Word On The Street: Failures of leadership

October 2, 2015

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have both spoken many times before at the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly – but the gulf between them has rarely seemed as wide as it did this year.

Netanyahu devoted most of his address to the threats posed to Israel by Iran and renewed his withering criticism of the recent international agreement to block its paths to a nuclear weapon. In the few sentences he devoted to the conflict with the Palestinians, he relied on well-worn bromides, offering to resume negotiations without preconditions – a proposal that nobody takes seriously.

Just this week, the Israeli government indicated in a legal filing that it intends to authorize and legalize a bloc of five illegal outposts east of Shilo in the heart of the West Bank. As has happened so many times before, settlers who flouted the law have been rewarded. Shilo is not within the so-called settlement blocs that would become part of Israel through land swaps in a peace agreement. It is in the heart of densely-populated Palestinian land.

In his speech, Abbas said it was “no longer useful to waste time in negotiations for the sake of negotiations” and urged instead “international efforts to oversee an end to the occupation.” The headline came near the end when the Palestinian President stated that because of Israeli breaches of the Oslo Accords, “We therefore declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements and that Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying Power.”

But it was far from clear what this might mean in practice. Abbas did not reference any specific deadlines or measures he might take. He did not end security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces or state his intention to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, which was established under Oslo.

Some commentators interpreted the speech as empty words, designed to shore up Abbas’ crumbling credibility among his own people living under an endless Israeli occupation. Matt Duss, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a good friend of J Street, wrote that the speech “offered the worst of both worlds: It delivered nothing tangible for the Palestinians, while at the same time handed the Israelis something inflammatory to bash him with.”

Abbas is in very difficult position. Dealing with an Israeli government most of whose members are devoted supporters of the settlement movement and opponents of a two-state solution, he has little room for maneuver. Still, it is at moments like this that leaders are called on to lead responsibly.

Dissolving the PA–and especially its security coordination with Israel–would be a drastic step that would end any semblance of limited autonomy for Palestinians and bring the IDF back into the heart of cities like Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jenin, a surefire recipe for serious clashes and perhaps a new Intifada. The PA is also the largest employer in the West Bank so tens of thousands of families would risk losing their livelihoods. On the other hand, how long can the PA continue to exist without hope of ever delivering true Palestinian independence?

The main takeaway from this week’s speeches is that the parties’ political leaders have little to offer in the face of a crumbling status quo. For several weeks, we have been witnessing simmering violence in East Jerusalem centered around the holy shrines on the Temple Mount, the Haram al-Sharif. Just yesterday, we had the horrifying murders of two Israelis in an ambush while driving with their four children on the West Bank. Abbas’ speech was a warning – just as seismologists pick up tremors before a major earthquake. We should take heed.

The United States should not turn its back on this conflict. Action is needed not simply to defuse rising tensions – but to offer the Palestinians some hope. The best way to do that would be for the Obama Administration to lay out a set of detailed parameters for a solution to the conflict which would become official US policy and provide the basis for a new resolution in the United Nations Security Council or another internationally-backed vision for ending the conflict..

These parameters would establish a starting point for the next President and Secretary of State to build on when they take office in 2017. In the wake of the significant diplomatic achievement on Iran, the ground is ripe for international cooperation to take on this next difficult challenge.

Doing and saying nothing is not a policy and not an option.