Viewpoint: Mid-East peace needs fresh US approach
Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center argues that the hollowness of US-led diplomacy and the more and more deeply entrenched Israeli occupation have forced Palestinian leaders to resort to trying to gain full UN membership.
Whatever the outcome of the Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations, the Obama administration must confront the fact that its handling of the whole affair has been a mess.
A hard look at what went wrong in US diplomacy is essential if proposals by President Barack Obama and other leaders to launch new peace talks in the aftermath of the UN decision are to avoid the same fate.
The dispatch of veteran US negotiator Dennis Ross and Quartet Special Envoy Tony Blair to dissuade the Palestinians was virtually guaranteed to arouse distrust of the administration's motives and provoke an adverse reaction.
Mr Ross is universally regarded among the Palestinian political leadership and negotiating team as biased toward Israel, and as excessively inclined to browbeat his interlocutors.
As Mr Ross's former colleague Aaron David Miller admitted: "For far too long, many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as Israel's attorney, catering for and co-ordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations."
This week, according to Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, Mr Ross used "undiplomatic language" in addressing the Palestinian leadership. One has to wonder what the Obama administration was thinking.
Tony Blair was, if anything, an even worse choice. The Palestinian leadership not only distrust him, they disrespect him. His accounts of supposed achievements on behalf of the Palestinian economy are deeply resented as overblown and self-promoting.
In my extensive encounters over the years with international officials in the Palestinian territories, this is a widely-held view of Mr Blair's work in the region.
According to a close aide, during his brief visits to Jerusalem, Mr Blair typically arrives late for meetings he has called with senior donor representatives, speaks without an agenda or action points, and then rushes away to catch a flight back to his other activities.
The US attempt in July to circumvent the Palestinian UN bid by recruiting the Quartet, a group that also includes the European Union, Russia and the UN, to issue "quasi terms of reference" for new peace talks was deeply inadequate in terms of substance - the other three members rejected it outright.
More importantly, however, it confirmed just how marginal the Quartet is.
For years, the Quartet has been used by the United States to safely sideline its supposed partners while America sets the agenda and timetable for action.
One glaring example of this occurred in spring 2003. The Quartet had agreed to establish a "monitoring mechanism" to verify Israeli, as well as Palestinian, implementation of the "Roadmap to Peace", but the United States came under Israeli pressure and unilaterally discarded the mechanism when it published the official version of the Roadmap, without consulting the other Quartet members.
The time to dismantle the Quartet has long passed, since it has failed to balance and constrain US bias.
All process, no peace
US diplomacy has been characterised by a multiplicity of conflicting channels, leading to confused signals and a weakened impact.
Over the past four years, the US effort has been distributed among Special Envoy George Mitchell (representing the Department of State), US Security Coordinator Gen Keith Dayton (until 2010), the White House and National Security Council and the CIA, most of whom have strained and competitive relations with one another that end up being counterproductive.
Of course, dysfunctional turf battles reflect the more fundamental problem of a policy vacuum towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that extends back to the start of George W Bush's administration in 2001.
After 20 years of an ultimately futile peace process, the facts on the ground of the Israeli occupation and settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have become more entrenched and the Palestinian leadership has lost credibility with its own people over its dealings with Israel.
A principal factor in this outcome is that US diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian context has been inept and badly misjudged.
If public statements about launching new peace talks are to be credible, then the Obama administration must engage in a thorough overhaul of how it conducts its diplomacy. This is no guarantee of success, but is nonetheless the minimum bar it must pass.
Replacing the present cast of envoys and mechanisms is necessary to reach the "legitimate and balanced framework" for negotiations called for by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
To retain the old is to maintain the US monopoly on the peace process - all process and no peace - and makes it difficult for the US to present itself as an honest, credible broker.
Ironically, now that the Obama administration appears finally to have woken up, focused and sharpened its skills - even if only to thwart the Palestinian bid - perhaps it can be persuaded to direct this new-found energy into a diplomatic framework that is international rather than unipolar, and not only in name.
Yezid Sayigh is a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.