Speaking yesterday at the White House Iftar dinner yesterday, President Obama reiterated his support for a peace agreement that would end what he called the “unsustainable status quo” between Israel and the Palestinians. But while his support for peace is appropriate, his inability to connect the dots between the fighting in Gaza and his hopes demonstrates anew the administration’s tone-deaf approach to the Middle East.
The president deserves credit for making it clear that the United States supports Israel’s right to self-defense against what he rightly termed “inexcusable attacks” by Hamas rockets from Gaza. That he did so at a dinner for American Muslims is doubly welcome. But it is discouraging to see that the administration’s mindset about Middle East diplomacy is unaffected by events on the ground.
President Obama is right in the sense that resolving the situation requires more than just a cease-fire. But the knee-jerk impulse to try to revive talks between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority as a response to the crisis reflects a profound lack of understanding about why peace has eluded the region up until now.
Israelis rightly think that any cease-fire with Hamas must do something more than simply allow the terrorist group to remain in place ruling Gaza as an independent state in all but name with a rocket arsenal that can be employed any time the Islamists feel like starting another round of fighting. But the president appears uninterested in either diplomacy or support for action that would oust Hamas or strip it of its weapons. Instead, he is focused on another attempt to forge an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority.
The PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas preferred to conclude a unity agreement with Hamas this spring instead of sticking to peace negotiations with Israel. But that didn’t impact Obama’s glowing view of Abbas or cause him to cut aid to the PA even though the law requires him to cease the flow of U.S. taxpayer dollars to any entity in cahoots with terrorists. Rather than Abbas influencing Hamas to embrace peace as the Americans hoped, he has become a helpless bystander as his partners dragged the region back into war via terrorism and rocket fire aimed at Israel’s cities.
That should have signaled to the U.S. that its faith in Abbas as a reliable partner for peace with Israel was misplaced. But the flare-up of Hamas terror in the form of the kidnapping of three Jewish teenagers last month and the subsequent barrage of hundreds of rockets on Israeli citizens should do more than spur U.S. efforts to broker a cease-fire or to revive peace talks. Hamas’s ability to revert to violence any time it wants is doing grave damage to support for a two-state solution inside Israel. If a cease-fire leaves them in place, it could kill it altogether.
Most Israelis, including many who support Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, support a two-state solution in principle as the best way out of the conflict. But, unlike most Americans, they have been paying attention to recent events and what they portend for a deal that would require Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, something that it already tried in Gaza. While the assumption is that a pact with Abbas creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank, and presumably a share of Jerusalem, would include security guarantees, the Palestinians are not interested in any diminishment of their future sovereignty and Israelis have good reason not to trust that the U.S. would vigorously enforce any deal.
More to the point, as Hamas continually reminds us, the conflict is about the “occupation.” But when Palestinians use that word, they are referring to Israel within its June 1967 borders, not the West Bank or Gaza, which isn’t occupied anyway.
What the Israelis have learned is that when they withdraw from territory, it becomes a base for terror and there’s little they can do about it even if they are prepared to use massive military force. The world doesn’t permit Israel to seek to oust Hamas or to go in and take out their rocket launchers and it would treat an independent West Bank in the same way. The only problem is that a terror state in the West Bank would be far more dangerous for Israel than even Gaza is today. As Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Friday, a withdrawal, with or without U.S. security guarantees that would probably be meaningless, would create 20 Gazas on their eastern border.
Thus, the invocation of the phrase about an “unsustainable status quo” is likely to ring hollow in Israeli ears. They don’t like the status quo but they also know that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected an end to the conflict or recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Unless he is prepared to back action that would rid the region of Hamas and its allies, the president’s anodyne hopes for peace are meaningless. Replacing an admittedly unsustainable status quo with a new reality that would be even more dangerous is not an option for Israel and would do little good for Palestinians, who would suffer from the carnage that their leaders create. So long as the Islamists are allowed to launch rockets at Israel any time they like, the two-state solution is a pipe dream.