by Alan Ben-Meir
A leading Middle East specialist explains the current context with the backdrop of Israeli-Palestinian domestic politics. He examines what must be done more aggressively to address the complexities that face the U.S. President as his administration attempts to forge peace in the region. –Ed.
On a recent trip to the Middle East I had the opportunity to meet with many Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life including high government officials, settlers and members of the Peace Now movement. I also met with academics, poll takers, journalists, former military and intelligence personnel, and scores of other ordinary people. Paradoxically, while repeated polls confirm that a majority (between 68 and 72 percent) of Israelis and Palestinians seek peace based on a two-state solution, no such unity exists between the various groups and factions who continue to promote their own agenda regardless of the consensus of the majority. What I heard and saw simply reconfirmed the profound lack of political cohesiveness within both Israeli and Palestinian communities.
Political factionalism coupled with intense personal rivalry too often prevents majority support of one leader or party. This is the case for Netanyahu’s coalition with Shas, Yisrael Betanu and other right wing elements just as it is for Mahmoud Abbas’ support within Fatah and with Hamas. More alarming is that while disconnect within each community persists; there is still a misperception between Israelis and Palestinians about each other’s national aspirations, requirements and ultimate intentions. Too many Arabs and Israelis remain highly suspicious and oblivious to each other‘s psychological dispositions. Yet with a significant majority of Israelis and Palestinians in favor of a two-state solution with peace and normal relations, why then there is no national drive in either camp to push for a solution? The answer may be attributed to the following:
First, both sides generally have little faith in their own leadership’s ability to deliver peace with security and dignity anytime soon. Israelis and Palestinians lack determined, visionary and courageous leaders. In Israel, the nature of a coalition government often prevents the Prime Minister to rise above the fray and take decisive measures toward peace without risking the collapse of the government. While Netanyahu’s coalition represents a majority within the Knesset, it by no means represents the overwhelming number of Israelis who are ready for a leader who can maintain a united government and deliver peace.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, suffer from a chronic factionalism making it impossible for a leader to make the necessary concessions without risking his position of power. Mahmoud Abbas is meant to represent the moderates, although most moderates have a hard time fully backing him because he has been unable to achieve any significant gains for them. Hamas’ charter—which calls for Israel’s destruction—is both offensive and intolerable to Israel and much of the international community, yet they are far more organized and enjoy popular grassroots support in Gaza. Without reconciling the political agenda of these two groups, Israel and the US will not have a strong partner with which to negotiate. Moreover, both sides often use this internal division and lack of consensus as an excuse for inflexibility.
Second, many Israeli and Palestinian leaders still feel that more time may further improve their position and lead to more concessions, hence they argue against ‘rushing’ into any agreement. This is coupled with strong rejectionist elements in both camps. In Israel there are those who still seek a “Greater Israel”, especially among the settlers. On the Palestinians side there are several groups, such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, who want all of mandated Palestine including Israel. They believe if they cannot take it by force then they can wait and use demographics to overwhelm the Jewish majority; as the idea of a one state solution has began to gain some currency among Palestinian radicals.
Third, neither the Israeli nor Palestinian government has been preparing the public over the years for the inevitability of peaceful coexistence based on a two-state solution. Whereas Israeli officials talk about the lack of a worthy Palestinian interlocutor and complain about continued violence perpetrated against Israel, the Palestinian media and public condemnations of Israel continue to incite the public against Israel, often using venomous language that makes the possibility of coexistence seem beyond repair.
Fourth, both sides are wrapped up in a tit-for-tat process where neither party wants to show its cards first. Both remain internally conflicted as to how far they can go to accommodate each other while maintaining the upper hand in negotiations. For example, on the surface it appears that the Israeli government would not compromise on the future unity of Jerusalem as “Israel’s eternal capital” while the Palestinians would presumably not compromise on the issue of the right of return of the refugees. In reality however, both sides have substantially modified their positions and reached agreements in principle on both of these critical issues in previous negotiations.
Lastly, there has not been consistent pressure exerted from the outside to prompt both Israelis and Palestinians to settle their differences. Although the United States has exerted some effort over many years, it was neither consistent nor did it display the leadership needed to bring parties together to forge peace. The Clinton and the Bush administrations focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict largely at the eleventh hour of their presidencies. The US has failed to assert itself as the most influential power, and has too often allowed excessive violence to severely undermine the peace process as happened during the second Intifada under the Bush administration’s watch between years 2000 and 2006. The Arab states too have often used the Palestinian plight to cover for their domestic failures. It is only in the past few years that some Arab states have put forth a concerted effort to advance the Arab Peace Initiative that calls for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. Although historical in its dimensions and implications, the Initiative remains static because neither side is ready or willing to translate it into a real peace process.
