On an average-size map of the world, there is no space to mark the locations of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
On one map, the former is outlined by a barely visible light blue line; Gaza is hidden behind the ‘m’ in the word Jerusalem. And that’s it. A speck on the globe.
With a population of fewer than four million people, Gaza and the West Bank combined fit into Connecticut twice, with room to spare. Here you will find no noteworthy reserves of oil or other economic interests, which can be easily tapped into.
What you will discover, though, is anxiety and a population steeped in years of factionalism and political conflict. Not exactly your ideal choice for a diplomatic partner.
Yet, the United States continues to mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and is adamant about maintaining adequate, if not even good ties with the Palestinian leadership.
This became an increasingly difficult task after the January 2006 elections resulted in the victory of Hamas, a group designated by the US as a terrorist organization. At the price of falling out with Israel, US officials have met with the new unity government’s Finance Minister Salam Faya’d, who does not belong to Hamas. This marked a break with Israel’s tough no-talk policy encompassing all Palestinian ministers, as long as Hamas remains in government and refuses to change its policies.
Some would argue the significance of US-Palestinian relations does not warrant the amount of diplomatic effort the US is putting into this relationship. But those interviewed say these ties are not only important but also imperative.
The American people have a national interest in establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, says Ziad Asali, president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine.
The organization aims to promote awareness of ways in which Palestinian statehood would benefit the US
The most compelling argument for this is the security element, Asali says from his Washington, DC office.
“There is a great deal of antagonism towards the US in the Arab and Muslim world. Much of it revolves around US policies in supporting Israel against the Palestinians, Asali says.
Taking the Palestine-Israel conflict off the table would encourage the Arab world to start a different dialogue with the US, one that is less confrontational and based more on mutual interests, he argues.
This is also evident in the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, in which both sides are trying to “own the Palestinians issue, Asali says. Both sides see the symbolic significance of defending the Palestinian cause, at least verbally, and are aware of the emotions this evokes in the hearts and minds of Muslims across the Middle East.
Maen Areikat, director general of the Negotiations Affairs Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization says solving the conflict would neutralize the one issue that extremists use as a pretext to attack the US and other Western countries. “I wouldn’t say that if we solve it, everything would disappear, but I think that if we solve it we can focus on the threat posed by extremists in the region and elsewhere.
Not everyone agrees the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the main problem in the Middle East.
US Congressman Ron Klein (D-FL), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says there is no doubt that solving the conflict, ensuring a stable Israel and giving the Palestinians an opportunity for statehood are important.
“There’s no question that those are crucial issues, Klein says. “But I don’t see where that solves the problems in Iraq and I don’t see that necessarily solves the problems with Iran.
Since 1948, players in various disputes in the region have had a tendency to shift the discussion onto the Palestinian issue, but recent events in Iraq indicate this thinking does not hold, Klein says.
“Shias and Sunnis are fighting each other in a very strategic way that has nothing to do with the Israel-Palestinian issue, he says.
The Israeli-Palestinian issue is not as prominent on Capitol Hill as some Middle Easterners might assume, says Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council.
“From Washington, we are so focused on Iraq to the exclusion of everything else, Berman says.
“The Palestinians have always been more of a backburner issue, because they don’t pose an immediate threat to US security interests.
The Palestinian Authority sees relations with the US as a national interest. But observers note this does not always correspond with the grassroots attitude towards the US
The Palestinian Authority would like the US to be more flexible in dealing with the Palestinian government, but still respects US officials and welcomes them in Ramallah.
On the ground, Palestinian newspaper editorials reflect resentment towards the US and its policies in the Middle East, accusing the US of practicing double standards in its attitudes towards Hamas’ victory and towards Israel.
A vital element in reviewing the American-Palestinian axis is Israel. Some argue the US-Palestinian track is merely an outcropping of US-Israeli relations and would not exist otherwise.
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, says there would be no relations between the US and the Palestinians if they were not part of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
But Congressman Klein does not subscribe to this notion.
“I think the American people are very interested in making sure that part of the world is stable, he says.
The US, Klein maintains, wants to see things move in a way that would allow for an Israel that is not at war with its neighbors. Washington is aware the Palestinians have a stake in this discussion to ensure a safe and secure Israel, and wants to see a free and independent Palestinian state, which can work with its neighbors and develop economic and political relationships.
The fact that this area has nothing to offer in terms of oil and energy is irrelevant, he adds, since it is not in the US’s best interest to be dependent on Middle Eastern oil.
Areikat also believes there is more that binds Americans and Palestinians than the conflict resolution.
Besides the location of Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, which is of tremendous significance to America’s Christian population, the Palestinians have a sizeable community in the US Also, the low rate of illiteracy and high number of educated Palestinians are a “power to reckon with, Areikat says.
“I think there is much more beyond the negotiations. I don’t believe that if we have a peace settlement, that the relationship would end between the US and the Palestinians, Areikat says.
One of the sore points in US-Palestinian relations is the perception that the US cannot be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because of Washington’s inclination to adopt the Israeli side.
“I think that’s true and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, Berman says. “Insofar as the Palestinians could become Western-looking, shorn of corruption and committed to development and human rights, that would equalize it a bit. But it’s natural for people to feel more affinity with people who are like them in governance and in political aspirations.
“I think that mostly the US government has tried to be a fair and impartial arbiter, Klein says. “Yes, it supports Israel and I think it would also support the Palestinians if they proved themselves.
Many agreed it was precisely this alliance between Israel and the US that made the Palestinians see Washington as the only party with sufficient clout to apply the necessary pressure on Israel.
“We would like to see the US utilizing its special relationship with Israel in order to help reach a permanent settlement that will take into account the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians, Areikat says.
While the American people absolutely want a strong, stable and secure Israel, they would also support a stable and secure Palestinian state, Klein believes.
“But it can’t be a Palestinian state that threatens Israel and is at war with Israel. That’s unacce
ptable, he adds.
It is hard to determine where relations between Americans and Palestinians currently stand.
“They’re in limbo, says Prof. Mohammad Dajani, a political scientist from Al-Quds University in eastern Jerusalem.
The US finds itself in a sticky situation with the new Palestinian government. It continues to support Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud ‘Abbas, while shunning Hamas cabinet ministers, who comprise half the new government.
The US is not the only party trying to broker peace in the Middle East. But despite the Palestinian dissatisfaction with Washington’s policies and positions, there is general agreement that this is one party they cannot do without.
“It is true that there are many actors in the game, Dajani says, “but the leading actor is the US
As the Bush administration enters its second term, the legacy watch begins, Berman says, “and the holy grail of the legacy watch is in Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Whether the Americans were invited or not, they are in.
“Deep down the Palestinians rest their hopes on the US, Berman says. “They are a terrible broker, but they’re the best the Palestinians are going to get.
This article has been published with permission from The Media Line Ltd (www.themedialine.org ).