Opinion | Opinion

U.S. has no clear path back to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is talking tough. And Israel and the United States don’t seem to mind too much — or else think their best option at this point is to grin and bear it.

Abbas used his Sept. 26 speech to the United Nations General Assembly to accuse Israel of racism and genocide. He and his aides again are raising the possibility of seeking U.N. action to sanction Israel. They appear ready to bypass negotiations with Israel in favor of seeking an international declaration of a Palestinian state — positions consistently opposed by Israel and the United States.

Still, Israeli and U.S. officials have been relatively tepid in their responses. For example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose dramatic and assertive speeches have become an annual tradition at the General Assembly, offered only a quick rejection of Abbas’ withering speech.

Perhaps more telling: Israel no longer seems to be pushing the Obama administration to penalize Abbas. That represents a pivot from Israel’s posture following the breakdown in talks between Israelis and Palestinians in April and before the onset of this summer’s Gaza war. During those months, Israel and its allies in the U.S. pro-Israel community and in Congress were threatening to cut assistance to the Palestinian Authority if Abbas sustained a government of technocrats that was backed by Hamas.

But Abbas is smelling a lot sweeter after Israel’s war with Hamas, according to a lobbyist who works Middle East issues on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers who wanted to punish Abbas before the war are now backing proposals that would return his Fatah party to authority in the Gaza Strip, where it was ousted by Hamas in bloody fighting in 2007.

“Especially with this possible new role in Gaza, Israel may want to keep the Palestinian Authority on life support,” said the lobbyist, who was speaking anonymously in order to be candid.

The Obama administration does not want the Palestinian Authority to bring its case for statehood to the United Nations again, but would not say what it was prepared to do to prevent the P.A. from coming before the Security Council.

“I won’t comment on hypotheticals,” a senior administration official told JTA when asked about Abbas’ proposal last month at the General Assembly to consider an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, with land swaps, within a limited time period.

“I will say, however, that we strongly believe that the preferred course of action is for the parties to reach an agreement on final-status issues directly,” said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid.

“We have long made clear that negotiations are the means by which this conflict will be resolved and that a resolution to it cannot by imposed on the parties.”

Translation: The Obama administration wants to try getting the parties back to the table to renew negotiations that collapsed in April before considering how to deal with the latest Palestinian U.N. initiative.

The Palestinians failed ultimately in their 2012 effort to garner Security Council recognition, not just because the United States made clear it would veto any such attempt, hypothetical or not, but because the Palestinians could not acquire the nine votes out of 15 necessary to take up the bid.

This time, the Palestinians believe their chances have improved. The Jordanian delegation, currently occupying one of the Security Council’s rotating seats, is circulating a draft resolution that would have a state in place by November 2016, with its capital in Jerusalem.

If the Obama administration is not as forthrightly pushing back against the resolution now as it did in 2012, it’s because it lacks a viable alternative, said Tamara Coffman Wittes, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“The United States does not have a pathway back to negotiations,” said Wittes, a Middle East official at the State Department during Obama’s first term.

She pointed out that the Israelis and the Palestinians are at considerable odds: Abbas wants to bypass Israel and take his case to the U.N., while Netanyahu wants to ignore the Palestinians altogether and is pushing for peace with other Arab nations first.

“It’s a much easier place for the United States to say ‘Don’t worry about that, let’s do this instead,’ ” said Wittes, describing the circumstances of U.S. diplomacy two years ago, when the administration was able to tell Security Council members that it is was cobbling together talks and that a resolution was premature.

“It’s much more difficult for the United States to block action in the United Nations” under the current circumstances, she said. “If it doesn’t have that alternative, it’s left with watering down the resolution, trying to moderate it.”

It’s not clear how any statehood resolution could be moderated so that it would be acceptable to Israel while also satisfying the Palestinians. The nine months of talks that ended earlier this year did not seem to produce any formula to overcome Palestinian objections to two Israeli positions: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and for continued Israeli military control of the Jordan Valley.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may next canvas regional powers next week to see how to advance talks when he attends a conference in Cairo. The gathering is aimed at raising funds to rebuild the Gaza Strip following this summer’s war.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is backing bids to fund the Palestinian Authority while underscoring that such funding is conditional on its actions in international arenas. Particularly of concern would be any Palestinian attempt to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court because of its actions in Gaza this summer, an AIPAC official suggested.

In an email, the official forwarded language in current U.S. law that would stop funding in case the Palestinians “initiate an International Criminal Court judicially authorized investigation, or actively support such an investigation, that subjects Israeli nationals to an investigation for alleged crimes against Palestinians.”

Netanyahu has said that any attempt to bring Israel before the ICC would spell the end of the peace process.
And going to the court would also be a red line for Congress, said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

“U.S. law makes it crystal clear that any attempt by the Palestinian Authority to use the International Criminal Court to castigate Israel will terminate U.S. funds to the West Bank and Gaza, period,” Kirk said in an email. “The Palestinian Authority should have absolutely no doubt that the U.S. Congress will enforce this.”