The visit of senior US envoys David Hale and Dennis Ross to the Middle East earlier this month to "revive peace talks and avert a Palestinian bid for UN membership" has failed miserably. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's response to this failure has not been to pursue a new path, but rather, to send them again. She has announced that "our hope is that we get the parties back into a frame of mind and a process where they will actually begin negotiating again".
The failure of the first Hale and Ross visit reflects the outdated and unproductive American role as mediator in the peace process and its approach of using threats to make progress and blaming setbacks on the "lack of opportunities". To manage this crisis, the US must make a serious offer to the Palestinians, rather than simply throw around threats.
It is unclear what the US envoys will be able to achieve in their second visit that they could not accomplish the first time. The US needs to change its approach in dealing with Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than simply replacing envoys, from George Mitchell with David Hale, and increasing the number of official visits to the region.
Since the Palestinians announced their decision to submit an application to the United Nations for recognition of their state, the American response has been characterised by threats focusing mainly on using their veto in the Security Council and cutting off aid to the Palestinian National Authority.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen went one step further and called for punishing the UN for considering the Palestinian application for statehood. She introduced bill HR 2829 that makes funding to the UN voluntary and blocks US funding to any UN agency that elevates Palestine's status.
This punitive approach is wrong, unethical and counterproductive. It will only further isolate the US at the UN and ruin its credibility at a tumultuous time in the Middle East when American intentions are already being questioned.
The US should abandon its current approach and instead make an offer that addresses the Palestinians' needs in the context of the changing region. Returning to endless negotiations and a lacklustre peace process under past conditions is no longer an option. As a mediator, the US has created too many processes but no peace.
The Palestinian leadership has maintained its willingness to consider what they called a ‘credible' alternative to the UN approach. It is important to note that in the context of the Arab spring, ‘credibility' requires that the peace process address the needs and aspirations of the people, the driving force behind change, rather than simply appeasing their leaders.
What is a credible proposal in this context? Undoubtedly, it is not the ambiguous offer that is being delivered by Ross and Hale behind closed doors to President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. An offer that presents a credible alternative to the UN path is the one that is addressed to the Palestinian people, delivered publicly through the media, and emphasises two major elements: a firm freeze of all colony-building activities in the West Bank and occupied east Jerusalem and a solid ceiling — up to six months — to negotiations that lead to automatic recognition of a Palestinian state if no agreement is reached during this timeframe.
This is certainly not an unrealistic offer. On the contrary, this is very similar to what the Washington adopted for Kosovo when the US became one of the very first countries to recognise Kosovo after it unilaterally declared independence. A similar offer to the Palestinians to resolve the UN impasse would preserve America's international credibility.
It is true that this approach first and foremost requires Israeli collaboration. The US should not accept facing isolation at the UN by vetoing a basic human right — the need for freedom and recognition — while Israel continues using American taxpayers' money to build more colonies. Since the inception of the Security Council, the US has used its veto 84 times, of which 42 have been to protect Israel.
US foreign policy is already struggling with issues of credibility and double standards in the Middle East, particularly during the Arab spring, and aligning with Netanyahu-Lieberman agenda will worsen the increasingly fragile American relations with the region. The 81 congressmen who enjoyed paid trips to Israel in August, at a time when the number of poor in the US crossed 46 million, should recognise this as well.
The Palestinians will not bow to pressure in the absence of meaningful alternatives to the UN bid. Unless the US is able to provide a viable and realistic alternative to the bid, it should vote for a Palestinian state or forever hold its peace (abstain).
Ibrahim Sharqieh is Deputy Director of the Brookings Doha Centre. He is an expert on Middle Eastern politics and international conflict resolution.