Comment: The following article, by Reuters columnist Bernd Debusmann, gives one of the most clear and straightforward explanations of the real source of the Middle East problem that you're likely to find.


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The Palestinian West Bank (surrounded by an Israeli wall) with illegal Israeli settlement areas in purple.
On February 18, the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. The vote raises a question: Who dominates in the alliance between America and Israel?

Judging from the extent to which one partner defies the will of the other, decade after decade, the world's only superpower is the weaker partner. When push comes to shove, American presidents tend to bow to Israeli wishes. Barack Obama is no exception, or he would not have instructed his ambassador at the United Nations to vote against a policy he himself stated clearly in the summer of 2009.
"The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop," he said in a much-lauded speech in Cairo.
Compare this with the text of the resolution that drew 14 votes in favor and died with the U.S. veto: "Israeli settlements established in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace."

Linguists may quibble over the difference between "illegal" and "illegitimate" but the substance of the two statements is pretty much the same. So why the veto? It followed an energetic campaign by the Israeli government and its allies in the United States to keep the issue out of the United Nations, seen by Israel as a reflexively anti-Israeli body.

Washington's ambassador at the U.N., Susan Rice, had a different explanation. Though the U.S. opposed settlements, she said, adopting that resolution would have risked hardening the positions of both sides in future negotiations. In other words, let's return to the parallel universe of the "peace process."

In that universe, American presidents make optimistic predictions detached from the realities on the ground. George W. Bush, early in 2009: "The peace agreement should happen and can happen by the end of the year." Obama, last September, held out the prospect of an agreement that would, by next year," lead to a new member of the United Nations - an independent state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel."

While the peace process has sputtered on, Israel has been building settlements in the territory of what would be a Palestinian state. Demands from nine successive U.S. administrations that these settlements - illegal under the Fourth Geneva convention - be stopped have been ignored.

Since the peace process began with the Oslo accord of 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank has risen from around 110,000 to more than 300,000. The government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu refused to agree even to the extension of a temporary halt, despite an offer of jet fighters worth billion of dollars. American aid has been running at around $8.5 million a day for many years but obviously doesn't buy much influence.

The number of optimists who still believe in the "two-state solution" - an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel - has been shrinking as the number of settlements grew. The peace process ground to a halt when the Palestinians refused to negotiate as long as there was no halt to settlements.

The problem with America's role in the process (highlighted again by the February 18 veto) was spelled out with memorable clarity six years ago by Aaron David Miller, who worked in senior roles at the State Department for 25 years as a Middle East negotiator and adviser on Arab-Israeli affairs.

AMERICANS AS ISRAEL'S LAWYERS, NOT HONEST BROKERS

"For far too long," he wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, "many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peace-making have acted as Israel's attorney, catering for and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations. If the United States wants to be an honest and effective broker...then surely it can have only one client: the pursuit of a solution that meets the requirements of both sides."

The obstacles to this are numerous and difficult, from a weak Palestinian leadership that does not represent all Palestinians to fractious Israeli politics that have moved farther and farther to the right and are now dominated by a government whose foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is a settler himself.

But perhaps the most difficult obstacle to American peace-making lies in the United States - the "Israel, right or wrong" crowd and its pervasive influence in Congress. That the Middle East policy decks would be stacked against the Palestinians became clear even before the creation of Israel in 1948.

When President Harry Truman and his top diplomats in the Middle East discussed plans for the partition of Palestine in 1945, the experts warned against it and predicted it would result in foreign policy problems for the U.S. His answer: "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I don't have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents."

No annual meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee is complete without a senior member of the administration (Democratic or Republican) reminding the audience of the "unbreakable bond" between the U.S. and Israel, as evidenced by the fact that Truman recognized the state of Israel just 11 minutes after its declaration of independence. (His calculation about constituents is not part of the homage.)

So, if the peace process is really dead, as many experts now say, what's next? At the end of the 2007 Annapolis conference, one of a long string of peace summits that produced photo opportunities but no progress, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had this to say: "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-like struggle for equal voting rights...the State of Israel is finished.

"The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents."

That rings even more true now, when Israel's Arab neighbors are ousting their dictators in mass movements for democracy, than it did then.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)