How Washington’s Weak Pragmatism Led to October 7
On October 7th, Hamas militants launched a series of coordinated attacks on Israeli settlements, prompting a spectrum of analyses and commentary. Experts and commentators are delving into the multi-faceted causes, historical context, and potential repercussions of these incidents. However, the historical role of the United States seems to have the largest share in creating this crisis.
The United States has always supported the two-state solution based on UN resolutions and has urged Israel to accept the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but these pressures have never been translated into action. Moreover, the United States has failed to implement the two important peace agreements, Camp David, and Oslo, which both emphasized the two-state solution as the only way to end the conflict.
For instance, the Oslo Accords were a series of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which aimed to create a peace process for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a mutually negotiated two-state solution. According to these accords, the 1967 borders, which were determined by the UN Security Council, are the official borders of the two states. However, after the Oslo agreement, all American presidents have only paid lip service to the two-state solution and have not taken any concrete steps to make it a reality.
Biden reaffirmed U.S. support for the two-state solution and called for separate Israeli and Palestinian states with borders similar to those before the 1967 war. Clinton, the architect of the Oslo agreement, laid out the general framework for a Palestinian state and the resolution of other related issues. George W. Bush was the first U.S. president to openly endorse a Palestinian state. The Obama administration also pursued the two-state solution, but the talks collapsed in 2014 over disputes on Israeli settlements, Palestinian prisoners, and other issues. In 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the principles of a two-state solution based on the final status negotiations, but they were never implemented as the Obama administration ended.
Trump’s plan was the most damaging to the two-state solution. It offered a Palestinian state, but gave Israel full control over Jerusalem, including the Old City and holy sites, and relegated the Palestinian capital to a part of East Jerusalem. It denied the Palestinian refugees the right of return but promised to invest $50 billion in helping develop a viable Palestinian state. The map in Trump’s plan showed that Palestinian land in the West Bank would shrink by 70 percent as Israel annexes the Jordan Valley and all its settlements. This plan, which was drafted without consulting the Palestinian leadership, was a complete victory for Israel and was rightfully rejected by the Palestinian Authority.
The United States, despite its apparent support for the two-state solution, has always blocked the Palestinians from joining the United Nations. Washington’s insistence that this should only be done through negotiations with Israel has prevented Palestine from becoming a full member of the United Nations. The Palestinian Authority has been seeking full membership in the United Nations since 2011 but has faced opposition from the United States.
The two-state solution also requires Israel to halt its settlement expansion. The United States has condemned these settlements and called them an obstacle to peace but has never labeled them illegal to avoid exposing Israel to international sanctions. For instance, the State Department declared in 1978 that settlement construction in the occupied territories violated international law, but Ronald Reagan said in an interview in 1981 that while the settlements were “not in keeping with the agreement,” they weren’t “illegal.” Later, the Clinton administration issued exemptions for settlements in East Jerusalem and for their “natural population growth.” This violated the Oslo agreement that Clinton brokered and UN Security Council Resolution 242. The Trump administration was also clearly pro-Israel on the issue of Jewish settlements. In 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reversed the State Department’s 1978 legal opinion, stating that civilian settlements in the West Bank “are not per se inconsistent with international law” and are not an impediment to peace.
The Biden administration more or less avoided upsetting the status quo, despite tense relations with Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government. In February 2023, Israel started building new settlements and legalized several illegal outposts. The Biden administration blocked the UN resolution that condemned the settlement expansion by pressuring the UAE, which had drafted the resolution. Moreover, the Biden administration did not criticize but supported Israel’s right to defend itself when Israel launched a military operation against new militia groups in the West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus in July. The continuation of Trump’s policy by the Biden administration was one of the triggers for the war on October 7.
The Hamas attacks on Israel and the Israeli bombing of Gaza, will alter the dynamics of Israel’s international relations and, consequently, its relations with the United States. Washington has always reversed the normal model of mediation by easing the pressure on the stronger party and increasing the pressure on the weaker party, thus reinforcing the status quo and often escalating the conflict. Biden and Netanyahu both have the means and the incentives to shift the costs of any event onto the Palestinians.
Finally, the absence of real pressure on Israel’s leaders from the U.S. will encourage them to persist in the policy of ignoring the demands of the international community. Similarly, Washington’s attempts to sideline or reshape Palestinian politics have not only failed to make them effective negotiating partners but have also weakened Palestinian leaders and institutions, while fueling instability and violence. The common interests with Tel Aviv sometimes restrain their extreme actions, but in the end, they will remain the main ally of Israel, and if Israel takes drastic measures, they will be compelled to support them, and their protests will not go beyond words.