The Middle East peace process took a major hit during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel earlier this month. During Biden’s visit, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced that Israel would build 1,600 more housing units in disputed territory in East Jerusalem. This was an insult to U.S.-Israeli relations, and the Obama administration was extremely unhappy about the development.
The announcement was made on the eve of Biden’s arrival in Israel to hail the talks’ resumption. Israel apologized for the timing of the settlement expansion, but, unfortunately, the damage had already been done. Most foreign governments and the United Nations have condemned this announcement. Specifically, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the UN, has spoken against this action and asked for Israel to end its blockade of the Gaza Strip. This action by Israel was a major blow to the possibility of peace in the near future — it also hurt the United States’s position in the Middle East.
The east side of Jerusalem, where the new settlements are going to be built, is seen as part of Palestine’s future state’s shared capital. The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is refusing to resume talks unless the building order is revoked. Peace will never be achieved if both sides keep taking aggressive actions to solidify their power in the region. The two-state solution has gained acceptance in Israel and Palestine, and Israelis have accepted as inevitable an adjustment of the border to give Palestine more land in any forthcoming agreement.
The announcement by Israel has hurt the United States’s position in the Middle East. Many in the region are beginning to believe the United States cannot really prevent Israel from acting on its own. If countries in the region believe Israel is becoming more independent of the United States, they could view Israel as a security threat. The United States needs to get involved with the peace process and show that this sort of action by Israel has consequences.
The Obama administration’s best strategy is to get involved and clearly state the basic principles that must frame these negotiations. Even though President Barack Obama is engrossed with health care and Afghanistan, he needs to pay more attention to this issue. He has been criticized for beating up on his allies and proving impotent against enemies such as Iran and China. He also has been criticized for making the Israel-Palestine peace talks worse. Obama made a mistake by side-stepping the problem; however, he can correct his mistake by being direct and laying out a set of principles and a framework for the negotiations.
When the negotiations begin again, the United States will need to state its views about Jerusalem and other key issues and sketch-out the parameters of a deal that would satisfy both Israelis and Palestinians. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses the ideas, the United States will have a real crisis on its hands in regard to U.S.-Israel relations.
At this point, the United States may have to think about cutting some of its ties with Israel and letting the region negotiate its own peace deal. This would allow the United States to focus more on domestic issues that need to be fixed.
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