by Alon Ben-Meir
In talking to scores of people from the diplomatic corps, the academic community and many from the media here in the U.S., the Arab states and Israel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the majority seem to agree that unless the United States puts its foot down, the renewed efforts to achieve peace launched by Washington will certainly end up in failure.
I do subscribe to this notion and vehemently disagree with many American officials, who suggest that the U.S. should not want peace more than the parties themselves. They insist that the onus falls on Israeli and Palestinian shoulders to demonstrate their willingness to engage in serious peace negotiations, which the U.S. will then be happy to facilitate.
If that were the case, why then does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to persist even though majorities on both sides want peace? I maintain that if President Obama wills it, he can forge an agreement provided he invests the necessary resources and political capital, which were lacking in previous efforts.
The impediments can be overcome
There are many impediments to realizing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, including mutual distrust, misperceptions about each other, differing domestic pressure, radical ideologies and contrasting religious precepts. I believe that notwithstanding these impediments, they can all over time be overcome.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have fallen victim to their own uncompromising public narratives, making it extraordinarily difficult to change course without losing their political base. To facilitate the terms of an agreement, they need powerful and relentless pressure to provide them with political cover, which only the US can exert.
Current efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are imperative to the security of Israel, the Arab allies of the U.S., and for regional stability. President Obama, however, needs to unambiguously warn both sides that the U.S. intends on pursuing peace unremittingly and will be prepared to use any tools at his disposal to that end.
Otherwise, neither Prime Minister Netanyahu, for ideological reasons, nor President Abbas, because of his political vulnerability, will heed the warning. These efforts would consequently end in failure just like the President’s previous foray into the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire during his first term. His administration back then lacked a clear action-oriented strategy and the resolve to nudge both sides out of their long-entrenched positions.
In addition to an indispensable forceful approach, Obama must challenge other important players that can, in turn, further influence the Israelis and Palestinians to come to terms with one another.
Needed – Arab League action on the API
First, Kerry’s appeal to the Arab League must now translate into action. The Arab Peace Initiative (API), which was first introduced in 2002 by the Arab League, offered new horizons and laid out a plan central to any comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. It must now be reinvigorated to offer a new hope to end the conflict.
The U.S. needs to insist that Saudi Arabia, which originally initiated the API, take the lead by reintroducing it and publicly suggest that while the API’s wording need not be modified, it should not be treated on a take it or leave it basis and must, in any case, be negotiated. The recent statement by the Qatari Prime Minister on behalf of the Arab League in Washington stating their readiness for mutually agreed upon land swaps is clearly a positive step in that direction.
Given the regional turmoil and the Iranian threat, the Gulf States (led by Saudi Arabia), Turkey, and Egypt in particular, can no longer engage in double talk, presumably supporting peace while allowing Hamas and Hezbollah to torpedo such prospects.
The U.S. should demand that these countries do their share by exerting whatever pressure necessary to bring the two renegade organizations to heel.
Palestinian and Arab responsibility
The Palestinians are not innocent victims; they have contributed to their own plight and some of them (i.e. Hamas) continue to this day to seek Israel’s destruction. As long as these two extremist factions continue to threaten Israel and the leading Arab states accept that with indifference, current and future Israeli governments have legitimate reasons to suspect Arab intentions.
The U.S. can insist that these Arab states can no longer preach the gospel of peace while they look the other way by allowing Hezbollah, which serves its masters in Tehran, and Hamas’ militancy to continue to split the Palestinians, thereby undercutting the prospect of peace.
Congress and peace
Second, President Obama needs to appeal to congressional leaders, especially those with strong Evangelical backing and who overwhelmingly support Israel (right or wrong), to understand that Israel’s national security interests are best served by peace.
They must realize that the status quo is becoming increasingly perilous and they are contributing to it by their inadvertent support of the occupation. This reflects appallingly on Israel’s moral standing in the eyes of the international community and portrays Congress as complicit in the occupation.
Whereas political, financial and military support for Israel is necessary, every congressional leader must ask: where does Israel’s current policy lead? The longer the conflict persists, the greater the risks are for Israel, which these leaders paradoxically seek to safeguard.
Both Democrats and Republicans, who admire Israel’s democracy and its incredible achievements under constant conditions of hostility, must now rise to save Israel from itself. They must urge the Netanyahu government to accept the API in principle.
Their unmitigated support over the years provides them with the moral responsibility and the obligation to join the President in his quest for peace.
The role of American Jews
Third, the American Jewish community’s support of Israel is natural by virtue of the Jewish people’s affinity to each other and the belief in a shared destiny. Israel was created to provide all Jews, regardless of place of residence, a sense of security born from catastrophic historical experiences and cultural heritage, perhaps unlike any other nation.
Whereas their support of Israel is a given, it should not translate into a blind endorsement of Israel’s policies which could undermine the very reason why Israel was established in the first place.
Although some American Jewish leaders privately counsel Israeli leadership to moderate its policies toward the Palestinians, historically the majority of American Jewry have supported the Israeli government’s policies, however extreme they happened to be.
In recent years, however, the emergence of J Street, which promotes peace and calls for the end to the occupation, in contrast to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which generally support the policies of any Israeli government, suggests a discernible shift of sentiment among American Jews.
In addition, there is growing disenchantment by American Jewish youth who object to the occupation which they view as immoral and inconsistent with the values on which they were reared.
These developments provide a new opening for the administration to strongly advocate to American Jewish leaders that notwithstanding the unshakable U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, Israel cannot live by the sword and it must break out of its growing isolation.
“If you will it, it is no dream”
Everyone can point out the difficulties of reaching an agreement because they involve many thorny issues, the risks entailed and the fear of failure. That said, President Obama must nevertheless resort to any means necessary, including coercion, to resolve the conflict because the consequences of no action far outweigh any political risk or the potential of failure.
The administration’s new push for peace may well be Obama’s last chance before the Middle East potentially plunges into a regional war precipitated by the disintegration of Syria and/or Iran’s persistent pursuit of nuclear weapons. The United States has placed itself as the ultimate arbiter to end the debilitating Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it must now deliver.
In his 1902 book “The Old New Land” (Altneuland), the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, proclaimed in reference to the establishment of a Jewish state the everlasting phrase, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
It was inconceivable at the time that a Jewish state would be created, but it happened 45 years later. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has endured for 65 years; it can end, but only if the U.S. wills it.