President Obama’s foray into the Middle East may well provide him the last opportunity to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which is central to the region’s stability. Having failed in his effort during his first term to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the President may not want to invest significant political capital to seek a solution to an intractable conflict with an uncertain outcome. That said, the raging conflicts throughout the Middle East—the horrific civil war in Syria, the unending violence in Iraq, the instability in Egypt, the simmering conflict with Iran—may appear to have little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet they are interconnected and will affect one another. A resolution to this explosive conflict is a must and only the United States can influence, induce, pressure or even resort to necessary coercive measures to compel Israel and the Palestinians to make the required concessions and reach a peaceful agreement.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict stands out as the single most troubling regional issue because the Palestinian problem continues to feed into the Arab frenzy, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring. Given the regional turbulence and the continuing debilitating status of the Palestinians, unless the US initiates a new peace offensive it will only be a matter of time until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict explodes with more far-reaching regional repercussions than can be envisioned. In Prague, on his first European visit in April 2009, President Obama emphatically stated, “When we fail to pursue peace, then it stays forever beyond our grasp.” No individual, let alone the President, can ignore a conflict that has spanned over three generations in such a pivotal region when the stakes are so high for the United States and its allies.
It is interesting to note that throughout the Israeli election campaign, all political parties from the extreme left to the far right focused primarily on domestic socio-economic issues, while the conflict with the Palestinians received scant attention. In his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry stated, “There were elections yesterday [in Israel]…I pray that maybe this will be a moment that will allow us to renew the effort to the one they were on in the last few years. I would like to try and do that.” Mr. Kerry’s efforts to “bring the parties to the negotiating table and go down a different path” should not be mere wishful thinking. The US must realistically assess where Netanyahu, who has now formed the new Israeli coalition government, really stands on the prospect of the two-state solution and what kind of measures the US is prepared to take if it wishes to lead Israel and the Palestinians toward a peace settlement.
The makeup of the new Israeli government does not augur well for the peace process, with Likud/Beitenu led by Netanyahu and Jewish Home led by Naftali Bennett (who wants to annex 60 percent of the West Bank) now in the coalition. In his meeting with the President, Netanyahu will simply pay lip service in support of a two-state solution, certainly guided by his own convictions. He will continue to play for time, as he does not believe that Israel is an occupying power and that the West Bank is an integral part of the Jewish people’s ancestral land.
Palestinian factionalism and infighting (i.e. the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas) further complicates the prospect of genuine peace negotiations, especially since Hamas continues to openly seek Israel’s destruction. Here, the Obama administration must rethink its position in relation to the Palestinians and how it must treat Hamas, which ultimately cannot be excluded from the peace process if the US wishes to pursue sustainable peace.
While it seems logical that the Israelis and the Palestinians should sort out their own problems, history has shown that they have simply been unwilling or unable to do just that. Indeed, the conflict transcends territory, security, refugees, settlements or the future of Jerusalem; it is highly emotional and shrouded with intense hatred and distrust, further hampered by psychological hang-ups emanating from deep historical experiences and religious beliefs.
In his speech at the United Nations in September 2011, President Obama said: “Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians—not us—who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem.” If the President feels today the way he felt then, he should not expect a breakthrough in the peace process any time soon. The United States’ role has been and remains indispensible, as was reflected in John Kerry’s speech in March 2009 at the Brookings Institution when he said, “While I believe there must be an enhanced role for the regional players, nothing can substitute for our [the United States’] crucial role as an active and creative agent for peace [emphasis added].”
In the wake of the Arab Spring, as Palestinians watch young men and women in several Arab states fighting and dying for their freedoms, their own relative passivity will not last forever. In his speech after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in December 2009 the President said: "For peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting." The President must now live up to that premise. He cannot kick the ball down the field and leave the region to the whims of other powers--Russia and Iran--that will go to any lengths to undermine American interests while tearing the Israelis and Palestinians further apart without any prospect of reconciliation.
The notion that the U.S. should not try to seek an Israeli-Palestinian solution more than the parties to the conflict is flawed. The lack of peace will continue to erode the U.S.’ interests and influence and undermine its role in shaping the outcome of the multiple upheavals sweeping the region in the wake of the Arab Spring. As the United States feels responsible for Israel’s national security, it may well have to save the Israelis and the Palestinians from self-destruction and use whatever means necessary to that end.
To advance the real prospect of an Israel-Palestine peace, President Obama must take a number of critical steps:
First, to make the visit to the region a game-changer the President must directly address the Palestinian as well as the Israeli people. The President can explain why only peace will ultimately ensure Israel’s national security, democracy and the Jewish national identity of the state. The President should reiterate his commitment to a two-state solution and emphasize that the U.S. will use all means available at its disposal to advance the peace process. In their public statements American officials must address Israel, the Palestinians and our Arab allies on par with one another to help nurture the perception of interdependence in national security and economic development among their people and foster the sense of a joint destiny.
Second, the President must carry with him a general framework for peace based on prior understandings negotiated between the two sides, especially those achieved in 2000 (at Camp David between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak) and 2007-2008 (between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas). In both sets of comprehensive negotiations, the two sides had been able to resolve the vast majority of the conflicting issues; in the latter, then-Israeli Prime Minister Olmert stated both sides had come “very close, more than ever in the past, to complete a principle agreement that would have led to the end of the conflict.” These prior agreements should be placed on the table anew and modified to factor in the changing conditions on the ground, creating a clear basis for negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement with the U.S.’ direct and active participation.
