Without serious pressure, writes Roger Cohen, Israel will not change

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has written extensively this year about the Israel/Palestine conflict, and his latest column continues that tradition. Its importance lies in telling Americans how content many Israelis are with the status-quo (namely occupation):

I’ve grown so pessimistic about Israel-Palestine that I find myself agreeing with Israel’s hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman: “Anyone who says that within the next few years an agreement can be reached ending the conflict simply doesn’t understand the situation and spreads delusions.”

That’s the lesson of early Obama. The president tried to rekindle peace talks by confronting Israel on settlements, coaxing Palestinians to resume negotiations, and reaching out to the Muslim world. The effort has failed.

It has alienated Israel, where Obama is unpopular, and brought the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, close to resignation. It’s time to think again.

What’s gone wrong? There have been tactical mistakes, including a clumsy U.S. wobble toward accepting Israeli “restraint” on settlements rather than cessation. But the deeper error was strategic: Obama’s assumption that he could resume where Clinton left off in 2000 and pursue the land-for-peace idea at the heart of the two-state solution.

This approach ignored the deep scars inflicted in the past decade: the killing of 992 Israelis and 3,399 Palestinians between the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 and 2006; the Israeli Army’s harsh reoccupation of most of the West Bank; Hamas’ violent rise to power in Gaza and the accompanying resurgence of annihilationist ideology; the spectacular spread of Jewish settlements in the West Bank; and the Israeli construction of over 250 miles of a separation barrier that has protected Israel from suicide bombers even as it has shattered Palestinian lives, grabbed land and become, in the words of Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer, “an integral part of the West Bank settlement plan.”

These are not small developments. They have changed the physical appearance of the Middle East. More important, they have transformed the psychologies of the protagonists. Israelis have walled themselves off from Palestinians. They are less interested than ever in a deal with people they hardly see.