RAMALLAH, West Bank — In a historic speech in Cairo, just months after he took office, President Obama declared to the world: “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.”
His recognition of the “undeniable” suffering of the Palestinian people as a result of the loss of our homeland over 60 years ago and, as he said, the “daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation” gave Palestinians everywhere — whether living in the refugee camps of Jordan and Lebanon, or in exile in the far corners of the diaspora, or under military occupation on whatever fragments are left of our historic homeland — hope that maybe we would finally see justice. Unfortunately, those words did not translate into policy.
Instead, time and again, the United States lobbied against Palestinian diplomacy to protect the two-state solution from the efforts of the Israeli prime minister to destroy it once and for all. The United States not only vetoed an otherwise unanimous Security Council resolution condemning settlement construction drafted with language that mirrored Washington’s policy statements, but it even attempted to block the listing of the Nativity Church in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Most egregious of all was that Mr. Obama permitted the continuation of the inhuman blockade and siege of Gaza. Mr. Obama placated Israel while it bombed, invaded and devastated the coastal enclave three times in seven years (using United States-supplied weapons to do so). Despite international condemnation of Israel’s killing of thousands of innocent Palestinians in Gaza, the United States has not held Israel accountable for this misuse of American military assistance. Instead, Israel recently received the largest military aid package the United States had ever given.
The last round of peace talks, facilitated by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013 and 2014, proved to be a total failure. Though the president supported the start of negotiations, even he was not hopeful. He instructed Mr. Kerry to lower his expectations from Day 1, indicating that the administration was not putting its political weight behind the secretary of state. Though Mr. Kerry talked with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, dozens of times, he was unable to deliver the other key player: the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Many promises were made, including a partial freeze of settlements, a release of some political prisoners, and discussions on the borders of a future Palestinian state. None of these was fulfilled. Consequently, under Mr. Obama’s presidency, the very idea of a two-state solution has come into question. The Democrats won’t even use the words “settlements” or “occupation” in their party platform; the Republicans have deleted references to the two-state solution altogether.
While the State Department delivers tired statements about American opposition to settlement construction, such building has continued — even during times of United States-led direct negotiations — so that between 2013 and 2014, there was a drastic increase in Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and in Palestinian home demolitions.
The lack of accountability or any concrete action from the United States regarding Israeli violations, including settlements, sends the message that no matter the strong condemnations emanating from Washington (as we have witnessed this month and for the past 50 years) Israel will continue building on occupied land. Talk is circulating of a United Nations Security Council resolution on settlements, but what is really needed is a resolution with clear consequences on the ground rather than a continuation of recycled statements.
This final year of Mr. Obama’s presidency marks 100 since the “Balfour Declaration,” when the British foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour promised the Zionist leader Walter Lionel Rothschild Palestine as a “Jewish national home.” With Israel’s military occupation over the 22 percent of what remains of our homeland now entering its 50th year, it is time for Mr. Obama to take concrete action to end this prolonged injustice.
It is not too late for the president to make good on his declaration in Cairo. He could start by fully supporting France’s proposal for a multilateral framework for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To end the occupation that began in 1967 and to establish a sovereign Palestinian state is a goal that requires the kind of international engagement that the Obama administration brought to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Anything short of that will be yet another failure.
In order to deliver a clear and unequivocal statement regarding the United States’ opposition to settlement construction and to preserve the two-state solution, Mr. Obama should, as 138 other countries have done, recognize Palestine as a country with the borders as they existed before Israel began its military occupation in 1967. That one act would irreversibly put Israelis and Palestinians back on track toward an end of conflict and lasting peace. There is little that the president could lose with such an act but much could be gained for generations to come of Israelis and Palestinians, and for the stability of the Middle East. That should be Mr. Obama’s legacy.
Muhammad Shtayyeh is a member of the Fatah Central Committee, minister in charge of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, and adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas.