Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In the words of Tom Petty, it's time to move on...

It is time to move forward. Israel has been sufficiently embarrassed by Obama administration officials, and rightly so. Their announcement to build expand an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem by 1600 housing units at the opening round of indirect talks with the Palestinians was ill-advised, illegal, and undermined a situation of reserved, though tangible hope that progress would be made. Western media outlets expected some sort of progress during the U.S.-mediated talks and when Israel's fateful decision caused the Palestinians to balk at continuing negotiations, those outlets reported Israel's intransigence in unprecedented clarity, some asking even if Israel was ready to make peace. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even asked Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to prove his government was committed to a peaceful solution to the conflict, and detailed several demands that Israel could undertake to improve the situation. From various media reports, the Clinton demands include canceling or freezing the plan to build 1600 units in East Jerusalem until the outcome of the peace talks, investigating the process that led to the approval during such a sensitive time, making a substantial gesture to the Palestinians (such as removing checkpoints in the West Bank, easing the siege of Gaza, or releasing Palestinian prisoners), and publicly announcing that the talks (even indirect negotiations) will include all of the core issues of the conflict (status of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements, etc.).

The demands are in no way severe, and I agree with the Haaretz Editorial Board that Netanyahu should accept them without delay. The Prime Minister's answer to Clinton's demands is expected to be delivered today during a call between the two. With how anxious American officials are to ratchet down the rhetoric with Israel, Netanyahu could probably easily get away with placing a hold on the 1600 units and announcing that the status of Jerusalem will be up for discussion; he would not have to even think about making a gesture to the Palestinians. Clinton and Special Envoy George Mitchell should also press the Palestinians to make it known they will return to the table if Netanyahu accedes to Clinton's demands.

Criticism of Israel's move was needed to lay the ground rules for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable during the peace talks and my hope is that Netanyahu will gain a new appreciation for the expectations the U.S. has of Israel in respect to their commitments to peace with the Palestinians. The Obama administration has maintained a very different line on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict their their predecessors Bush, Clinton, and W. Bush. Instead of claiming that the U.S. cannot want peace more than the parties themselves, as the last few presidents have said when peace talks have reached a stalemate, Obama, since he began campaigning for president, through his Cairo Speech, and during the most recent crisis between his administration and Israel has held that Israeli-Palestinian peace is a vital American interest, politically, militarily, and diplomatically - and he's absolutely right. He is echoed by CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, who has repeatedly stated that failure to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians causes problems in his neck of the woods. Just yesterday the decorated general told Congress:

These factors can serve as root causes of instability or as obstacles to security. Insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace. The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [Area of Responsibility of Cntcom] Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.

That's right from the warhorse's mouth: the lack of peace in the Holy Land is causing problems for our troops elsewhere in the region and empowering and emboldening Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and Iran. Petraeus' testimony echoes a 2004 report from the Defense Science Board Task Force that argued that lack of progress and American favoritism of Israel were two of the leading sources of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. No wonder Obama wants to find peace, even if it means browbeating the stubborn Palestinians to the table, and chastising the Israeli's when they undermine talks with boneheaded actions - he can weaken four of America's boogeymen with one fell swoop.

But now is the time to move on and begin pursuing real, sustainable peace. Netanyahu should boldly proclaim that the dog and pony show is over and the time for peace has come. The Israeli leadership will have to make hard choices and the Israeli people should be told honestly that true peace with the Palestinians may require the evacuation of settlements in the West Bank and the sharing of Jerusalem. He must explain in no uncertain terms that peace will mean that Israel will cease to dominate the Palestinians and that the two peoples will live as equals alongside one another in their respective states. Peace may require Netanyahu to seek coalition partners in Kadima, while turning his back on the far right Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu. Peace will require a reorganized and rededicated Israeli administration, but the votes and support are there in the Israeli mainstream.

Now is also the time for the Palestinian leadership to be bold. President Mahmoud Abbas must counter Hamas calls for violence and unrest by appealing to the Palestinians to remain calm during these tense times in order to help build the trust needed to sustain the negotiations. He will have to tirelessly work with the Americans and Israelis to achieve through words what Hamas has been unable to achieve through violence. Abbas will have to honestly speak to the Palestinians and inform them that real peace may require that Palestinian refugees do not return en masse to Israel proper but that other arrangements may have to be found. He will have to make hard decisions but the political will and support of the Palestinians is there. If Israel agrees to discuss all of the core issues, Abbas should begin direct negotiations with his Israeli counterpart.

For the boldness of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to result in a real, sustainable peace, the American leadership must rededicate itself to the peace process, engage all of the stakeholders (the Middle East Quartet, Turkey, Egypt, and the Arab League), and develop a plan for negotiations that will lead to a solution acceptable to both sides. The Obama administration has begun to make parts of this plan known, but has failed to fully articulate a comprehensive plan that stakeholders and parties alike can sign on to and be held accountable to. Obama, Clinton, and Mitchell must prepare such a document and soon.

The two-state solution is not dead as many may believe, but time is quickly running out. The Palestinians are unlikely to find an American administration fairer than the one led by Obama and while Israel's current government is far from friendly to many decisions that will be needed to advance peace, Netanyahu's characteristic pragmatism may very well allow Israelis to know true peace soon enough.

It is time to move on, learn from this crisis, and recommit to an honest, good-faith peace process.

No comments:

Post a Comment