Considering this paradoxical reality, both Israelis and Palestinians have shown that they are simply incapable of resolving this conflict on their own. This is why the Obama administration must pursue an aggressive political agenda with unwavering commitment to produce concessions from all sides to provide the basis for an agreement. The United States cannot equivocate with the Israelis, the Palestinians or the Arab states as to what is required to forge a lasting peace. But for peace to occur, the Obama administration must secure a number of prerequisites to avoid the pitfalls of previous administrations and capitalize on the changing political environment in the Middle East especially among the Arab states that favor peace with Israel.
Ending the Settlement’s Expansion:
Ending the settlements expansion is one of the most critical elements in changing the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. More than anything else the settlements send a clear message that Israel has no intention of seriously relinquishing territory and that the idea of a two state solution is dead. If Israel were to stop expansion, it could strengthen Mahmoud Abbas’ hand as he would be able to claim credit for an extraordinary Israeli concession. To resolve the conflict on this issue between the Obama administration and Israel, both sides must agree on a moratorium for a specific period of time (instead of an open-ended freeze) pending a resolution to the borders dispute. The expansion can then be resumed on the settlements that would be incorporated into Israel proper by agreement with the Palestinians. The Israeli government must also control the settlers currently residing in the West Bank who have on a number of occasions resorted to violence against the Palestinians. In return for an Israeli cooperation and a moratorium on the settlements, the Obama administration must demand and receive from the Palestinian Authority (PA) an immediate cessation of all incitements against Israel in the Palestinian media, especially those in Arabic. This must include the revision of text books, as is being promoted by the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. Moreover, although violent attacks against Israel have been reduced dramatically since the Gaza war, the PA must demonstrably continue to take whatever action needed to prevent future acts of violence. In addition, the PA must undertake a major public relations campaign to foster the virtues of peaceful coexistence with Israel.
Promoting a Palestinian Unity Government:
Establishing a unity government remains central to promoting a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Obama administration must exert tremendous pressure on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to do everything in their power to advance a unity government between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Every effort must be made to pressure Hamas to accept the Arab Peace Initiative. It is unlikely that Hamas will abandon their charter and recognize Israel outright; therefore, accepting the Arab Peace Initiative as an act of solidarity with the 22 Arab states may allow its leadership to save face. It would also allow Israel and the US to come to an indirect agreement with Hamas should they start looking seriously at the Arab Peace Initiative as a viable framework for peace. Having been substantially weakened by the Israeli Gaza offensive late last year, the continuing closure of border crossings and the growing disenchantment of its policies by Palestinians in Gaza and other Arab states, Hamas may now be more inclined to forge a unity government than at any time before. Moreover, Hamas’ leadership seems more open to discuss a two-state solution in order to have a say in the peace process. Otherwise, the growing chasm between Hamas and the PA will not serve the interest of any of the players in the conflict and will only perpetuate the possibility of large scale violence.
Reducing Tension in the Territories:
Although there has been significant progress in the West Bank and the Palestinians are enjoying greater freedom and relative economic prosperity, Israel can do considerably more to make the life for the Palestinians in the West Bank easier. Israel moreover, must further strengthen Mahmoud Abbas. Israel cannot weaken Abbas, and then blame him for being weak and inconsequential. Israel should continue to remove scores of road blocks, release thousands of prisoners and allow thousands more Palestinians to work in Israel. These concessions should be awarded to Mahmoud Abbas as a triumph and result of negotiations. Israel must also grant more construction tenders to Palestinians living in overcrowded housing that need to build schools and housing units. Between years 2000 and 2007 a meager 91 construction permits were given to Palestinians in West Bank while 18,472 housing units were built for Israeli settlers in the same area, which can only breed more resentment. Changing this status quo will first and foremost strengthen Abbas in the eyes of ordinary Palestinians and allow him to make important concessions to Israel especially in connection with border adjustments and the issue of Palestinian refugees. In addition, these efforts would further bolster Abbas in his negotiations with Hamas to form a unity government as he can demonstrate that he is the more effective interlocutor with the Israelis. Finally, Israeli concessions will help to create the contrast in the quality of life and personal freedoms for Palestinians in the West Bank, to demonstrate that moderation pays and is rewarded.
Translating the Arab Peace Initiative into confidence-building measures:
The Obama administration must persuade the Arab states to translate the Arab Peace Initiative into confidence building measures. Such an historic document that calls on Israel to return territories captured in 1967 for peace while finding a just solution to the Palestinian refugees is not only momentous but provides the foundation for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. In a recent Op Ed in the Washington Post, The Crown Prince of Bahrain, Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa expanded on the necessity for Arabs to back the Peace Initiative in a more robust way: “We must stop the small minded waiting game in which each side refuses to budge until the other side makes the first move, we’ve got to be bigger than that. All sides need to take simultaneous good-faith action if peace is to have a chance.” The Arab states for example can take specific actions, however symbolic, such as allowing Israeli passengers and cargo aircraft to fly over Arab territory, opening trade offices in Arab states other than Jordan and Egypt, holding cultural exchanges and lifting the ban on Arab officials from meeting with their Israeli counterparts to demonstrate their sincerity behind the Initiative.
