by Hillel Schenker
With Israeli election campaigns under way and elections scheduled for February l0, leading Israeli politicians are competing for the mantle of the "Israeli Barack Obama." The papers are filled with favorable reports about the president-elect, his efficient and innovative campaign and, of course, a tentative exploration of the possible implications for Israel and the Middle East.
As vice-chairman of Democrats Abroad – Israel, on the morning following the U.S. elections I found myself being interviewed on the roof of the Arab-owned Aboulafiya Restaurant in Old Jaffa with a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean Sea and the Tel Aviv shoreline. As a powerful reflection of the changes taking place in the Middle East media landscape, the interview was being carried out by al-Jazeera, which has offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The crew: an English woman, a New Zealander and some Israeli Jews and Arabs, reminded me of the types that were drawn to Abie Nathan's Voice of Peace radio station, motivated by a mixture of adventure and idealism.
In constant contact with the al-Jazeera base in the Qatari capital Doha, a live broadcast was bouncing back and forth from Gaza to Ramallah to Tel Aviv. The counterpart commentator was Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who recently came out of the closet as an extreme rightwinger by joining Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party.
In the interview, I stated that from the perspective of my dual role as vice-chairman of DA Israel and Co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, Obama's victory creates new opportunities for progress in the Middle East, in the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace process. Noting that no one should doubt that the Obama Administration will maintain the so-called "special relationship" between the United States and Israel, the important thing is that his administration has committed itself to being engaged, from the beginning, in helping to promote the peace process. I added that this should and will be based on active cooperation with Europe and the Arab Peace Initiative.
Essentially, there are three basic political components needed to move the peace process forward: an Israeli, a Palestinian and an American component.
The Obama-Biden victory means that the American component is in place. Obama and his senior advisors on Israeli-Arab affairs -- former American ambassadors, Dr. Dennis Ross and Dr. Daniel Kurtzer are all in favor of active U.S. involvement in facilitating the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian negotiating tracks. The Peace Index monthly public opinion poll run by Tel Aviv University also consistently reflects that a clear majority of the Israeli public accepts and supports active U.S. involvement in the peace process.
The other two components are more problematic.
Unfortunately, after Olmert's resignation as prime minister, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was unable to reestablish the center-left coalition that would have enabled an immediate continuation of the negotiations from the Israeli side. The current polls suggest that Livni's Kadima Party and opposition leader Benyamin Netanyahu's Likud Party are essentially tied, with about 30 seats each out of the Knesset’s 120 seats. At this point it is not clear whether there will be a center-left government, which would continue the negotiations, or a center-right government, which would pose major obstacles to a continuation.
According to the Oslo Accords and the Declaration of Principles of 1993, on the Palestinian side the negotiating partner is the PLO leadership. That means the team led by President Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Ahmed Qurei. Since Abbas' term is scheduled to end on January 9, they too are facing a major moment of uncertainty. However, based on a constitutional law formulated by my colleague at the Palestine-Israel Journal, Co-editor Ziad Abu Zayyad, which was passed in the previous Palestinian Legislative Council, future elections for president and the PLC are supposed to take place at the same time, which means January 2010. (Negotiations are taking place now between Fatah and Hamas to arrive at an agreement on a compromise date.)
Palestinian unity is important for the negotiations, but the Palestinians must designate negotiating partners who are ready to negotiate. Today this means Fatah, the left and independents, like Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
If the Obama Administration becomes engaged behind the scenes even before the inauguration on January 20 and becomes publicly engaged immediately afterwards, it can help both the potential Israeli and Palestinian partners to the negotiations. There is a perception that time is running out on a realistic two-state solution and that a one-state solution is only a recipe for ongoing conflict.
Constructive American action, with the aid of European and Arab partners, is of the utmost importance.