Third, a new independent envoy should be appointed with a clear presidential mandate to work relentlessly to advance the negotiation process. The envoy should be present in every single session to find out how sincere the Israelis and the Palestinians are in the search for peace and to what extent they are prepared to make the concessions needed to reach an agreement. The Israeli and Palestinian contention that there is no partner with whom to negotiate or that the other cannot be trusted to negotiate in good faith would be dispelled or confirmed in these face-to-face negotiations (only, however, with an American presence).
Fourth, it is imperative that the US reaches out to leading Arab and Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others that can exert pressure on the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to make necessary concessions. Similarly, Egypt and Turkey, who both enjoy great leverage on Hamas, should persuade its leadership to change its acrimonious public pronouncements against Israel. In particular, Hamas must renounce violence as a tool by which to reach its political objective of establishing an independent Palestinian state. Indeed, the government of Egypt has mediated several times between Hamas and Israel in the past and more recently, the Egyptian government arranged for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas with American involvement.
Fifth, in reaching out to the Arab and Muslim world, the President should help reignite the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which still represents the most comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The revival of the API remains critically important, as even top Israeli officials including President Shimon Peres and former head of the Mossad Meir Dagan have strongly endorsed the API as central to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. In his Brookings speech, Mr. Kerry rightly invoked the Arab Peace Initiative when he said, “This bold step never received the focus it deserved when Saudi King Abdullah proposed it in 2002.” The creation of a “sovereign independent Palestinian state,” which the API calls for, will greatly contribute to stabilizing the region and bring about normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab and Muslim states.
Sixth, the perception that Congress is more supportive of Israel than the President must be dispelled, and no one can change that better than the President himself. During his first term, President Obama provided Israel with greater political, economic and military support than any of his predecessors. The President needs to articulate to the American people and to Congress why it is in Israel’s best interest to forge peace and why the United States must take the lead and help Israel and the Palestinians ensure peace with security. The President needs to explain that by not taking action now, Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state could be jeopardized because of demographic changes and the unsustainability of occupation.
Seventh, one of the most difficult impediments between Israelis and Palestinians is mutual distrust and the psychological underpinning of the conflict. It is critical for the US to exert every conceivable pressure on both the Israelis and the Palestinians to begin changing their public narratives about each other, ending mutually acrimonious statements, expressions of hatred, and distrust. The United States, however, must also change its public statements toward the Israelis and the Palestinians. By way of example, it has been stated by successive American administrations that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rests on a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines with some land swaps. The question here is why a two-state solution is the only viable option. Certainly there are several reasons, chief among them being demographics. Israel simply cannot remain a democracy with a national Jewish identity under a Palestinian majority, which is inevitable under the scenario of one state.
Hence, our narrative should first emphasize the inevitability of coexistence. This is what the Israelis and Palestinians must hear from us: coexistence is not one of many options, but the only reality on the ground that cannot change short of a catastrophe. We must be clear in our statements that Israelis and Palestinians must choose how they want to live as neighbors. Do they want to maintain a state of enmity, hatred and violence, or live in peace with normal relations that will allow for progress and permanent peace?
The two-state solution should be the outcome of something permanent (coexistence) that neither side can change now or over time. Indeed, no matter what Israel does in the territories, the Palestinians will not disappear, and will deny Israel from ever living in peace. In other words, Israel’s future as a viable, democratic and Jewish state and the rise of a free and democratic Palestinian state are intertwined and neither can be safe and secure without the other. To be sure, in our public narrative we must emphasize the inevitability of coexistence and the peril that both people will face if either tries to change the equation through the use of force or creeping annexation.
Moreover, the United States’ support of and commitment to Israel’s national security is a well-known fact throughout the Middle East. For a variety of reasons, our government is articulating this fact not only to assure Israel of our commitment but to send a clear message to Israel’s adversaries. What must be done in this respect, however, is change our narrative to reflect our commitment to our Arab allies as well without necessarily watering down our commitment to Israel. When we single out Israel, particularly in major speeches delivered by the President à la his State of the Union address, when he said "we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace” without mentioning the Palestinians, we are conveying the impression that Israel matters the most to the exclusion of any other Arab state.
The Arab states, especially the Palestinians, know that Israel enjoys special relations with the United States and they view that, in a way, also to their advantage, being that only the United States can exact the concessions needed from Israel to reach a peace agreement. That said, they also perceive a huge lack of evenhandedness in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we seek to change the Arabs’ perception about where the US really stands, a subtle shift in our public narrative needs to be articulated to mitigate the current perception which suggests extreme biases in favor of Israel, resulting in further erosion of the US’ regional influence.
Finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has gone on for more than sixty years, should now be a top priority for President Obama as it is central to Arab-Israeli peace and will dramatically enhance regional stability. The status quo is not sustainable, and it can only lead to a new violent and perilous conflagration that will leave no victors—only horrifying destruction, irreparably deepening the already existing gulf between the two sides. The United States has the power, responsibility, and certainly the strategic interests to put an end to this self-consuming conflict in a region where the stakes for all concerned cannot be overestimated.