In the days following Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election in late January 2013, President Obama and Netanyahu discussed the possibility of Obama’s first trip to Israel as President of the United States and scheduled it tentatively for March 2013. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney further announced that Obama will be visiting the West Bank and Jordan “to continue his close work with Palestinian Authority officials and Jordanian officials.”
Speculation abounds about the reasons for and effects of the trip. Netanyahu announced in mid-February that he and Obama will discuss Iran, Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Whatever Obama’s intentions might be, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza must continue developing a joint agenda.
The White House’s announcement came as a surprise to many Washington insiders, who expected Obama’s second term domestic priorities, and his intent to shift U.S. strategic objectives from the Middle East to East Asia and the Pacific, to overshadow the peace process. By means of this trip, Obama may seek to allay Israel’s fears about a nuclear Iran, laying forth a timeline for the near future. He may also seek to underscore the relationship between Israel and the United States, particularly because of the criticism he received for not doing so during his first term.
There are indications that Obama may have loftier aims this term—i.e. reigniting peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Having been encouraged to do so by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Secretary of State John Kerry intends to make the peace process a priority this term. As Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev states, Obama’s national security “Quartet” (comprised of Obama, Vice President Biden, Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel) would be inclined toward the initiative.
If this is indeed Obama’s aim, will he be able to deliver? Obama will be restricted in the amount of pressure that he applies to Israel, which may be necessary considering that peace talks are currently stalled over Israel’s unwillingness to freeze settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories. Obama’s efforts may be impeded due to the influence Israel holds over American politics. Consider the number of times Israel came up during Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing, or the fact that Obama was lambasted each time he mildly criticized Israel during his first term.
Netanyahu, for his part, expressed pleasure at the prospected visit, saying that the trip will be “an important opportunity to underscore the friendship and strong partnership between Israel and the United States.” Although the January elections allowed Netanyahu to retain his position as Israeli PM, the concurrent loss of seats for right-wing parties in the Knesset will force Netanyahu to form a more centrist coalition, which may aid Obama’s endeavors. Obama’s impending trip, and its potential implications for the peace process, elevates the issue of Israeli settlements in Israeli political circles; additionally, weighing in Netanyahu’s favor, Obama’s trip may induce center-left parties to join Netanyahu’s coalition.
Doubtless, in any scenario, Obama and Netanyahu will pursue their own interests primarily in talks with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Palestinians, on the other hand, have evinced disunity and lack of political sophistication in securing their rights. This is slowly beginning to change, but the momentum must continue. Without independent strategizing on the part of the Palestinian leadership, any good will from Obama can only be of limited help.
Palestinian unity is a prelude to democratic self-governance. It has been hampered by the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, the two main Palestinian political parties that have been at odds since Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza in 2007. Since then, Hamas controlled Gaza and Fatah ruled parts of the West Bank through the PA. On the eve of the PA’s statehood bid at the UN in November 2012, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal spoke of reviving Palestinian unity through Hamas’ joining the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and forming a unity government that would jointly govern Gaza and the West Bank.
This plan is beginning to be implemented: in February 2013, PA President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to a unity government that would hold legislative elections in Gaza and the West Bank. Abbas stayed the course in spite of Netanyahu’s warning that the PA would have to choose between peace with Israel and unity with Hamas. As Abbas determined, Palestinian unity outweighs threats from a government that continues to flout international law in its treatment of Palestinians.
But the Palestinian leadership must also determine their objectives and a roadmap. The PA has long made the establishment of two states its goal. Practical issues of governance and sovereignty must be considered, though. For instance: How would a stable government be formed that would protect the sovereignty of a fledgling, incontinguous nation-state? What of the Palestinian refugee right of return? Even if Israel disengages from the West Bank, it would not have space to house millions of refugees, and Gaza is on the brink of collapse.
The Palestinian leadership must consult over these practical questions with a wide array of advisors and political scientists. They ought to consider whether a separate state would better ensure Palestinian rights or citizenship within Israel. Extending citizenship to Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories would transform Israel from a state based on the Jewish right to exclusive self-determination to a state based on the Jewish right to inclusive self-determination. Tactics would correspondingly have to be changed.
Whether one-state or two-states, Palestinian rights must be ensured. How? Abbas’ successful statehood bid at the UN granted the Palestinian Authority symbolic recognition but no real clout. For example, immediately after the bid, Israel authorized planning for 3,000 housing units in the West Bank and the controversial E-1 area. The PA’s upgraded status at the UN and the condemnation of prominent European countries has done nothing to stop Israel.
Recourse to the International Criminal Court may be the most powerful move the PA can make. When the Palestinian Authority upgraded its UN status from a permanent observer to a non-member observer state, they opened the possibility to seek jurisdiction under the International Criminal Court, where they can commence investigations of potential Israeli war crimes. A 2013 UN Human Rights Council report condemning Israel’s illegal settlements raises the ICC as a possibility if Israel refuses to dismantle the settlements and facilitate the transfer of Israelis out of the occupied Palestinian territories. Joining the ICC would also allow the PA to seek retroactive justice, starting from the enforcement of the Rome Statute in June 2002.
Because neither the American or Israeli governments have a history of upholding international law in terms of Palestinians, the PA must seek jurisdiction under the ICC. There are indications that the PA may follow through with this plan: in January 2013, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki threatened the move if Israel continues construction of settlements.
Obama’s next term as President opens up possibilities for peace in the Middle East. However, due to countervailing influences in American politics, enfranchisement for Palestinians will most likely depend on Palestinians themselves, who must reconcile internal differences, select practicable objectives, and avail themselves of the ICC.