The Magazine

Better Late than Never?

Obama’s trip to Jerusalem and the ‘peace process’

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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There are also legal ramifications to a “government of national unity,” at least in the United States. The American reaction to the Hamas election victory in 2006 was dictated more by government lawyers than by policymakers. The Palestinians have a parliamentary system, lawyers at Treasury and State pointed out, so the Hamas majority in the parliament meant the whole PA was now legally under Hamas control. Not only could they not get another dime in U.S. aid, the lawyers said, but giving them money was actually a crime​—​the crime of aiding a terrorist group. How those laws would affect a new Palestinian coalition government that includes Hamas remains to be seen, and the devil will probably be in the details. Does the parliament meet and act? Are ministers members of Hamas, or fellow-travelers? What exact role does Hamas play?

There is a further legal issue. Several key cases against the PA and PLO brought by victims of terrorism (including the family of Leon Klinghoffer, killed on the Achille Lauro in 1985) and seeking monetary awards have over time been settled. These cases often resulted in the freezing of PA and PLO bank accounts and made delivery of U.S. aid, and the use of the U.S. banking system, impossible or very difficult​—​which is why they were settled by the Palestinian side with the payment of large sums to the victims of Fatah terrorism and their survivors. But there are many additional cases against Hamas, and if it enters the PA and PLO, many lawyers will argue that now those bodies are responsible for paying the damages. And U.S. courts may agree, making Palestinian finances unmanageable once again.

On the Israeli side, a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation can only widen the consensus that, for now at least, peace talks are hopeless. How many Israelis will view giving up land in the West Bank as a sensible step when Hamas, which turned Gaza into a terrorist base, will be part of the group governing territory around Jerusalem and just miles from Tel Aviv? And even failed Hamas-Fatah talks have a deep impact on Israeli perceptions of whether a Palestinian peace partner exists. Watching PA/PLO/Fatah leaders embrace Hamas on TV and pledge themselves to unity suggests to Israelis that their previous pledges​—​to peace and nonviolence, for example​—​are simply worthless.

Such is the background as the EU shines up its new peace plan and the Obama administration works on the president’s trip to Israel in March. And of course, the background also consists of chaos in Syria, instability in Jordan and Egypt, and the president’s selection as defense secretary of someone viewed as unsympathetic to Israel and its concerns about the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Much will be written in the United States and in Europe about whether the president will pressure the Israelis and lecture Netanyahu, demanding concessions. But what will he say to the Palestinians? Will the president during his visit to Ramallah tell the Palestinians to drop any deal with Hamas​—​or face an American freeze on financial and political support? Will he tell the PA and PLO leadership that any move against Israel in the International Criminal Court would be disastrous and jeopardize not only their own cooperation with Israel but American aid as well? Will he demand an end to the glorification of terror and terrorists in Palestinian broadcasting, public ceremonies, and school textbooks?

It seems unlikely, for all the “peace plans” have in common a squeeze on Israel while they ask little from the Palestinian Authority and PLO. In another context this was called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Even more important is whether the president aims at realistic progress or wants another conference and another glamorous effort at a comprehensive final status negotiation. The lesson of the Obama first term, and indeed of the Clinton and Bush years, remains unlearned in Paris, London, Berlin, and perhaps in Washington as well: Grand efforts at a comprehensive peace fail, when the Palestinians in the end balk. 

The difficult, slow, and steady effort to build up Palestinian institutions that are free of corruption and terrorism is undramatic: no handshakes on the White House lawn, no Nobel Prizes. Yet there is good reason for Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate over incremental, practical steps, and there are steps that can be taken to improve the standard of living in the West Bank, reduce the Israeli footprint there, and build toward Palestinian statehood. Any approach that ignores the current Hamas-Fatah negotiations and the sad history of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, while it demands that Israel cease all construction in Jerusalem and every single settlement, is bound to fail. Again. Will the Obama visit move away from past failures and try a new and pragmatic approach? Now that would be hope and change.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

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