Past American presidents waived the implementation of the Jerusalem Embassy Act (1995) for the simple reason that it would complicate the peace efforts in the Middle East. It is hard to deny Jewish long and historic association with Jerusalem. It is even harder to deny that of the Palestinians who lived there in 1948 before Israel was created, and who were displaced, especially, in June 1967, when the Israeli blitzkrieg in the Six-Day War almost insensibly took the city.
The United States, in spite of the overwhelming influence of American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was always considered the only power that could, indeed, exert influence over Israeli policies and big enough to also influence its Arab adversaries. In other words, it could play the role of the intermediary. Both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, are greatly invested in Jerusalem, physically and emotionally.
There are two peace treaties which have kept the Middle East at peace, or, to be precise, free of the prospects of all-out war, for more than 30 years. The most important is, of course, the treaty between Egypt and Israel. It was once considered unthinkable. But US President Jimmy Carter made it possible after hosting President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David for 12 days in secret talks in 1978. It is difficult to place a value on a treaty like that unless you take an aerial view of bombed out cities of Aleppo, Jobar and Raqqa in Syria and the devastated Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tal Afar.
The second peace treaty was signed between Israel and Jordanin 1994 and was witnessed by US President Bill Clinton to end 46 years of war. Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein signed the treaty at their border. “This is our gift to our peoples and to generations yet unborn,” the King said as Prime Minister Rabin nodded. Indeed, there could be no better gift, and the two countries have virtually become good neighbours, executing projects together for mutual benefit, which was unthinkable 30 years ago. In about a year, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing extremist and his successor Shimon Peres picked up the peace mantle where Begin stopped and began to talk with the Palestinians. Israeli politics intervened as Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned against peace and won the election thereby halting the peace train in 1996.
Now, it is no use thinking what would have been had Shimon Peres won the election in 1996, and what would have been had he, as most people expected, successfully concluded a peace agreement with the Palestinians. First, the world would have been saved the first Intifada which lasted for six years and took a toll of 1,162 Palestinian lives and 29,000 injured. It ended with the signing of the Oslo Accords at which the Palestinian Authority was constituted and Palestinians formally recognized the State of Israel. The second Intifada lasted four and half years and took a toll of 3,000 Palestinian lives, 1,000 Israeli lives and 64 foreigners. It ended in 2005 when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to end all violence. Israel subsequently withdrew from Gaza and constructed the Israeli West Bank barrier.
Perhaps, the last visible effort to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis together was made by President Bill Clinton in 1999. It was said to be the closest the issue came to being resolved but the rejectionists prevailed on PLO Leader Yasser Arafat not to sign the document and it is said that Bill Clinton never forgave him for it. Ever since, the process has stalled. Israel elected Netanyahu, a man to whom peace was not a priority. And in the last 15 years or so, Israel seems to pursue a curious policy which seems calculated to nurse the animosity of its neighbours than to court their friendship.
On President Barack Obama’s first day in office, he appointed a special presidential envoy to re-start the peace process and work on all outstanding issues to get both sides to build trust. He chose America’s most distinguished negotiator, former Senate Majority Leader, George Mitchell, the man known to be capable of untying the knottiest of problems, the man who made possible the famous Good Friday Agreement which ended the protracted war in Northern Ireland.
On January 26, 2009, George Mitchell began his Middle East peace tour, less than a week after President Obama was sworn into office. Prime Minister Netanyahu frustrated him by accelerating the construction of new settlements on Palestinian lands.
Fair-minded people the world over tend to agree that since 1948 when millions of Palestinians were displaced and turned into refugees in their own country, it is themost irreducible minimum to create for them a state of their own side by side Israel in what is popularly known as the “two-state solution.” The more Palestinian lands are confiscated by Jewish settlers, the less viable the two-state solution becomes. Mitchell, the consummate negotiator, did everything to persuade the Israelis to no avail. President Obama watched Israeli intransigence with horror until it seemed the Israeli pursuit of the settlement construction was a deliberate policy to frustrate any negotiation with the Palestinians.
Needless to say, George Mitchell resigned his position in frustration, seeing that the Israeli prime minister’s political interests are vested in the perpetuation of the conflict. That realization practically damaged President Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu who campaigned vigorously to defeat Obama during the 2012 elections. When Shimon Peres died in 2016, Obama’s eulogy to the old man was a reflection of his frustration with Netanyahu and the contrast between Peres’s approach to peace and Netanyahu’s:“… even after repeateddisappointments at the negotiation table, he (Peres) insisted that as human beings, Palestinians must be seen as equal in dignity to Jews, and must therefore be equal in self-determination. Because of his sense of justice, his analysis of Israel’s security, his understanding of Israel’s meaning, he believed that the Zionist idea would be best protected when Palestinians, too, had a state of their own.”