Should Governor Mitt Romney win November's presidential election, the Palestinians shouldn't expect any help the U.S. in realizing their national aspirations. In a recent Florida secretly-taped meeting with his donors, the Republican nominee made clear he believes that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "is almost unthinkable to accomplish." Instead, he argued, the U.S. should simply live with the status quo, "kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it."
Romney channeled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, blaming the Palestinians for the failure of the peace process and insisting that if the West Bank became an independent Palestinian state, that would bring Iranian missiles to Israel's doorstep. And in a direct rebuke of President Obama's initial efforts, his Republican challenger d: "The idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world." In other words, a President Romney would leave it up to Israel to decide when, how and whether to move toward a two-state solution.
While they may have raised some eyebrows in Washington, for most Palestinians, Romney's remarks simply reaffirm albeit with an honesty rare in diplomacy what has been the de facto U.S. policy for the past decade. While their hapless President Mahmoud Abbas continues to hope against hope, most Palestinians long ago stopped waiting for the U.S. to deliver their freedom.
Washington gave up any pretense of playing the honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians with the election of President George W. Bush, who treated the conflict primarily as an issue of terrorism and security. Hoping to rally Arab support over Iraq and against Iran, the Bush White House in its second term encouraged an entirely symbolic series of negotiations between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the goal being a "shelf agreement" — i.e., one that could be implemented in some better future rather than in the present. Even that failed.
President Obama promised change, naming Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East on his second day in the White House, and vowing to complete negotiations over a two-state solution within two years. He pressed Netanyahu to freeze all settlement construction on lands conquered in 1967 to signal his seriousness about a two-state solution. Two years later, faced with the recalcitrance of Netanyahu backed by a bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill that raised the domestic political cost of the standoff, Obama backed down. Mitchell's resignation in May 2011 signaled the end of Team Obama's Middle East peace effort in all but name. His reasons may have been quite different Romney's, by the end of 2010 Obama had also opted to "kick the ball down the field".
But the game may be over. Even under the most auspicious circumstances, the peace process was unable to bridge the gap between the minimum the Palestinians require and the maximum the Israelis were willing to give. And the shifts in both Israeli and Palestinian politics over the two decades since Oslo have considerably hardened the outlook on both sides. Israel today is ruled by leaders that vehemently opposed the Oslo process, while the last time the Palestinians got to vote (in 2006), the party they chose as their government was Hamas, which had been even more vehemently opposed to the peace process.
The prospect of negotiating a bilateral consensus over a two-state peace remain remote for the foreseeable future, although neither the U.S. nor the Israelis nor Abbas have been willing to admit as much.
Romney's comments, and the extent to which they jibe with Obama's default policies even as the catechisms of the peace process are duly recited, are simply a reminder that the pretense is unsustainable. No matter who wins the White House in November, the Palestinians aren't going to get any change out of Washington. Even before Romney revealed his cards, it was clear to a growing number of Palestinians that their fate is in their own hands. And as they move to take control of their destiny, the "peace process" status quo will become increasingly untenable.