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Obama’s last chance for Israeli-Palestinian peace

In terms of priority and urgency, the president must place the peace process at the top of his agenda

It is hard to imagine that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved without the direct and active involvement of the United States. I believe that if the conflict, which is simmering beneath the surface, is not addressed in the near foreseeable future, it will violently explode with dangerous ripple effects that could spin the whole region out of control and render the prospect of a two-state solution untenable. Such developments will also inflict a lasting damage to US security, economic interests and credibility in the region, while denying President Obama his last chance to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For these reasons, President Obama now has a momentous opportunity to revitalize Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and inform the two sides of his resolve to end the conflict for the sake of all concerned.

Notwithstanding the multiple domestic and foreign problems President Obama faces, I do not subscribe to the argument that he will not be in a position to devote much time and energy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which appears to be less urgent compared to the crisis in Syria,  the ticking bomb behind Iran’s nuclear program, and coping with the economic problems at home. Indeed, the United States, as the global leader, not only cannot afford to neglect such an explosive conflict but certainly has the capacity and the resources to deal with multiple global issues and crises simultaneously. In terms of priority and urgency, President Obama must place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the top of his agenda. The US has serious stakes in the region and a responsibility toward its allies. The lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace will continue to undermine American interests, erode its influence, and jeopardize its role in shaping the outcome of the multiple upheavals sweeping the region in the wake of the Arab Spring.

As the Palestinians watch young men and women in several Arab states fighting and dying for their freedoms, their own relative passivity at the present will not last forever. If the Palestinians feel that the US continues to be detached from the conflict, they may well rise up out of desperation and hopelessness to end the occupation and be prepared to die for their freedom. The US’s inaction on the peace front will also seriously endanger not only the Jewish national identity of Israel, but its very existence, which the US is committed to protect.

Throughout his first term and in his speech at the UN General Assembly this year, the president has insisted that the only solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict rests on creating two independent Jewish and Palestinian states living side-by-side in peace while growing and prospering together as neighbors. Any other message coming from the White House will fundamentally be injurious to both the Israelis and the Palestinians. The notion from some American politicians who have said that the US should not have a greater desire for peace than the parties to the conflict is shortsighted. To advance the prospect of peace between Israel and Palestine, regardless of who will be the next prime minister in Israel, the president must take a number of critical steps:

First, the president must correct a strategic error in failing to visit Israel when he traveled during his first term three times overseas, visiting four Arab/Muslim states: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Indonesia. For most Israelis, skipping Israel three times was nothing short of a slap in the face. Thus, within a few months after the inauguration  the president should visit Israel and Palestine and directly address the Israeli people as well as the Palestinians, emphasizing that only peace will serve their greater interests. The president must look into the eyes of both publics and stress that the US is committed to a two-state solution and will remain consistent and resilient until such a resolution is achieved. Such a visit to Israel would have a transformational effect on many Israelis, akin to the visit of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Israel in 1977 that made the Egyptian-Israeli peace possible.

Can the president pull it off this time around? Netanyahu, Obama and Abbas during a meeting in New York in 2009 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Can the president pull it off this time around? Netanyahu, Obama and Abbas during a meeting in New York in 2009 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Second, the president should develop a general framework for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, based on prior agreements negotiated between the two sides, especially those achieved in 2000 at Camp David between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, and in 2007-2008 between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas. In both sets of comprehensive negotiations, the two sides were able to resolve the majority of the conflicting issues. In the 2007-2008 talks, then-Israeli prime minister Olmert stated that 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.”

Third, to increase the framework’s effectiveness, a new internationally recognized special envoy of the caliber of Bill Clinton should be appointed with a clear presidential mandate. The envoy should remain relentless in his efforts to advance the negotiations process while keeping a top-level American official in the region to press on with the negotiations during the occasional absence of the special envoy.

Fourth, to avoid deadlocks, the rules of engagement should be based on an incremental agreement on various conflicting issues, ideally starting with borders. The Palestinians should abandon their precondition to freeze the settlements before they enter the negotiating process. An agreement on borders will in and of itself resolve 70 to 80 percent of the final status of the settlements, and define the contours of the Palestinian state. Such an agreement will also facilitate the negotiations of other conflicting issues, including the status of Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, and Israel’s national security. Finally, the negotiations should not be open-ended; a timeline must be established, albeit with some flexibility, to prevent either party from playing for time.

Fifth, it is imperative that the US reach out to other leading Arab and Muslim states, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, to exert pressure on the Palestinian Authority to make necessary concessions. Egypt must also be approached to play a role in influencing Hamas to forsake violence as a tool for achieving Palestinian statehood. These Arab states have a serious stake in finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, any new Israeli-Palestinian conflagration will impact directly and indirectly not only on their own interests, but could also draw them into the conflict which they want to avoid at all costs given their own internal political combustion and uncertainty.

Sixth, once the Israelis and Palestinians engage in negotiations, the US should press both sides to immediately begin the process of changing their public narratives about each other by mutually ending acrimonious statements and expressions of hatred and distrust. To that end, both governments should encourage universities, nonpartisan think tanks, and media outlets, to deliberate publicly about the psychological dimensions of the conflicting issues and begin a process of changing mindsets about some of the inevitabilities of reaching an agreement.

Finally, 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 the former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, have stated that the plan is central to resolving the conflict. The API will have special importance in reaching comprehensive peace and long-term stability. The creation of a “sovereign, independent Palestinian state,” which the API calls for, will greatly contribute to stabilizing the region.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has been overshadowed in recent months by international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, the bloody civil war in Syria and the unending insurgencies and terrorism that plague many nations. Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is quietly simmering underneath the surface and becoming ever more perilous. Israel continues to expand existing settlements and legalize others while the Palestinians remain hopelessly factionalized and aimless, unable to present a unified front to be taken seriously. This leaves the festering conflict in the hands of radicals on both sides.

For President Obama, finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should remain a top priority. The status quo is explosive, and it can only lead to violent confrontation. The United States has both the interest and the responsibility to put an end to the self-consuming Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a region where the stakes for all concerned cannot be overestimated.

About the Author
Dr Alon Ben-Meir is an expert on Middle East politics and affairs, specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and Arab states. Dr. Ben-Meir has been directly involved in various negotiations between Israel and its neighboring countries and has operated as a liaison between top Arab and Israeli officials. Dr. Ben-Meir serves as senior fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs where he has taught courses on the Middle East and international negotiations. He also hosts “Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir”, a speaking series of debates and conversations with top policy-makers from around the world held each semester at NYU. He also regularly briefs at the US State Department for the International Visitors Program.