If it were easy to do, an American president would have long ago shepherded Israelis and Palestinians into the negotiated two-state peace agreement that both peoples and their neighbors so clearly need — a peace that would greatly enhance U.S. interests.
There are many reasons why it will be hard for President Obama to achieve, in his second term, the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord that has eluded him and his predecessors for so long. The rise of radical one-state nationalists and ideologically driven settlers in Israeli politics, the debilitating split in the Palestinian camp between Hamas and Fatah, the power struggles and sectarian enmities roiling the region — these are all factors adding to the difficulty of forging the two-state peace agreement that alone can end the agony of occupation for Palestinians and bring Israel a sounder more durable form of security.
It is precisely because Israelis and Palestinians are approaching a fork in the road — one that can lead either to a constructive future or a maelstrom of violence — that presidential engagement is essential to the hard work of peacemaking. The president might start by speaking directly to the Israeli and Palestinian publics, explaining why a prolongation of the current impasse may lead to foreseeable calamities.
He has emphasized that the U.S. “has Israel’s back” by way of reassuring Israelis that they can count on U.S. support. Sturdy U.S. support is lifeblood for Israel, but even with steadfast U.S. support Israel is increasingly isolated in the international community. Obama would be wise to allude to Israel’s small circle of international supporters and to emphasize that Israeli policies that alienate Israel’s dwindling international allies may be imprudent. Rather than offering proposals for narrowing the specific differences left unresolved in earlier Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the key issues of borders and settlements, security, Jerusalem and refugees, this visit affords Obama the opportunity to affect the Palestinian and Israeli political cultures.
While the president reassures the Israeli public of the enduring U.S. commitment to the security of Israel he might also declare that the United States is going to join with European allies in adopting an agenda that builds upon previous negotiations, establishing a firm timetable, projecting a desired outcome, and issuing an invitation to Israelis and Palestinians. The aim will be to create political pressure on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to act now in the best long-term interests of their populations.
Toward this end, Obama might challenge pessimists in both camps who have been warning that this is not a propitious moment for another all-or-nothing diplomatic initiative from Washington — that the two sides are too far apart, that they are too divided, that civil war and political conflicts in the surrounding states would make it nearly impossible to resolve the many tangled issues at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To counter this pessimism, Israelis and Palestinians need to be reminded of just how much negotiators in past talks have narrowed the differences on such crucial issues as borders and security. From the Camp David talks of summer 2000, to the Clinton parameters issued at the end of that year, to the Taba discussions of early 2001, to the 2008 negotiations between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, there is a substantial record of narrowed differences. Obama would be confirming a reality known to all if he proclaimed, in Ramallah as in Tel Aviv, that the principles of a conflict-ending two-state agreement are not obscure and have been known to both sides for many years. These include a division of the land based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed-upon exchanges of territory; Jerusalem as capital for both states; resolution of the refugee issue including the return of a limited number of Palestinian refugees to Israel; and a presence of NATO peacekeeping forces along the Jordan River for several years.
The essential elements that are now needed to transform these general principles into a binding peace accord are political will and courageous statecraft.
In shaping the argument for a renewed pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it would be wise to highlight the promise of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 (renewed in 2007) with its pledge that, in response to a two-state peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, all 22 members of the Arab League will recognize and establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel. This still-standing invitation to regional acceptance offers a prospect that Israel’s early leaders hardly dared imagine.
Moreover, the current political upheavals in several Arab countries ought to lend weight to an Obama brief for Israel and its Arab neighbors to seize a unique strategic opportunity.
The diplomatic, economic and military support that several key Arab states are providing to Syrian resistance forces fighting against the regime of Bashar Assad casts light on an emerging reconfiguration affecting the larger Middle East. Arab states have entered into a proxy conflict with what had advertised itself as an anti-American, anti-Israel rejection front comprising the Iranian regime, Assad-ruled Syria and Hezbollah. The gravity of this conflict and the beckoning peacemaking opportunity it creates for Israelis and Palestinians was evident when the Hamas leadership refused a demand to support the Assad regime and subsequently quit its headquarters in Damascus, later finding welcome in Doha, Amman and Cairo.
Jordan and Egypt are the two Arab countries that maintain peace treaties with Israel. Qatar has been a regional partner for Washington. Accordingly, the present cycle of political transformations in the Arab world, rather than threatening Israel with new forms of hostility and rejection, has opened up a rare chance for Israel’s leaders to ally tacitly with the Arab states now seeking to diminish the influence of Tehran by helping Syrian resistors topple the Assad dictatorship.
