Time for a new American peace initiative in the Middle East

So now we know that Senator John Kerry will be the point man of President Obama’s foreign policy during his second term. Given the fact that the president will devote most of his presidential time and energy to domestic issues, Secretary of State Kerry will have the opportunity to take the lead on all the issues that concern us here in Israel and in the broader Middle East.

There are those, like longtime American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who believe that now is not the time to try to launch a full-scale initiative, not because it wouldn’t be desirable and necessary, but because the circumstances aren’t ripe for progress. Therefore, he came to Jerusalem recently with a 16-point plan that he outlined at a packed meeting organized by the right-leaning Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. The fact that there was an overflow audience at a day long session titled “Between two election campaigns – in the United States and in Israel,” with Ross as the keynote speaker, testifies to the anticipation (in right-wing circles anxiety) that people in Israel have about American Middle East policy in 2013.

Just in case people were hoping that the 2nd Obama administration would downplay the Middle East because of the need to deal with the economy, or because foreign policy would “pivot” towards the Far East, i.e. China, Ross assured the audience that if anyone attempts to ignore the Middle East, the Middle East tends to have a way of shoving itself back onto the agenda.

You cannot ignore the Middle East

Of course there is Iran – and Ross says he believes 2013 will be a “year of decision,” while asserting that there is still a possibility of a diplomatic solution. And there is Syria, noting that the Americans have a great interest in the balance of power of the post-civil war forces in that country, and there is the stabilization of the regime in Egypt.

But at the core of everything, there remains the simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whatever happens there will have a major impact on all the other arenas in the region.

However, instead of an attempt to revive negotiations between the Israeli government and the PLO, i.e. between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas, Ross outlined a series of CBMs (Confidence Building Measures) that he said would help prepare the ground for future diplomacy. In his view, this is because of the “dynamic of disbelief and cynicism” that prevails among both Israeli and Palestinians. This, despite the fact that public opinion polls consistently indicate that a majority of the Israelis and Palestinians continue to support a peace agreement based upon a two-state solution, even among Likud voters.

Dennis Ross’ 16 Point Plan

Ross’ 16 Point Plan contains six recommendations for Israeli CBMs, six for the Palestinians, and four joint recommendations.

For the Israelis, he recommends:

    1. Declare that you are ready to provide compensation for settlers to return to Israel proper;
    2. Start building housing in Israel for settlers who will leave the West Bank;
    3. Building only in the settlement blocks which it is assumed will be part of a future land swap – nothing west of the separation barrier, i.e. nothing within the 92% of the area which will definitely be a part of the future Palestinian state;
    4. Since 6l% of the West Bank is Area C under Israeli control, open area C up for Palestinian economic activity;
    5. 21% of the West Bank is Area B, and the level of Palestinian police responsibility for security in that area should be increased;
    6. 18.2% of the West Bank is Area A, under almost full Palestinian control. Israel should designate guidelines for security considerations in Area A, and only if those guidelines are broken will Israeli security forces enter the area.

For the Palestinians, he recommends:

    1. Put Israel on the map, literally, on the Palestinian websites, textbooks, etc. The claim that no one knows Israel’s borders, and if we do it Israel will do the same, does not hold water;
    2. Start talking about two states for two peoples, two national movements, two identities, and acknowledge the Jewish connection to the land and Jerusalem;
    3. Stop incitement, don’t name squares and institutions after people who killed Israelis in suicide attacks;
    4. Prepare public opinion for peace. Remember that Arafat spoke about “the peace of the brave.” He meant that both sides will have hard decisions to make.
    5. Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), where does it say that refugees have to live in squalid conditions until a permanent solution is found for their situation? Start to rebuild the refugee camps now;
    6. Focus on the rule of law in the Palestinian Authority. Good governance sends a positive message.

For both Israelis and Palestinians he recommends:

    1. Israelis and Palestinian young people do not meet and see each other. This leads to the Palestinian stereotype that all Israelis are soldiers, and it leads to Israeli lynching of Palestinian youth in Jerusalem. A way must be found to change the socialization process – exchange of classrooms. When there is no contact it is easy to dehumanize the other;
    2. When each side does something positive, the other side should acknowledge it. When Palestinian security forces prevent terrorism, when Hadassah Hospital treats Palestinians, it should be acknowledged.

To conclude, he said that these 16 points are not meant to replace a renewal of political discussions, which are the eventual goal.

Confidence building measures are not enough

While all of Ross’ ideas are good ones, they are not enough, and some of them are not practical, which would derail the confidence building process from the start. For example, there is no chance that a possible Netanyahu-led government after the January 22nd elections would consider the first two recommendations – to offer compensation to settlers and to begin building homes for them in Israel proper.

And we do not have time to rely on confidence building measures alone. One of Ross’ astute comments was that what is known as the Arab Spring should be called the Arab Awakening. And one of its primary characteristics is that the Arab peoples of the Middle East have ceased being subjects, who only follow the dictates of rulers, and have become citizens, with demands, expectations, the right to hopes, and the expectation of accountability.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will be expectations, and demands, to end the Israeli occupation and to enable the Palestinians to have an independent state of their own. If progress is not made on this front, the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders will face challenges to their peace treaties with Israel, and the Arab League will face challenges to the continuation of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which offers Israel recognition and normal relations in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, alongside the State of Israel, with mutually agreed upon solutions to the Jerusalem and Refugee questions. Not to speak of the Palestinians, who will challenge their leaders if they don’t see signs of real progress, not just “victories” in standing up to Israel (Hamas), and political victories in the UN (Fatah).

Basic strategic interests in the Middle East are at stake

The Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaties, and yes the Oslo Accords, which contain mutual recognition between the Government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and also the continuation of the Arab Peace Initiative, are key elements of both the Israeli and the American strategic interests in the Middle East. And they are all key components of any strategy to ensure that Iran does not get nuclear weapons.

That is why confidence building measures will not be enough. Kerry and his team will have to develop a plan to begin serious negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. And I would recommend that they consult with knowledgeable members of Israeli and Palestinian civil society, and also members of the political echelons of both peoples, who know their societies, and have constructive ideas about how to move things forward, without committing the mistakes made during the first Obama administration. A serious new American peace initiative in the Middle East is an absolute necessity for all of us, Americans, Israelis and Palestinians.

This blog-post originally appeared in The Times of Israel. Time for a new American peace initiative in the Middle East | Hillel ...