The surreal state solution

Following Obama’s weak speeches and Netanyahu’s rejection of any compromise, Palestinians look elsewhere for support.

Ariel is one of the largest Israeli settlement blocs built illegally inside of the 1967 borders – and one of the major obstacles to peace [GALLO/GETTY]

It’s always bizarre to watch the cheering throng of US congressmen, their pockets lined with AIPAC contributions, fawn over a visiting Israeli leader as if he were a conquering war hero of their own. 

But seen on YouTube from the West Bank, Binyamin Netanyahu’s fanciful walk through Middle East diplomacy, and his disingenuous endorsement of peace and democracy – accompanied by an estimated 55 standing ovations – was truly surreal.  

If a member of Congress were to actually bother to travel through the West Bank, he or she could be forgiven for wondering what the Israeli prime minister was talking about when he promised to make “painful compromises”.

Huge and expanding settlement blocs cut ever deeper into Palestinian lands, each day making the establishment of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state more difficult to imagine. One settler city of 20,000 – Ariel – sits nearly halfway to Jordan from the Mediterranean. Maale Adumim, population 34,000, lies well east of Jerusalem, on the way to the Jordan Valley. 

In support of this settlement project, Israeli military jeeps and armored trucks crisscross the would-be future Palestine. This week, on a three and a half hour round trip drive between Ramallah and Jenin, I saw a dozen such patrols. 

Near Nablus, a Palestinian vehicle was pulled over to the side of the road, with a soldier pointing his M-16 at the driver. Further on, an Israeli bulldozer scraped the land, uprooting an olive tree – the heart of Palestinian rural culture and economy.

Now Netanyahu is trying to cement Israeli policy of endless land seizures with a diversionary tactic – insisting that Palestinians acknowledge Israel as the national state of the Jewish people. 

Yet he well knows that in the Oslo agreement of 1993, Palestinians formally accepted Israel’s existence and agreed to their own painful compromise: giving up 78 per cent of historic Palestine in exchange for establishing a state on the remaining land in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Enough is enough

By making a new demand, Netanyahu has moved the goal posts – insisting that a nation where one in every five people is Arab be formally recognised as a state for Jews only. This may make sense for a delusional congress, but why would any Palestinian leader agree to that?  

Netanyahu also knows well that the lines he drew in his speech to congress – permanent presence of the large settlements in the West Bank; complete Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem; a long-term Israeli military presence on Palestinian land along the Jordanian border – are utterly unacceptable to any Palestinian leadership, even to president Mahmoud Abbas, who until recently proved to be more accommodating to Israel than any previous Palestinian leader. 

Even Abbas, in negotiations with Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, could not accept a cut-up Palestine with Ariel and Maale Adumim sitting in the middle of it. Now, with Netanyahu’s insistence on the brutal status quo, and with president Obama’s refusal to confront Israel’s expansionist policies, Abbas sees little hope in sticking with a broken process.

And so the Palestinians have turned elsewhere – to their own history and narrative, and to the international community.

In Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin, placards left over from the May 15 Nakba Day mourn the dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians at the creation of Israel, and promise a return to the homeland one day. Headlines trumpet the border breach of hundreds of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon and Syria, and their symbolic return to Palestine. 

The cafes are full of approving, if sometimes sceptical, talk of the recent unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas, and the efforts of Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad to seek recognition of statehood in the UN in September.

This new Palestinian direction is rooted not only in the intransigence of the Netanyahu government; more important is the failure of the Obama administration to back Palestinian statehood in a practical and effective way. 

The American refusal to endorse its own policy against the settlements in the UN vote in February, created a soul-searching among Palestinians that led to the unity agreement, and reinforced a Palestinian strategy to go to the UN for statehood. 

Now, Obama’s disdain for that idea, in sync with the Israeli government, only reinforces the Palestinian sense that the old road to a just peace is broken. 

Obama, who raised genuine hopes in the West Bank with his Cairo speech nearly two years ago, has now utterly lost the Palestinians. 

As September approaches, and talk of a third intifada builds, America may find itself virtually alone on the question of Palestine, far less able to influence events in the region. As the occupation approaches its 44th anniversary, it could be a long hot summer in the Holy Land. 

Sandy Tolan is an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. He is the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial policy of Al Jazeera.