For two decades the “peace process” has failed to end the conflict and produce a Palestinian state. Unilateral Israeli withdrawal has also been tried, in Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, but in both cases the vacuum was filled by terrorism: Hezbollah took over South Lebanon and Hamas conquered Gaza. Yet there is a way forward, the one sensible option never really tried: to start at the beginning rather than the end, by creating a Palestinian state from the bottom up, institution by institution, and ending with Israeli withdrawal and negotiation of a state only when Palestinian political life is truly able to sustain self-government, maintain law and order, and prevent terrorism against Israel.
This may seem like a formula for endless delay but it is in fact the fastest way forward, and it is beginning. In the West Bank, Palestinian security forces are doing more to bring law and order and fight terrorism. Economic growth continues, and foreign visitors are often surprised by the amount of construction in Ramallah and commerce in Jenin and Jericho; far from looking like Somalia or Yemen, the West Bank is increasingly prosperous. The Palestinian Authority prime minister, Salam Fayyad, describes his goal this way: “We have decided to be proactive, to expedite the end of the occupation by working very hard to build positive facts on the ground, consistent with having our state emerge as a fact that cannot be ignored. This is our agenda, and we want to pursue it doggedly.”
Fayyad’s push for Palestinians to build their own state themselves has angered Israeli critics who call it “unilateral,” and Fayyad’s rhetoric often offends them, but what good alternatives are there? To watch yet another round of negotiations end in another failure? The Obama administration gives lip service to Fayyad’s approach—no one is against building Palestinian institutions—but its own emphasis for Year Two remains entirely in the wrong places. U.S. diplomacy, like Arab and European diplomacy, is all about reviving Abbas and getting him into a room with Netanyahu—not about backing serious efforts to build a Palestinian state. Thus the only way to lay the foundation for successful peace talks is ignored, and what will predictably be unsuccessful peace talks are the obsessive goal of American foreign policy.
The Obama administration rarely demonstrated the ability to shift gears and change policy in its first year. Even in the face of historic events such as the continuing demonstrations against Iran’s regime, it stuck devotedly to prior plans. Can there be a learning curve? Will someone tell the president the policy isn’t working and big changes are needed? Or can change come from the top down, if the president himself comes to realize what underlings are reluctant to tell him? Middle Eastern officials aren’t the only people who still can’t figure out the workings of the Obama White House; the mixture of campaign stalwarts, career bureaucrats, old Chicago friends, and outside advisers remains opaque. Obama White House personnel like to say the Situation Room has no windows precisely so that people can’t see in. In fact it has three windows that look out at the Executive Office Building, but the error is telling: They want to preserve the sense of mystery. The problem is, the main mystery in the Middle East is whether they’ll cling to a policy that has already failed or open their minds to one that has a chance of bringing serious progress.
Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.