ONE OF THE MOST remarkable aspects of this year’s Arab uprising has been the absence of the Israeli-Palestinian issue from the agenda of protesters. It turns out that the rising generation of Arabs is preoccupied not with Palestinian statehood but with political freedom and economic opportunity in their own countries. It follows that for the United States and other Western democracies, the most critical challenge in the region in the coming years will be guiding Arab states toward liberal democracy and preventing the rise of new authoritarian or extremist Islamic regimes.
Western diplomats and politicians nevertheless remain preoccupied with creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the issue is likely to return to center stage in Washington in the coming month. In a speech this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised a “renewed pursuit of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace by the administration,” adding that “there is no substitute for continued, active American leadership.”
Ms. Clinton’s statement was striking in part because of the administration’s policy of eschewing active American leadership in Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world. But President Obama has appeared fixated on the Israeli-Palestinian problem since the beginning of his administration, and America’s status as the preeminent diplomatic broker on the issue is coming under pressure.
European governments have been pressing for a new initiative by the Middle East “Quartet” — a group made up of the European Union, the United States, the United Nations and Russia — that would attempt to set the parameters for Palestinian statehood. The Palestinians themselves are preparing to ask the U.N. General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state at its meeting in September — the date Mr. Obama unwisely set as the deadline for reaching a peace settlement.
To its credit, the administration has been resisting these initiatives, which would probably set back rather than advance the Palestinian cause. The American position remains that Palestinians can achieve statehood only through negotiations with Israel, and that, as Ms. Clinton put it, “only the parties themselves can make the hard choices for peace.”
The problem with this policy is that Palestinian leaders have little interest in negotiating with the current Israeli government. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just twice in two years and has conditioned further talks on concessions that he knows Israel will not make — such as a freeze on all housing construction in Jerusalem. The proposed Quartet statement or a speech by Mr. Obama laying out peace terms, coupled with an invitation to talks, might be a way to surmount this impasse. There is talk of an international conference. But as President Bill Clinton learned a decade ago, such interventions won’t succeed if the parties themselves are not ready to deal.
A more practical approach would be for the administration to press both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas to begin taking unilateral steps to lay the groundwork for two states. Mr. Netanyahu is said to be considering withdrawing Israeli troops from parts of the West Bank; the administration should embrace this idea and press for the maximum pullback. It should meanwhile pressure Mr. Abbas to begin talking to Palestinians about why peace with Israel is desirable and what concessions will be necessary — something he has never done. Such measures won’t rival the political breakthroughs underway elsewhere in the region, but they would offer something that two years of the Obama administration’s diplomacy has yet to achieve: tangible progress.