Obama should not miss his chance to make the case — not only to Israel’s political leadership but also to the Israeli public – that overcoming the country’s isolation from its neighbors and many of the world’s democracies is a prime goal of U.S. policy, but that this cannot be done without action by Israel. There is but one way to cross the threshold that leads to a new status for Israel as an accepted state among its Arab neighbors and that is through a peace accord that creates two states for two peoples, ending an occupation that inflicts daily pain and humiliation on Palestinians while turning Israelis into despised oppressors.
America’s stake in fostering a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been greater. Beyond the longstanding U.S. interest in protecting Mideast energy sources and shipping lanes essential to the stability of the global economy, and apart from traditional power-balancing goals in that volatile region, Washington confronts a new challenge arising from the dramatic events of the past two years in the Arab world. These disparate revolts against autocrats, dictators, and police-state regimes have one element in common that alters — or should alter — the traditional definition of U.S. interests in the greater Middle East.
Whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq or Syria, a unifying new phenomenon has made its appearance: the demand for a political order deriving its legitimacy from the will of the citizen. Although it is far from clear what kinds of government will eventually emerge from the crucible of the current popular revolts, American policy makers can no longer count on striking deals with client rulers that ignore the wishes of that potent new figure on the Arab stage, the citizen.
In this new era, a U.S. president can hardly claim solidarity with Arab publics fighting for civil liberties and human rights if, at the same time, he declines to exert American influence to obtain freedom for Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Even if it is true that erupting regional conflicts between Sunnis and Shi’ites, or between Iran and certain Arab states, currently overshadow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama would be neglecting crucial U.S. interests if he hesitates to usher Israelis and Palestinians into conflict-ending negotiations — and to make sure they persevere until a just peace is achieved.
To achieve this end, the re-elected Obama will have to make use of the considerable powers at his disposal. While in the region he should reach out to those groups using non-violence to make their case and to the Palestinian and Israeli groups already partnering to bridge differences in education, business and peace making. He will also have to resist inevitable efforts from many quarters to leave an unsustainable status quo as is. The power Obama wields is of little value, however, if it is not used to secure America’s vital interests.
The Boston Study Group collectively authored Israel and Palestine – Two States for Two Peoples: If Not Now, When? which is available for download. The members of the group are Alan Berger, Harvey Cox, Herbert C. Kelman, Lenore G. Martin, Everett Mendelsohn, Augustus Richard Norton, Henry Steiner and Stephen M. Walt. The members’ biographies are available below.
Alan Berger, a retired editorial writer at the Boston Globe, has been writing about the Middle East and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts since 1982. He has interviewed many of the principals and policymakers. And has not yet lost hope.
Harvey Cox is Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University. He teaches courses on religion and society in the Divinity School and in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, among them a course on the history, religion and culture of the city of Jerusalem. He has worked with the Middle East Peace Program of the World Council of Churches, and has lectured at both Jewish and Palestinian institutions in Israel.
Herbert C. Kelman is Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus, and co-chair of the Middle East Seminar at Harvard University. He was the founding Director (1993–2003) of the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. A pioneer in the development of interactive problem solving — an approach to unofficial diplomacy — he has been engaged for nearly 40 years in efforts toward the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Lenore G. Martin is the Wyant Professor at Emmanuel College in Boston. She is co-chair of the Middle East Seminar cosponsored by Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Her publications analyze national security in the Gulf, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the larger Middle East and Turkey. She researches, lectures and travels throughout the Middle East and Turkey.
Everett Mendelsohn is Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at Harvard University. For more than forty years he has been actively involved in Israeli-Arab/Palestinian peace making first as chair of the Middle East program of the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) and then as Chair of the Middle East Program of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ program on International Security. He is author/co-author of A Compassionate Peace: A Future for Israel, Palestine and the Middle East (1982, rev. ed.1989) and Israeli-Palestinian Security: Issues in the Permanent Status Negotiations (1995).
Augustus Richard Norton is a Professor in the Departments of International Relations and Anthropology at Boston University, and Visiting Professor in the Politics of the Middle East at the University of Oxford. He served for a dozen years on the United States Military Academy faculty, and was a career Army officer, retiring as a Colonel. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and in 2006 was an adviser to the Iraq Study Group (“Baker-Hamilton Commission”). His most recent book is Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2009). He has on-the-ground research experience in eight Middle East countries, including Egypt, Israel, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Gaza and the West Bank.
Henry Steiner, Jeremiah Smith, Jr., Professor Emeritus at Harvard Law School, founded the School’s Human Rights Program and directed it for 21 years. His writing addresses a broad range of international human rights issues. Steiner has taught courses and lectured in over 30 countries, including Israel, the West Bank-Gaza, and three Arab states.
Stephen M. Walt is Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. His recent writings include Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (2005) and (with John Mearsheimer) The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007). His daily weblog can be found at http://walt.foreignpolicy.com.