Since President Donald Trump declared that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the question has been whether this break with past American policy weakens or advances the cause of peace. A corollary to that question is whether the move effectively excludes Washington from the peace process.
The point of the risky move is to break the logjam. Whether it might work has to be evaluated in a long-term perspective.
The Palestinian cause is waning. That cause is a full-fledged Palestinian state that, as it is usually formulated, will live side-by-side with Israel in peace and security. This is the two-state solution that must be achieved in negotiations between the two parties. Outside governments can be mediators and honest brokers, but only direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians can lead to peace.
These good-hearted formulations once seemed realistic and hard-headed, offering the most promising roadmap to reach a so-called final status agreement that would end the conflict. Final status meant resolution of all outstanding issues -- borders, right of return, security, Jerusalem -- with Palestinians agreeing to make no further claims on Israel and with the Israelis, who are in the dominant position, confident that a Palestinian state would add to their security rather than increase dangers.
This has been the roadmap since the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995. After a quarter-century on this road, there is still no end in sight. The peace process generation in Washington, populated by Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama and their policymakers, is passing from the scene. The civil society organizations still paving the beaten track are not optimistic.
On the Israeli side, the Likud government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels vindicated. On the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas feels betrayed.
In a long-term view, here’s the way things look:
The Palestinian cause has effectively worn out its welcome. For no government in the Middle East or outside of it is the Palestinian right to a state a priority. Egypt (in 1979) and Jordan (in 1994) signed peace treaties with Israel decades ago. Syria is in shambles. Saudi Arabia has secretly cooperated with Israel for years and its new leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is likely to increase rather than decrease that cooperation. Iran is not a frontline state with Israel. For Tehran, Palestinian statehood is irrelevant, or seen as a complication to its strategy of expanding regional influence through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
For the United States, settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict used to be a priority because of Washington’s support of Israel, but also because Arab Sunni countries were a big source of oil. However, America's shale-based energy revolution decreases the Middle East’s importance to America’s vital interests. Even protecting Israel is less important, because Israel is in less danger than it used to be. For Moscow, the Palestinian cause is basically irrelevant.
As for the peace process: No, the peace process has not broken down. There simple is no peace process, and has not been for years. Sporadic factitious negotiations are not a peace process.
Arguably, over the past few decades the worst enemy of the Palestinian people has been their own leaders. The peace process and the Palestinian cause were always a dead end so long as there was no unified leadership and one of the governing groups -- Hamas in Gaza -- maintained its vow to destroy Israel. Add to that the Middle East’s upheaval since the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, plus the arrival of Islamic State, and the persistence of al Qaeda as well as other Salafi-jihadist groups. In that context it was always unrealistic to expect Israel to agree to a Palestinian state.
That the Palestinian street’s reaction to Trump’s Jerusalem declaration was minor is a sign that times have changed.
The Palestinians need a post-peace-process generation of leaders, people ready to accept geopolitical and historical reality in order to turn their outlook from hopeless to hopeful. The post-Yasir Arafat leadership that has been in place for two decades is finally passing from the scene. Abbas and his cohort have little legitimacy and have no time left to help Palestinians rather than fight their own losing battle with history and vanity. They failed abysmally to organize themselves to deal with military and political defeat in the least damaging way.
The life chances of three generations of Palestinian young people have been compromised -- and for what?