Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is Obama's "tough love" paying off?

Under continuous pressure from President Barack Obama and his Israel-Palestine team (special envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly ordered a construction freeze on a 900-apartment project in the Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev in East Jerusalem. The neighborhood in question lies beyond the Green Line on land captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by Palestinians as the future capital of their potential state.

The announcement was made following a meeting between Mitchell and Netanyahu in Israel. Ordering a construction freeze in East Jerusalem (which Netanyahu has repeatedly indicated is not on the negotiating table and will remain united under Israeli sovereignty forever) will greatly undermine continued settlement expansion in the West Bank, and the move may in fact be an opening gesture to the Obama administration, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Arab world in general. In exchange for a partial settlement freeze, Netanyahu may be testing Obama's ability to convince Arab and Palestinian leaders to make reciprocal gestures to the Israelis.

Though I've never been a fan of this kind of incremental approach to peacemaking (for it allows both sides to easily break the flow and derail negotiations), the situation may be so mired in an impasse that these type of goodwill gestures may be needed to build trust for comprehensive good faith negotiations. This gives each party an opportunity to show they are truly serious about the peace process: The Israelis will show a willingness to freeze settlement construction and ease restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement; the Palestinians can continue to work to fulfill their Road Map obligations to fight and disrupt terrorism; the Arab League can show they intend to make real gestures toward normalization with Israel; and the Obama administration can work to prove to skeptics on all sides that the U.S. can influence the sides to advance the peace process. Leaning on Israel to freeze settlement activity is a very prudent method to show the Israelis that the administration is serious about peace and to show the Arabs that the U.S. is ready to be an honest broker in pursuit of regional peace and stability. If the U.S. backs down on such demands, it would have lost credibility with Palestinians and the Arab League and it would embolden the Netanyahu administration to spurn Obama's efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Huge problems still persist (including Palestinian factionalism and West Bank settlement expansion), but this is a very hopeful sign for Holy Land peace. It has been a while since I've felt hopeful - it's a good feeling.

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