Moving past stalemate in the Middle East

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during his ceremonial swearing in at the State Department in Washington, D.C.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

With the U.S. administration’s foreign policy team shaping up and planned visits by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East, there are renewed hopes for movement on the political process. While welcoming these developments, we believe the effectiveness of the U.S. role in the region hinges on a robust and sustained policy pushing toward the resolution of the conflict as opposed to just managing it.

Although the recent Israeli elections showed how passive and indifferent Israelis have become about resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, I believe many outside observers are misreading the situation. The Israeli public is sheltered, even blinded, from seeing the immense and imminent danger facing Israel if the two-state solution collapses. The relative calm along with economic prosperity are contributing to the false impression that all is well, when the reality is quite different.

On the Israeli side, the unabated building of illegal settlements and other facts on the ground, such as the Israeli-constructed wall in the West Bank, are destroying prospects for two states and are pushing the two peoples, unwillingly, toward a one-state solution instead. Demographic projections indicate that Palestinians and non-Jews are going to become a majority soon in all areas under Israel’s control. If this materializes, Israelis will be confronted with two options, neither of which is appealing to them: granting citizenship and equal rights to everyone under their control regardless of ethnicity (which would destroy the identity that Israel is seeking), or keeping the status quo and creating a racist and non-democratic state.


On the Palestinian side, hope is mixed with apprehension over the future. Despite the persistence of the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian leadership has affirmed a culture of nonviolence. This has been reflected in Palestinian political prisoners waging hunger strikes and villagers erecting tents to protest the confiscation of Palestinian land. Palestine’s admission to the United Nations as a nonmember observer state falls within this context of peaceful, diplomatic and political struggle.

Of course, a major challenge for us is ending internal divisions, and we are working on it. The irony is, however, that the more the Palestinians tilt toward nonviolence and diplomacy, the more Israel responds with illegal settlements expansion, restrictions and violence against Palestinians.

The potential for an agreement is there; we just need to create the conditions for it to succeed. The two sides can capitalize on progress made since the Taba talks of 2001. Everybody knows the parameters: a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed-upon land swaps similar in size and quality, a shared capital in Jerusalem, acceptable and legitimate security arrangements and an agreed-upon and just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem based on the 1948 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194. The success of any political process depends on clear terms of reference, a clear time frame and a clear endgame.

Palestinians do not want a repeat of failed efforts. They need to see tangible results indicating that the occupation is being dismantled. Israel today has no incentive to end the conflict. The Israeli public needs to be reminded of the dire consequences to all the parties if the conflict is allowed to fester. The U.S. and its partners must play a leading role in keeping the parties focused on one outcome: two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.

High-level U.S. engagement now, at the beginning of this second term, sends a clear message of commitment. But, unless the U.S. is willing to hold all the parties equally accountable, the chances for progress are at best slim. Obama must invest significant time to make sure the efforts bear fruit. A hesitant, timid or biased approach would only re-create the conditions that got us stuck in the first place.

Interestingly, there are two Middle East films nominated this year for the Oscar in the documentary category. “Five Broken Cameras” represents the Palestinian perspective, and “The Gatekeepers” represents the Israeli perspective. Although each film is different, they both come to the same conclusion: The Israeli occupation has lasted too long. Hollywood gets it; Washington should too.


Maen Rashid Areikat is chief representative of the general delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organization to the United States.