Obama and the Peace Process

11/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I could only shake my head in amazement as I listened to President Obama -- ahead of his New York meeting with Israeli premier Netanyahu and Palestinian 'president' Mahmoud Abbas -- trying to put a brave face on his administration's failure to convince Israel to freeze all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories.

After nine months of shuttle diplomacy by special envoy Senator Mitchell, the US has little or nothing to show for its efforts to restart the peace process on sound footing. Since his appointment, Senator Mitchell has tried and failed to get the Israelis to fulfill their commitments under the US/International Roadmap for Peace and, more importantly, under its obligations under the IV Geneva Convention, especially settling segments of its populations in occupied territories.

But failure is not new to the peace process; it has been failing -- albeit successfully -- for 18 years. Under Washington's sponsorship Israelis and Palestinians have signed seven interim agreements with much fanfare, only for the situation on the ground to deteriorate further.

If the US couldn't get Israel to end Jewish settlements, how will it convince it to end occupation altogether?

Since the peace process started in 1991 in Madrid -- re-launched in 1993 with the participation of the PLO -- the number of illegal Jewish settlements and settlers has tripled- reaching almost half a million in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- networked by for-Jews-only bypass roads that also connect them to Israel. If settlement continues unabated, it will be impossible in a few years to separate Palestinians and Israelis into two states.

To their credit, both President Obama and Senator Mitchell understood early on that the growth of Jewish settlement not only undermines diplomatic peaceful settlement, but has long been the greatest source of tension and engine of violence in the occupied territories.

After its investigation into the break of the second Intifadah in 2000, the Mitchell Commission recommended that the government of Israel "should freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements." President Obama urged Israel to do the same during his Cairo speech in the spring.

This was all to no avail. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who considers Israeli withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip a 'mistake,' opposes any meaningful freeze on settlements, let alone dismantling them to allow for a contiguous and viable Palestinian state.

But even if his radical Right wing coalition did agree to a temporary freeze, Netanyahu wants to know if this is the beginning or the end of American demands, or worse, interference in Israel's policies in the occupied territories and especially in East Jerusalem.

Since the 1967 war and occupation of Palestinian land, the US and Israel had an implicit strategic division of labor: Israeli has a say, but the US has the last word in the Middle East region, while in Palestine, the US might have a say about the future of the territories and East Jerusalem, but it's Israel that has the last word. Any change has led to tension, at least publicly.

The Obama administration has come closest to the position of the Bush/Baker policy of demanding complete freeze on Jewish settlements. Moreover, it made it clear that resolving the 'conflict' and ending the occupation is part and parcel of US national security interest in the region.

But this is exactly what is needed in order to move the process forward. The international community was sidelined in favor of US sponsorship of the Middle East diplomatic process because of Washington's strategic leverage over its ally Israel -- the occupier. Unless it uses it, no matter how much lipstick the Obama administration applies, this pig ain't getting any prettier.