Jordan and Egypt, as designated by the Arab League to promote the Initiative, must also start to take greater gestures to garner support for it from the Israeli people. Their representatives should make it clear to the Israeli public that the Arab Peace Initiative is a framework for negotiations and a comprehensive peace, and is not simply a take-it-or-leave-it offer. Those Arab states who do not yet have diplomatic relations with Israel should back Jordan in Egypt in these efforts and be seen as publicly supporting a large-scale Arab effort to win over the Israeli public.
Israelis too need to be more proactive in their support for the Arab Peace Initiative to counter what has been seen as a tepid government response thus far. The academics, former military and intelligence officials and ex-ambassadors who discuss and support the Initiative in their offices and private meetings need to take on a more public presence to make this dialogue resonate with the Israeli street.
It should be noted that the Arab Sunni states including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan have a grave concern over Iran’s nuclear program and want to put the Arab-Israeli conflict behind them in order to focus on Tehran’s threat. They should be far more in tune to make important concessions to Israel at this juncture as they view Israel as ultimately the best defense against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. To assuage the Israelis, US Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and the Obama administration will need to work closely with Israel on the Iranian threat and consequently be in a better position to coax the Israelis to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative.
Advancing the Israeli-Syrian Peace Process:
Advancing the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations has to be part and parcel of Obama’s peace offensive. Syria holds the key to regional stability and enjoys a very important geo-strategic position with far reaching regional implications. Although the Obama administration seems to be leaning toward an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation first, it must pursue the Israeli-Syrian track with the same tenacity. Peace between Israel and Syria will have serious ramifications on Damascus’ influence over Hamas, Hezbollah and its relationship with Iran and consequently could facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The current post-election domestic strife in Iran is of particular note, as Syria may reconsider its strategic alliance with Iran while it is in a state of turmoil. Israel’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program should encourage its government to focus on Syria. Indeed, the way to distance Iran from the Mediterranean is to distance Syria from Iran, and that can happen only when Israel comes to the conclusion that peace with Syria is more valuable than the Golan Heights. Focus groups of settlers in the Golan Heights have stated their willingness to leave their homes if it would mean peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and yet Netanyahu and his advisors are still stalling on moving forward with the Syria track. Syria is willing to resume the negotiations with Israel from where it was left under Turkish mediation with the Olmert government. Israel, on the other hand wants to restart the talks unconditionally with no regard to any prior understanding. For these reasons, the Obama administration must bring whatever pressure necessary to bear on Israel to reach an accord with Syria. In return, Damascus must unequivocally demonstrate that peace with Israel remains Syria’s strategic option and the leadership is prepared to fully embrace complete normalizations of relations with Israel.
Staying the Course:
The question now is will the Obama administration stay the course? This will be a key test in judging the US credibility on the ground, as this conflict has outlived countless US attempts at reconciliation that were too short lived or lacked the political capital necessary to reach an agreement. Having started his peace offensive on day one of his administration President Obama has shown his commitment to finding a solution. He must now demonstrate his resolve to stay the course. The Obama administration must expend tremendous political capital, at least initially, to achieve the tangible results that the 62-year-old intractable conflict will require. President Obama himself must remain relentless as both the Israelis and the Palestinians will continue to check and test his resolve. He must demonstrate evenhandedness in his demands from both Israelis and Palestinians without necessarily compromising America’s commitment to Israel’s national security. Moreover, President Obama must up the ante on his public relations offensive in Israel to extol the virtue of a two-state solution. He must explain why the administration is investing so much political capital behind its push for peace. Both the Israeli and Palestinian public must be made fully aware about what the enormous benefits are and what would be the price of failure. The Israeli public will not tolerate a government that alienates the United States, which they view as an indispensable guarantor for their national security. Orchestrated pressure on Netanyahu and Abbas will also provide both leaders the political cover they need to make the necessary concessions for peace.
The Obama administration cannot retreat in the face of Israeli or Arab resistance because the price of failure will be unacceptable in a region that is critical to America’s strategic interests and President Obama’s ability to lead. Deferring the peace process will not offer a respite for reassessment but a prelude for unimaginable violent escalation of the conflict from which only the detractors of peace can reap the greatest benefit.
Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Ben-Meir is also the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute, New York. He travels frequently in the Middle East and has built relationships with many Arab and Israeli leaders. He has authored numerous books and articles about the Middle East and has been interviewed on CNN, Fox, PBS, al-Jazeera, and other major media outlets. Born in Baghdad, he is fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, and he holds a doctorate in international relations from Oxford. His website is www.alonben-meir.com, email Alon@alonben-meir.com.