for peace.
Beyond the diplomatic embarrassment of the Biden incident, the announcement of plans for new construction in East Jerusalem underscores the fact that the Israeli government is not willing to accept the Palestinian bottom line for a two-state solution — borders drawn loosely along the lines of those of 1967, with a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu later apologized for the timing of the construction announcement but not for the fact that Israelis were continuing to build settlements in the Holy City. In fact, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported this week that the Israeli government is processing plans to build 50,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem in the coming years.
Pretending that the positions of the Palestinians and Israelis can be reconciled through shuttle diplomacy seems increasingly futile. And the Obama Administration is unlikely to take the domestically risky option of trying to pressure Israel into accepting positions on settlements and borders that it is disinclined to adopt willingly. Instead, it appears likelier to try to fudge the issue. Before he left Israel, Biden scolded the government for undermining the trust that is a necessary precursor to negotiations. But Biden doesn’t seem to have grasped the Netanyahu government’s own tacit message: that it doesn’t see Israel’s presence in East Jerusalem as being up for negotiation.