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For Middle East Peace, More Heat Than Light

The prospects for peace between Israel and Pales­tine, and U.S. policy on the com­pli­cated issue, cap­tured the world’s atten­tion ear­lier this month, as Pres­i­dent Obama deliv­ered a major speech on the Middle East, fol­lowed by a day­long meeting between the pres­i­dent and Israeli Prime Min­ister Ben­jamin Netanyahu and Netanyahu’s sub­se­quent address to Con­gress. Kim­berly Jones, a fac­ulty asso­ciate in Northeastern’s Middle East Center for Peace, Cul­ture and Devel­op­ment, assesses the impact of these developments.

How has the Israeli prime minister’s visit to the United States changed the land­scape for a poten­tial Israeli-​​Palestinian peace agree­ment? What major bar­riers remain?

In some ways they have made the ter­rain less con­ducive to pos­i­tive change. Trans­forming the land­scape of the con­flict would mean working to change the struc­tures and rela­tion­ships that have per­pet­u­ated Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

The tremen­dously pos­i­tive recep­tion Israeli Prime Min­ister Netanyahu gar­nered in the U.S. Con­gress, com­bined with Pres­i­dent Obama’s unwill­ing­ness, thus far, to match his democracy-​​promoting rhetoric with more sig­nif­i­cant polit­ical and policy-​​oriented action in this con­flict, has likely left many in the region scratching their heads.

Addi­tion­ally, the apparent divi­sions between the U.S. pres­i­dent and Israeli prime min­ister, on which some in the media have focused, is a rel­a­tive puddle com­pared to the ocean that sep­a­rates the Israelis and Pales­tinians. Among the oft-​​cited major issues yet to be resolved are bor­ders and Israeli set­tle­ments in the West Bank, which are con­nected, Pales­tinian refugees and their right of return, and the dis­puted status of Jerusalem.

What is the sig­nif­i­cance of Pres­i­dent Obama calling for nego­ti­a­tions to start with the 1967 bound­aries? How will this affect the per­cep­tion of the U.S. in that region of the world?

Pres­i­dent Obama’s state­ment on the ’67 bor­ders was not a rad­ical shift in U.S. for­eign policy, although some may attempt to spin it oth­er­wise, and it was couched in familiar U.S. rhetoric.  The pres­i­dent empha­sized Israeli secu­rity, affirmed “our unshak­able com­mit­ment” to Israel, and berated the intran­si­gent Hamas. An honest assess­ment of things needed to trans­form the con­flict would address Israeli secu­rity, but would also acknowl­edge that Israeli and Pales­tinian secu­rity are inter­de­pen­dent – that Pales­tinians living under occu­pa­tion without basic respect for many human rights require jus­tice to suc­cess­fully build a sus­tain­able peace.

Will these new devel­op­ments have an impact on the pro­posed United Nations vote later this year on a res­o­lu­tion rec­og­nizing Pales­tinian statehood?

There is a lot of time between now and a pos­sible United Nations vote on state­hood, and as we have seen in the Middle East this year, a tremen­dous amount can change in a rel­a­tively short time frame. Pales­tinians’ strategic cal­cu­la­tions about the res­o­lu­tion and its timing will have to take into account internal, regional and global considerations.

In the mean­time, Pales­tinians have yet again endeav­ored to do some­thing pos­i­tive — to build bridges across the polit­ical and ide­o­log­ical chasms that sep­a­rate Fatah and Hamas in an effort to reha­bil­i­tate the democ­racy they were con­structing. When Hamas won free and fair demo­c­ratic elec­tions in 2006, they were shunned by much of the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity, Pales­tinian gov­er­nance devolved and fac­tional vio­lence wrecked havoc on their society. So, in addi­tion to focusing on the Gen­eral Assembly’s so-​​called “sym­bolic actions,” to quote Pres­i­dent Obama, the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity should pay atten­tion to the very real oppor­tu­ni­ties pre­sented by the Pales­tinian reconciliation

– by Greg St. Martin

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