As the attention of the world is focused on the Arab region and its overdue democratic transition, the Middle East peace process seems to have completely disappeared from the international agenda and particularly that of the United States.
When Barack Obama was elected President of the US for the first time in 2008, he seemed intensely interested in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state. As he is about to start his second term in office, nothing of these proclaimed promises have materialised.
For most Arabs and Muslims progress towards achieving just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East was the yardstick to measure Obama’s success in approaching the change he claimed to be seeking. The record has so far been disappointing. Obama’s approach in handling the Middle East peace process was instrumental in creating a pessimistic mood. His reluctance to put pressure on Israel to solve the colonies issue raised doubts about whether the US president would invest sufficient political capital to consummate a balanced and equitable final settlement that meets the national aspirations of the Palestinians: chiefly statehood and refugees.
Upon assuming power approximately four years ago, Obama warned Israel that it must accept the two-state solution. He also denounced the building of colonies in the occupied Palestinian territories and described it as illegal and illegitimate. He declared the tacit understanding between his predecessor George W. Bush and the government of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon concerning the expansion of colonies as null and void. Moreover, Obama started to centralise power in the White House, marginalising the pro-Israel circles in Washington, while offering ever-clearer signs that Israel’s status as a close American ally is imperilled. The National Security Council, which is located in the White House, was given the power to set strategy across a wide spectrum of international issues. His former National Security Advisor General Jim Jones was put in charge of all national security matters, including the Arab-Israeli conflict.
General Jones was not a fan of Israel’s policies. He had chilly relations with Israel in the past when he served as presidential envoy to examine Israel’s colony policy. He wrote a report described by Israeli officials as “very harsh”, and would make Israel look very bad. Under the George W. Bush administration, the report was deep-sixed. In the early days of the Obama administration, Israel suspected that the report was pulled from a filing cabinet and was about to be used as guidance for Obama’s Middle East peace efforts. Putting Jones and other “unfriendly” people in key positions within the administration, while excluding many of Israel’s supporters have caused a great deal of concern in Israel. This picture did not last long, however, taking away much of the Obama administration credibility concerning the shift in policy he promised on the Middle East peace process.
Appeasing pro-Israel lobby
Subsequently, Jones was fired and was replaced with his pro-Israel deputy, Tom Denilon. The influence of other friends of Israel in the White House was also enhanced. Furthermore, ahead of the past month’s presidential election, Obama was increasingly seeking the appeasement of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington to enhance his chances for re-election against his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.
Obama’s personal commitment to set up a viable Palestinian state within the 1967 borders by the end of his first term in office did not hence materialise. As Obama is about to begin his second term, Palestinians are growing increasingly wary about the US president’s ability and willingness to impose a clear framework for a permanent solution in line with the terms of UN resolutions 194, 242 and 338, as well as the Arab Peace Plan, proposed by King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia in the 2002 Beirut Arab summit. The first resolution calls for the right of return and compensation to all refugees, and the latter deals with the return of Arab lands occupied by Israel in 1967 in exchange for peace and normalisation with the Arabs.
Fear is also growing that the pro-Israel Congress might not approve Obama’s economic reform plan unless the president accepts the controversial letter of guarantees which his predecessor sent to Sharon in 2004 embracing the notion that “facts on the ground created unilaterally by Israel are recognised by Washington. If Obama does that he would be effectively endorsing the legality of colonies on lands occupied in 1967 and claimed as part of a Palestinian state. It would also mean that Obama has completely adopted Israel’s position on the final status issues and thereby put the last nail in the coffin of the peace process.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.