3Qs: For Middle East peace, more heat than light

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The prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine, and U.S. policy on the complicated issue, captured the world’s attention earlier this month, as President Obama delivered a major speech on the Middle East, followed by a daylong meeting between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Netanyahu’s subsequent address to Congress. Kimberly Jones, a faculty associate in Northeastern’s Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development, assesses the impact of these developments.

How has the Israeli prime minister’s visit to the United States changed the landscape for a potential Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement? What major barriers remain?

In some ways they have made the terrain less conducive to positive change. Transforming the landscape of the conflict would mean working to change the structures and relationships that have perpetuated Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

The tremendously positive reception Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu garnered in the U.S. Congress, combined with President Obama’s unwillingness, thus far, to match his democracy-promoting rhetoric with more significant political and policy-oriented action in this conflict, has likely left many in the region scratching their heads.

Additionally, the apparent divisions between the U.S. president and Israeli prime minister, on which some in the media have focused, is a relative puddle compared to the ocean that separates the Israelis and Palestinians. Among the oft-cited major issues yet to be resolved are borders and Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are connected, Palestinian refugees and their right of return, and the disputed status of Jerusalem.

What is the significance of President Obama calling for negotiations to start with the 1967 boundaries? How will this affect the perception of the U.S. in that region of the world?

President Obama’s statement on the ’67 borders was not a radical shift in U.S. foreign policy, although some may attempt to spin it otherwise, and it was couched in familiar U.S. rhetoric.  The president emphasized Israeli security, affirmed “our unshakable commitment” to Israel, and berated the intransigent Hamas. An honest assessment of things needed to transform the conflict would address Israeli security, but would also acknowledge that Israeli and Palestinian security are interdependent – that Palestinians living under occupation without basic respect for many human rights require justice to successfully build a sustainable peace.

Will these new developments have an impact on the proposed United Nations vote later this year on a resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood?

There is a lot of time between now and a possible United Nations vote on statehood, and as we have seen in the Middle East this year, a tremendous amount can change in a relatively short time frame. Palestinians’ strategic calculations about the resolution and its timing will have to take into account internal, regional and global considerations.

In the meantime, Palestinians have yet again endeavored to do something positive — to build bridges across the political and ideological chasms that separate Fatah and Hamas in an effort to rehabilitate the democracy they were constructing. When Hamas won free and fair democratic elections in 2006, they were shunned by much of the international community, Palestinian governance devolved and factional violence wrecked havoc on their society. So, in addition to focusing on the General Assembly’s so-called “symbolic actions,” to quote President Obama, the international community should pay attention to the very real opportunities presented by the Palestinian reconciliation.