Financial Times

A Morning-After Tonic for the Middle East

Now that the duelling speeches are over, President Barack Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly have a morning-after problem. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president does too. Mr Obama’s problem is that he can’t stop something with nothing. The UN General Assembly is in September likely to pass a resolution recognising a Palestinian state. That will ensure its speedy conversion into a Security Council resolution to declare Israel the occupying power of a UN member state.

Mr Obama is now committed to vetoing that resolution. But to defy overwhelming international support for the Palestinians will put America at odds with sentiment in the Arab world just as Mr Obama is trying to shape democratic transitions there. That could trigger all manner of unintended consequences. Tension is already building in the West Bank and along Israel’s border with Syria. Come September, it’s not difficult to imagine tens of thousands of Palestinians demonstrating at Israeli checkpoints while newly elected Egyptian parliamentarians introduce legislation to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel.

Mr Netanyahu has a similar morning-after problem. His Oval Office upbraiding of Mr Obama and his adulatory reception in Congress may have given him a 15-point bounce in the polls. But that will fade once Israelis realise his performance has done nothing to brake their growing isolation. By September, they will demand to know why he didn’t do something to avert the train wreck.

Mr Abbas is in a similar bind. Threatening a UNGA vote on Palestine is a useful tactic for increasing pressure on Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama. But what will he do when Palestinians awake to the reality that the Israeli military occupation has not ended and demand to know “Where’s our state?” If his only answer is a U.S.-vetoed Security Council resolution, it will trigger further disillusionment in his already tarnished presidency. That’s why Mr Abbas now declares his preference is for direct peace negotiations with Israel. His envoy said in Washington this week he is even ready to drop his precondition of a settlement freeze.

The fact that no one seems to take this offer seriously is a manifestation of how thoroughly the three leaders together have managed to discredit the only possible way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But negotiations remain the only mechanism that can produce a positive outcome. It’s time to try yet again for their resumption.

Mr Obama’s speech provides the starting point. He should take the principles he enunciated on borders and security and convert them into terms of reference for a new negotiation. He’ll need to include that Jerusalem and refugees will be dealt with in these negotiations and add that the final agreement will end the conflict and all claims, and provide mutual recognition for Jewish and Palestinian homelands. After consulting the parties, Mr Obama should announce during the summer he is inviting them to resume the negotiations on the basis of these terms of reference with a timeline for an agreement by the September 2012 UNGA.

Issuing these invitations will need to trigger a clear message from the EU and Russia to Mr Abbas that if he does not accept, they will oppose the General Assembly resolution recognising Palestine (Mr Abbas will not want to go ahead with that vote if the other major powers do not back him). The Arab League will need to be mobilised to support a Palestinian decision to resume talks.

If Mr Abbas accepts, Mr Netanyahu will find it hard to say no. This will especially be the case if Mr Obama delivers the invitation himself on a visit to Jerusalem during which he explains to Israelis that time is not on Israel’s side and that he cares so much about the future of their children that he is determined to help the Jewish state achieve a secure peace.

Won’t the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement provide justification for Mr Netanyahu to send his regrets? The advantage of the U.S. invitation is that it will force all concerned parties to take a stand. If Hamas opposes resuming negotiations because the terms of reference provide for land swaps and recognition of Israel’s right to exist as the Jewish homeland, then it will have isolated itself and given Mr Abbas reason to abrogate the unity agreement. And if Hamas acquiesces, then it will have set itself on the path toward accepting the Quartet conditions. Here Egypt’s newfound role as Hamas’ patron, and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s role as Muslim Brotherhood compatriot, might be utilised to good effect.

There’s only one good reason why this approach might succeed where all others have failed: the three leaders have no other way to avoid the oncoming train. The closer we get to September, the more that may impart a critical urgency to their common need to move onto a different track.