DESPITE ALL the efforts of the Obama administration, the prospects for a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians have seldom seemed dimmer.
“The core issues are unbridgeable,’’ said Shlomo Avineri, a former director general of the Israeli foreign office who is open to compromise between Arabs and Israelis. For Dr. Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority who is also in favor of a two-state solution, “nothing has moved forward except illegal settlements’’ in the past 20 years.
“We have to admit that a solution is impossible today,’’ said Israel’s Yossi Beilin, who has been long associated with the peace movement.
Still, representatives of the Middle East Quartet - the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations - will arrive here next week with their worn-out roadmap to meet separately with Israeli and Palestinian officials. The US State Department sounds upbeat. “I think we are making progress,’’ said spokesman Mark Toner. “This is an important step . . . a stepping stone along that timetable that was laid out by the Quartet that will hopefully lead back to direct negotiations.’’ But I have been unable to find anyone here - or in Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered - who shares that optimism.
As Beilin put it: “The main problem is that the two sides are not ready for a solution.’’ One side, Israel, doesn’t really want to give up land - if the continued growth of settlements in the occupied territories is any indication - and the Palestinians can’t deliver on any concessions their negotiators might promise. The Quartet envisioned the West Bank and Gaza as one political entity, but Hamas rules in Gaza, and the Fatah Party rules in the West Bank. Talk of reconciliation between the two groups is going nowhere. Majorities in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps may be for peace as an abstract concept - who isn’t for peace? - but when it comes to how to divide Jerusalem, how to set borders, and whether to allow Palestinians to return to their pre-1948 homes, there is no agreement.
Perhaps if President Obama had come to Jerusalem instead of just Istanbul and Cairo in 2009, and addressed the parliament here in the manner of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat back in 1977 with a concrete plan, it might have been different. If Obama had used his oratorical skills when he was still new and un-bloodied, he might have swayed public opinion enough to have made a difference. But an American president can only be midwife to an agreement, said Avineri, “not mother and father.’’ Both sides have to want peace more than the American president.
Moreover, Obama has lost a lot of credibility here. Because of his failure to achieve a settlement freeze, and his threat to veto Palestinian UN aspirations, the Palestinians feel that he has abandoned them. And the Israelis, from right to left, think of Obama as well-meaning but weak.
It used to be said that there is no public opinion in Israel, just public mood, and indeed I watched this country turn on a dime from pessimism to optimism when Sadat came to town. But it took that kind of earthquake to break the status quo. In the early 1990s, at the time of the Oslo accords, both sides wanted peace. Yasser Arafat had made his historical shift in favor of a two-state solution, and the Israelis were ready for a permanent settlement.
Today, Israel has moved much farther to the political right, and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is ideologically opposed to giving up the occupied territories. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t have the stature that Arafat did to get his people on board. Psychologically, neither side has prepared its people for the necessary compromises. Palestinians are never going to get their pre-1948 homes back, and no Israeli government could dislodge the hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers that it would take for the Palestinians to have a viable state.
The Quartet will come singing the same old song next week, but neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis can carry the tune.