Obama trip should kick off peace initiative

Mahmoud Abbas and Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office. Credit: White House.

WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel later this month has already accumulated a lengthy agenda including the civil war in Syria, the Iranian nuclear programs and Israel’s fraying relations with Egypt and Turkey.

Oh yes, and there is also the small matter of peace with the Palestinians.

Secretary of State John Kerry has stated a couple of times that Obama is going to Israel and also to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas—mostly to listen.

That’s as it should be on a trip of this nature at the start of a new four-year administration. But this listening phase needs to be followed by a concerted effort to get the parties back to the table. It’s going to take determination, hard work and creative U.S. diplomacy to peel away the layers of distrust that have built up between the parties in the past three years—but the alternative is much worse.

There are those who argue that because of the mounting regional instability and the Iran threat, this is not the time to launch a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. But precisely the opposite is the case.

Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is one of the few things the United States can try to do to inject some stability into the region. Both sides still regard the United States as the only possible honest broker and both remain committed, on paper at least, to a two-state solution.

Israeli-Palestinian peace would also diplomatically isolate Iran and strengthen the monarchy in Jordan. It would place Hamas in a real bind by giving Palestinians in Gaza the model of another way to live.

It’s not as if preserving the status quo is a viable option. The economic situation in the West Bank is deteriorating and signs of unrest are growing. The Israeli media is full of reports about a possible “third Intifada” which could well sweep away Abbas and his Fatah colleagues and bring Islamists to the fore.

Some on the Israeli side argue that Abbas is not a suitable partner for peace.  But as the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin observed, “you don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.”

There is no doubt that the current Palestinian leadership is far from perfect.  Many faults can be found and failed opportunities debated. But Abbas has kept to a policy of non-violence and worked to make Israeli-Palestinians security and economic cooperation succeed. He recognizes Israel’s right to exist and rejects the use of terrorism. If Israel doesn’t work with current Palestinian leaders, one thing is for sure: it will be much, much harder to deal with those who replace them.

Alan Elsner, a former Reuters correspondent in Jerusalem and at the State Department, is Vice President for Communications for J Street, a U.S.-based Israel advocacy group that supports a two-state solution.

Those who speak of delaying the peace initiative until a more propitious time should give some idea of when that time might come because with every day that passes, Israel’s settlement footprint in the West Bank grows larger and the prospects of ever reaching a settlement grow dimmer.

The number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank excluding East Jerusalem grew by more than 15,000 in 2012 to reach a total that for the first time topped 350,000, according to official Israeli statistics. The number has almost doubled in the past 12 years. At some point within the next few years, that growth will become irreversible and the opportunity to establish a Palestinian state will disappear.

Israel would then either have to grant the two million Palestinians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem the right to vote, in which case Israel’s Jewish majority would vanish, or deny them that right, in which case Israel as a democratic state would vanish. Or it could try to persuade them to accept limited autonomy in certain enclaves. History has given us a word for that—“Bantustans”—and neither the Palestinians nor the international community would stand for it.

We need to get away from the attitude that one side would be doing the other a big favor by agreeing to peace talks. President Obama needs to persuade both parties that the talks should not be about what each side may have to sacrifice but about what they stand to gain. If he can make some headway in that task, his trip will have been a success.

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Posted on March 3, 2013 and filed under Opinion, U.S..