What Can Obama Do About Palestine, Meanwhile?

My old friend Danny Rubinstein, who has covered the West Bank pretty much since the occupation began, came over Friday afternoon. He had covered this week's expulsion of Palestinian residents from their disputed home in Sheikh Jarrah. He had just come from conversations with Palestinian journalists in East Jerusalem, and was not in a cheerful frame of mind.

One gets the feeling that things are coming to a head, he says, what with Mahmoud Abbas' announcement that he would not seek reelection, and Netanyahu headed to a Washington whose Congress had just denounced the Goldstone Report. The Israeli government is doing what it can to defend the status quo. But the status quo engenders a disaster, and the Obama administration is understandably distracted.

The question is not whether time is running out on a two-state solution, as if one state, like South Africa, could ever happen here. The real question is whether we are going to prevent the kind of general violence that will turn Israel and Palestine into a Balkans-style conflict, with Jerusalem a kind of Sarajevo, and the Israeli Arab villages of the Little Triangle a kind of Bosnia. Without palpable outside action to move Israel off the status quo, especially from the Obama administration, the streets of the West Bank will blow. But Obama has no desire to pick a fight with any senators just now, not until 60 of them vote to end the inevitable Republican filibuster.

ABBAS, YOU SEE, is not the point. He has been a force for reconciliation, perhaps the best partner Israel could ever have (or so former Labor minister Ephraim Sneh writes in today's Haaretz), but his personal prestige was never very great. That he is threatening to withdraw from politics is a symptom of danger, not a danger in itself. For Abbas has always been a kind of national working hypothesis: that Ramallah's secular bourgeoisie was a natural leadership to bring forth a state, and that its power to create the rule of law, and its prospects in the regional economy, justified patience; that the continuing flow of money from the international community justified having a person in the (albeit diminished) Palestinian Authority that outsiders could trust.

But when ordinary people in the streets of the West Bank start to believe that this leadership cannot be trusted to deliver--that donor money is meant to palliate them during a silent ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem and the annexation of their land by settlers--Hamas will appear the only game in town. We seem to be in a race between the vote on healthcare in the Senate and the outbreak of riots around Al-Aqsa.

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION cannot just sit on its hands, and seems to know what it needs to do in the long run. But what exactly can it do in the short-run to reassure Palestinians without inciting a public backlash among senators eager to prove their "friendship" to Israel. The dispute over a "settlements freeze" has proven a dead end, since everybody (including leaders of the PA) have been working on the assumption that at least some of the citified settlements will be annexed to Israel, while Palestine would be compensated with a land swap. Neither could the Obama administration endorse the Goldstone report, which Palestinians justifiably regard as a touchstone of others' empathy for them, without laying itself open to charges that it is cavalier about missiles falling on Israel.

Somehow, then, the administration has to signal that it is not only serious about pursuing a Palestinian state but that it has a pretty clear understanding of what that state would look like, where its borders will be, and so forth--and that it is not simply a cheerleader for negotiations that will, under present circumstances, prove fruitless. But how do you buy time without appearing to endorse the status quo? How do you signal the outlines of the state without presenting the whole plan for a state?

ALL OF WHICH brings me back to Rubinstein. Perhaps the most depressing thing he told me confirms apprehensions I wrote about in Harper's last month, that while the Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad is trying to build out the foundations of a Palestinian state--say, through massive construction projects in and around Ramallah--he is being thwarted in all kinds of ways by the occupation authorities and the IDF. Almost no developments in Area A (the cores of Palestinian cities), for example, can fail to encroach on Areas B and C where the IDF controls the roads and airspace--more than 60% of the West Bank. "He is trying to break ground on the Al-Ersal project and he is suddenly up against a road the settlers use only for themselves in Area C. This is so called 'state land,' the Israeli government has taken from Jordan and calls its own."

But here, precisely, is an opportunity for the American government, is it not? Suppose the Obama administration were to commit, say, $50 million to this project and use its public influence to seek its construction. If the Israeli government gets in the way, then it is obstructing a joint Palestinian-American project. If the question comes up whether parts of Area B or C around the project are ultimately going to be part of the Palestinian state, then the American administration can signal--that is, in advance of any negotiation--that it is siding with the Palestine authority over the interests of the settlers.

The point is, we have to move away from statements of principle to manifest demonstrations of intention. America has to become Palestine's partner not only in training police, but in expanding the foundations of commerce and statehood. Just as important, the Obama administration needs to prove that, unlike its predecessor, it will not become an inadvertent tool of the settlers.

And if while it's focussed on its domestic priorities the administration can't avoid a fight with AIPAC's favorite politicians, let it be over something the vast majority of Israelis, let alone Americans, would support. I mean the peaceful development of Palestinian civil society in parts of the West Bank where cities are growing and, border or no border, settlers have crossed all bounds.