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Opinion: Obama's mistaken approach to peace

Obama is trapped in a worldview that has become obsolete. He believes that Israel and the Palestinians must and can reach a final-status agreement that will solve all the issues.

By Gidi Grinstein

September 21, 2011 | 1:19 pm

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York on Sept. 21. Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York on Sept. 21. Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Barack Obama is unable to succeed. He tries and misses. He wants to bless the peace process and ends up cursing it. Another chapter in this sad story was written last week when the president once again channeled the sides into the dead end of a final-status agreement, while standing in the way of the establishment of a Palestinian state - the only chance for diplomatic progress between Israel and the Palestinians.

His intentions were good: to anchor the principle of two states for two peoples, which ostensibly is acceptable to both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. Obama shared his goodwill: He gave the Palestinians 1967 and the Israelis recognition of Israel’s Jewishness. He called on both sides to return to negotiations on a final-status agreement, while stating his opposition to the declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September.

But there’s a catch. Since the Hamas victory in the January 2006 elections, there is not and cannot be a Palestinian partner to such a diplomatic process. On the one hand, a Palestine that includes Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and existing agreements, cannot be a partner to negotiations on a final-status agreement. On the other hand, without Hamas, the Palestinian system lacks internal legitimacy, which prevents a historic concession. That’s why all the calls out of Washington, Brussels and Jerusalem for a renewal of talks between Israel and the Palestinians are hollow, and the negotiations that were conducted during the Annapolis process had no chance of success in the first place.

Only one format is likely to enable progress to a permanent situation based on the principle of two states for two peoples: coordinated unilateral steps based on understanding and quiet cooperation. That’s how the Palestinian Authority’s institutions were established in recent years, with security achieved in Judea and Samaria and economic growth in the West Bank. Despite this significant progress, the array of possible agreements and cooperation among Israel, the PA in the West Bank and the United States is far from exhausted. The upcoming declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September should be seen in this context.

But Obama is trapped in a worldview that has become obsolete. He believes that Israel and the Palestinians must and can reach a final-status agreement that will solve all the issues, establish a Palestinian state and end the conflict. That’s why he repeatedly tries to create the conditions that will get the two sides to the negotiating table, ending in the inevitable and desired final-status agreement. Like an athlete in a fixed match who improves his performance without realizing that the outcome is known in advance, Obama keeps squandering diplomatic assets: freezing settlement construction, Saudi gestures and recognition of the 1967 lines.

And that’s why Obama is missing the opportunity under his nose; a declaration of a Palestinian state in September includes the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough as well as significant advantages for Israel. The establishment of such a state will help anchor the principle of two states for two peoples, shape the permanent situation with Israel controlling the security assets and the new state’s surroundings, and diminish the refugee problem by marginalizing UNRWA and limiting refugee status.

Despite Obama’s speeches, the diplomatic process will remain at a dead end as the moment of decision in September approaches. Then the United States will have another opportunity to do the right thing: to ensure that the establishment of a Palestinian state conforms to Israel’s needs.

The writer is the founder and president of the Reut Institute.  This op-ed originally appeared at Haaretz.

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