Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the senior aides of US President Barack Obama who were part of the former administration of Obama’s Democratic predecessor, former President Bill Clinton, will definitely remember the battle that took place in the 1990s when Clinton successfully outmanoeuvred Netanyahu by directly addressing Israeli public opinion.
Later on, Bill Clinton embarked on a long road of marathon negotiations, which reached their peak in the Camp David negotiations between late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which renewed hopes for an imminent agreement before these hopes were suddenly dashed. The two parties cast accusations against one another and the second Intifada broke out and assumed a violent exterior. Since then, no real progress has been made in the peace process; rather the institutions of the Palestinian Authority were demolished or diminished and the situation led to what we are seeing today. Hamas are in Gaza, and the PA is in Ramallah, settlements are continuing to increase and Palestinian rights are dwindling.
This has created despair and frustration as shown in public opinion polls; the Palestinians do not believe that the two-state solution will be achieved in the near future nor do they trust Israel’s intentions and its governments. Their view of the future is pessimistic and the same goes for Israeli public opinion, the peaceful current of which has weakened. Right-wing viewpoints gained the upper hand and this was clearly apparent in the explosive issue about settlements.
The efforts of Obama’s administration to achieve peace in the Middle East have surfaced within such a negative atmosphere and these efforts led to no fruitful proposals in the administration’s first year. But when the administration recently began to gain momentum, it clashed with the Israeli position on the settlements in East Jerusalem, embarrassing US Vice President Joe Biden during his recent visit to Israel and sparking off a crisis in Israeli-US relations. However, following America’s clear reproach, Netanyahu was forced to apologize and retract some points; however he remained committed to the settlement issue that appears to be crucial to the unity of his government coalition.
In the address US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made to AIPAC, America’s strongest pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, it was made clear that there is continuous pressure on Netanyahu by continuing to call on Israel to make difficult decisions and to criticize settlement construction in East Jerusalem. This is a message Netanyahu is expected to hear once again during his meeting with Obama.
It is difficult to predict how the crisis will end. Most of the time there are surprises and the Arab Palestinian side acts recklessly and without sound judgment in a way that serves Israeli claims.
However it seems that the PA this time, despite its position against the settlements, has learnt a lesson and it is still committed to indirect negotiations, especially after US Special Envoy George Mitchell conveyed Israeli clarifications to Washington for the PA yesterday.
What matters in the next stage is that the Palestinians avoid committing mistakes or taking action that Israel could use as a pretext to run away from the negotiations. The Palestinians should build on the current momentum and diplomacy and American pledges to create an environment for negotiations and peace and to lead to an ultimate solution. The opportunity for a solution was lost before under President Bill Clinton and the losses were tremendous. The price of missing this opportunity again would be even costlier under President Obama and perhaps this opportunity will not come around again.