Blinken’s remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian issue are cause for concern.
Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken’s remarks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee raised new hope for the restoration of US leadership in the international arena, but at the same time raised concerns about the new administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, US diplomacy was paralyzed. Foreign relations were not guided by a coherent policy, friends were neglected, and alliances abandoned.
Blinken’s confirmation hearing was a strong testament to the new administration’s strategic grasp: the more it seeks to focus its resources on internal challenges, and the more it wishes to avoid sending military forces on missions around the world, the more it must employ the US diplomatic toolbox.
Blinken’s impressive confirmation performance and US President Joe Biden’s other excellent appointments should convince skeptics that the Biden team is fully capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.
Blinken made it clear that the Biden administration intends to lead a series of international initiatives to advance the American interest in strengthening global stability and thwarting dangerous conflagrations.
Against this encouraging background, Blinken’s remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian issue are cause for concern. Blinken emphasized the US commitment to a two-state solution. However, he reiterated the mantra that the focus should be on building mutual trust between the parties, as the chances of advancing to a settlement are very low now:
“In the first instance, what would be important is to make sure that neither party takes steps that make the already difficult proposition even more challenging… and then hopefully, to start working to slowly build some confidence on both sides to create an environment in which we might once again be able to help advance a solution….”
This approach echoes a dangerous illusion. After all, we’ve seen this movie more than once, and we know it doesn’t end happily: the status quo is not maintained, Israel tends to use its superior power to establish facts on the ground, the two sides move further away from a two-state solution, trust erodes, and the weakening Palestinian camp becomes less of a “partner” than ever.
Despite Washington’s warnings over the years, the settlement enterprise has not abated. Each year of the fake status quo, about 3,000 Jewish settlers are added to the areas designated for a Palestinian state (the area beyond the settlement blocks adjacent to the pre-1967 line).
Today, about 130,000 settlers live there, and we are getting closer to the point of no return – when it will no longer be possible to divide the land between the two peoples. The intractability will eventually lead to a new intifada and more bloodshed.
Without a genuine peace process, and without a political horizon, the cushion for absorbing and containing potentially explosive shocks deflates.
The collapse of past peace initiatives does not justify diplomatic inaction. Lessons must be learned from the failures. The most important is the necessity of a binding international decision, which only the US can lead, outlining the agreement’s basic parameters: two states; a clear demarcation of borders based on the pre-’67 line; a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem; strict security arrangements, including the demilitarization of the Palestinian state; and a fair solution to the refugee problem.
The idea that you must start with trust-building and only then turn to formulating an agreement is a nonstarter. The order must be reversed. A clear political horizon will give the Palestinians a credible rationale to make the painful decisions required of them, including disarming Hamas. The Israeli temptation to establish facts on the ground will dissipate once binding borders are set and the battle for territory ends.
SOME COMMENTATORS assert that the strengthening of right-wing parties in Israel should dissuade the administration from advancing any agreement that requires Israeli concessions. This argument gets the politics right, but it is misleading in regard to the willingness of the Israeli public to accept a compromise with the Palestinians.
Most Israelis would prefer spending time in Dubai or flying to Morocco than sending their children to fight for a Greater Israel. Israelis did not take to the streets in protest when their government opted for normalization with the Emirates and, in return, abandoned its pledge to annex West Bank territories.
The normalization agreements are strategically important, but do not mitigate the immense danger of an ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Public opinion polls conducted recently show that large majorities in Egypt and Jordan reject these normalization agreements. Without a solution to the Palestinian issue, they remain very hostile to Israel.
Progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace together with normalized relations between Israel and the entire Arab and Muslim world would contribute to regional stability. It would diminish Iran’s ability to exploit local conflicts and enable the establishment of a regional coalition to deter Tehran’s regional subversion.
Postponing efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not lead to building trust or creating a more positive “environment.” On the contrary: the chance of a two-state solution will be lost, the parties will slide into a bloody binational reality, the Palestinian dream of an independent state will be shattered, and Israel’s Jewish-democratic character will vanish.
All of these calamities are in stark contradiction with the vision advocated by Biden during his many years working alongside American presidents. Now, sitting in the Oval Office, he can finally make the difference.
The writer, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, served under Shimon Peres for almost 30 years. His book, Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East, was recently published by I.B. Tauris.