Waiting…and Wasting Time

The Arab World is once again waiting. This time they are waiting for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to respond to a series of demands it is believed the U.S. made of him following the March, 2010 flare up over settlement construction in Jerusalem; or they are waiting for the Administration to respond to Israel’s lack of response.

By waiting and not acting they are wasting precious time and an opportunity to define their concerns and a political path forward. Worse still, if the past provides a clue to the future, waiting will only lead to disappointment.

There was no question that seven weeks ago, the Obama Administration was angered by the Israeli announcement of new settlement construction in Jerusalem. The U.S. reaction was immediate, harsh and sustained over several days. Our polling showed that American public opinion sided with the White House.

Netanyahu reacted by mobilizing his U.S. support base, appearing before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference issuing a direct challenge to Obama. When the President remained firm, Netanyahu mobilized his allies who organized letters from Congress and placed full page ads in major U.S. daily newspapers taking Obama to task for publicly challenging Israel.

All during this time, not a single Palestinian leader visited the U.S. to make the case for Jerusalem. Hollow protests were issued from afar, but these said nothing new and did not register here. The Arab League met and adjourned, but without offering anything newsworthy, and so many Americans were left wondering what the fuss was all about.

As our polling makes clear, U.S. opinion: supports a balanced policy toward the conflict; wants a two state solution; and thinks the President ought to “get tough” about continued settlement construction. Our polls also show that while most Americans will support the President, they simply do not understand the Palestinians’ case or their concern with settlements. They, therefore, are susceptible to Israeli counter arguments (like: “these aren’t settlements, they are neighborhoods” or “Jerusalem isn’t a settlement, it’s our capitol”. Because these claims are made to a largely uninformed American audience, they have the effect of confusing or neutralizing the issue.

And so, what began as “an insult to the Vice President … and the United States” evolved into a “crisis in the U.S.- Israel relationship” and ultimately ended up with the Administration reaffirming its “unshakable bond with Israel” while still holding firm to a set of irreconcilable goals: a “vital interest” imperative in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; a continued insistence that Israel refrain from “provocative acts” (coupled with a call to Palestinians to end incitement); and an appeal to all parties to restart negotiations. I say irreconcilable because the Netanyahu government shows no interest in ending its settlement construction or changing its other behaviors toward the Palestinians, and the Palestinian leadership cannot (or dare not, given the adverse domestic reaction it would create) enter negotiations absent a change in Israeli policy.

When policy discussions have occurred during this period they have focused either on the value and nature of the U.S.- Israel relationship, whether this current flare-up will make a difference in the stand-off with Iran or whether the President will outlast Netanyahu. The Palestinians, their rights and needs, are not mentioned.

A similar impasse existed between the 2008 election and the inauguration of the new president (with the devastating war in Gaza also occurring in this period) and last summer during the months in which Netanyahu refused to accept the settlement freeze President Obama insisted was needed to create a positive environment in which good faith negotiations could begin. In both of these instances, instead of taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the impasse and using it as “teachable moment”, Arabs waited for others to act. The U.S. public could have been educated and eventually mobilized. The resolve of the Obama Administration could have been reinforced. And the outcome might have been better. But because nothing was done, the period was defined by Israel and the U.S. with no constructive Arab content provided.

What should have been done and still can be done is for Arab leadership and Palestinians, in particular, to directly engage American opinion to both make their case and provide concrete ideas for a solution to the conflict. As it is, the impasse is defined as a test of wills between what Israel wants versus what the U.S. says must be done. Nowhere to be found in all of this, is the Palestinian story. Abstract appeals to “international legitimacy” do not sway opinion, nor do references to an “Arab Peace Initiative” that most Americans do not understand. The issue of settlements, for example, must be spelled out in concepts that can be understood –” ancestral lands stolen, discriminatory housing projects built, rights denied, humiliating repression imposed on an entire people, and freedom denied. And the matter of statehood must be presented as more than the solution to a pesky problem or a begrudging acceptance of a demographic reality, it must be elevated into a visionary right of people who have for too long been denied freedom. What is needed are real people telling real stories, making the Palestinian narrative come to life.

As long as the Arab side in absent and/or passive and waiting, the game will be defined and won by others.