Obama and the Middle East: What Next for the Two State Solution?

Marina Sergides considers whether recent events can bring us any closer to peace in the Middle East

On 19 May 2011 President Barack Obama set out his vision for a two state solution in the Middle East. At first glance, it appeared to be a surprising and promising variation on America’s unfaltering support for Israel:

“The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state”.

Of course, the return of pre-1967 borders would require Israel to dismantle its illegal settlements and return Jewish settlers to Israel. However, the initial enthusiasm for Obama’s apparently progressive stance was short-lived. There is a significant difference between, on the one hand, saying that the establishment of a Palestinian state “will be based on” 1967 borders and, on the other, saying it “will be established on” 1967 borders. So, quick to benefit from the vagueness of his terms, Obama subsequently clarified his position following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s angry response to his comments. He subsequently said:

“Let me reaffirm what ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps’ means. By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.”

When one then considers Congress’s overwhelming support to Mr Netanyahu’s blatant defiance of any proposal to change the status quo, Obama’s initial progressive vision is, arguably, thwarted. On 24 May 2011 Netanyahu gave a speech to a jubilant American Congress. He set out the following ‘conditions’ to peace: 1. Israel will not talk to Hamas; 2. East Jerusalem will continue to be regarded as Israel’s capital (despite East Jerusalem being currently occupied); 3. There will be no return to the 1967 borders; and 4. The right of return for the Palestinian people will not be part of any settlement and should be resolved ‘outside of Israel’s borders’. During the course of his speech, Netanyahu simply repeated Israel’s unlawful stance. Senators and members of the House of Representatives rose to their feet more than 55 times during the speech, in a show of bipartisan support. Of course, two-thirds of these law makers had already heard Netanyahu the previous night at top US pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. AIPAC raises millions each year and pushes Congress to enact pro-Israel legislation such as tightened sanctions on Iran. AIPAC has indisputably emerged as the most influential foreign policy lobby in the United States — possibly eclipsing the traditional powerhouse lobbies for domestic gun rights, oil and army retirees.

It is abundantly clear, therefore, that the Israeli – American special relationship is fiercely protected and, in the short-term, there is little point in even attempting to redefine it. Perhaps, then, we should look for hope in events that are beyond the control of America and outside Israel’s reach. On 25 May 2011, Egypt announced that its border crossing with the Gaza Strip will be opened permanently. The decision represents a sharp turnaround from the position under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, whose government had restricted movement of people and goods from the enclave. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi stated that Cairo planned to open the crossing, ending what he called his country’s “shameful” cooperation in keeping it closed. In yet further changes, Hamas and Fatah representatives have reached agreement on the issues dividing them. The rival Palestinian factions have signed a landmark reconciliation pact aimed at ending their bitter four-year rift – a deal that was mediated by Egypt. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said the accord ended “four black years” that hurt national Palestinian interests. The pact provides for the creation of a joint caretaker Palestinian government before national elections next year. Lastly, one must also remember that whilst Israel continues to be ‘best buddies’ with the US, it has faced increasing international condemnation for its actions in the occupied territories and has lost some very important allies. Following Israel’s deadly attack on the flotilla in 2010, Turkey (historically a strong strategic and military ally of Israel) declared that relations between the two nations would never be the same again and that “Israel’s practices were inhuman”.

The wave of political change sweeping across the Middle East will undoubtedly have a profound impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations. The US and Israel can no longer rely on ‘client’ states such as Egypt to maintain the status quo. Further, should the newly found pact between Hamas and Fatah solidify, then Israeli will face, for the first time in a number of years, a more formidable and united Palestinian political force. Finally, as the discussion about the shifting of the international balance of power, away from the Western powers and towards the BRIC countries, grows ever louder, Israel’s ability to forcefully assert its political, military and economic with near impunity seems far less certain. It is difficult to predict how all of these factors will ultimately play out but what is clear is that the newly unfolding geopolitical landscape, in the Middle East and beyond, presents the Palestinian people and its leaders with an unprecedented opportunity based on at least some well-founded hope.

Marina Sergides, along with fellow Garden Court barristers John Beckley and Liz Davies, recently visited Palestine on a fact-finding mission into house demolitions and evictions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Their report, “Enforcing Housing Rights: The Case of Sheik Jarrah”, can be read at the website of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers.

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