On March 20, Air Force One will land on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport. US
President Barack Obama will be received with pomp and circumstance by President
Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his new government. All
of Israel, the region and indeed the world will be watching.
This is only
the fourth visit of a serving American president to Israel, the second to the
Palestinian Authority and Obama’s first outside the United States since his
second inauguration. A historic event, a rare moment when all of America’s
leadership will be focused almost solely on us and on American interests in the
While we live under the impression that this is almost always the
case, it is not. The US administration has many other concerns on its agenda. In
Obama’s latest State of the Union address, the Middle East and Israel were
mentioned only in one brief passage.
This is, therefore, a unique
opportunity for the leaders of the region to convey to the leader of the free
world their policies, concerns and interests as well as the voice of their
constituents, and to impress him with their country’s histories and
In contrast to this rare opportunity, all parties are now
actively involved in reducing expectations. Washington is stating, almost on a
daily basis, that no breakthroughs are to be expected, no summits are planned,
and no peace plans will be submitted.
Israel is joining, with pleasure,
in this orchestration of low expectations and emphasizing the strengthening of
the historical bond with the US.
The Palestinians are somewhat bewildered
by the spectacle of a first American presidential visit to Ramallah. In the
press, we read endless accounts of the presidential menus and suites, who will
shake his hand, where, etc. – much irrelevance for a historic
The region, beginning with Israel, cannot afford to turn a
historic occasion into diplomatic routine. The time has come for diplomatic
drama, breakthroughs and daring.
Barack Obama comes to the Middle East
when the region is at a critical crossroads between democracy and
totalitarianism, between secular pragmatism and religious fundamentalism,
between liberal values and messianic delusions, between war and peace. It is up
to the leaders of the region to make the right choices, but the American
leadership can steer and invite them to take the right turn at the crossroads.
There are many important arguments as to why there are too many risks and
obstacles on the way to progress, and the US administration knows them all too
• Netanyahu’s rule is dependent on the extreme Right in the Likud and
mainly on the settlers;
• Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), Fatah and the West Bank are
losing clout to Hamas and Gaza; • The region is in turmoil, from the dangerous
power struggle in Syria and Lebanon, to the instability of Islamist Arab regimes
in the aftermath of the Arab Spring;
• Terrorism is on the rise, orchestrated by
Tehran and al- Qaida;
• Iran is on its way to developing nuclear weapons while
exporting Islamic fundamentalism and radicalism.
Against this backdrop,
it seems, to many observers, far too risky to engage in a proactive peace
policy. It is widely believed that one must first contend with the dangers to
the region’s stability and security.
Yet in reality, it is precisely
these factors of dangerous change in the Middle East that demand a radical
turnabout toward Arab-Israeli peacemaking in the core of the region. Radicalism,
fundamentalism and terrorism cannot be deterred anymore by the military might of
superpowers or regional powers.
America witnessed this in the unstable
outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel witnessed it in its recent
campaign in Gaza, where it was unable to defeat Hamas, which was actually
strengthened by the confrontation.
Radicalism and fundamentalism must be
defeated in the hearts and minds of the people as they are beliefs; it is no
longer about a balance of deterrence, but about a balance of
This, in the eyes of governments, is a more difficult task –
the traditional “chess game” with kings, tanks and fighter jets were easier to
deal with. Diplomacy and public diplomacy must go hand-in-hand. Yet it is a
doable task as most people in the region, while not enamored with one another,
want to live in peace.
Maybe it’s not the glamorous conception of peace,
but a peace of live and let live, of wanting to belong to an interdependent
world and of understanding that one’s well-being depends on education, jobs and
the connection to the globalized economy. “Live and let live” to most Israelis
means leading a normal life in security and prosperity. To most Arabs, it means
leading a normal life with economic opportunity, without the occupation of the
Obama is the first to understand global transformations;
his presidency is a product of the change toward a more multicultural,
democratized and interconnected world, despite the noise of dangerous
Democracy, economic development, respect for human rights and
peaceful coexistence are the entry tickets to a changing world. It is up to us
in the region to decide if we want to belong, or to become irrelevant as
Therefore, at this crossroads, beginning with
this visit, the parties have to make important decisions, mainly Israel and the
Palestinians: • As for Israel, Netanyahu must establish a government with these
predicaments in mind. They will not disappear with the return of Obama to
Washington. The visit is a wake-up call. Such a government cannot depend on
Danny Danon and Naftali Bennett and must have Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni in key
positions to influence peace and foreign relations, and most important, a prime
minister who is ready to change, take risks and make ideological compromises –
in other words, to become a leader.
On policy, almost every Israeli knows
that with a permanent- status peace agreement, our borders will be based on the
1967 lines with mutual land swaps, settlement blocs, security measures, a shared
capital in Jerusalem and no right of return for Palestinian refugees. It is also
time for the prime minister to know this and to present a realistic bargaining
position that does not begin with, but does lead to, these positions. He must
convince Obama that there is a partner for peace in Jerusalem.
negotiations should not have preconditions, but should be led under the best
conditions for their successful outcome. For this purpose, the new government
should freeze settlement construction except for natural growth needs in the
future settlement blocs, monitored by the Americans. Netanyahu should propose
and demand an end to Israeli and Palestinian unilateralism.
On the wider
regional issues, and mainly in relation to the Iranian nuclear ambitions, Israel
must join the international coalition and the collective efforts led by the
United States. Obama is on record saying that he will not tolerate a nuclear
Iran. The excuse of Iran therefore can no longer be used to postpone dealing
with the Israeli- Palestinian conflict resolution. The two efforts do not
contradict each other, they are indeed complementary, as a viable peace process
will make an anti-Iran coalition easier and more effective.
• As for the
Palestinians, Abbas must convince his American guest that there is a peace
partner in Ramallah who speaks for all Palestinians, as chairman of the PLO, and
that there is no room for Hamas in this process, as it does not accept the
conditions of the international community and the abandonment of terrorism. The
Palestinian Authority must commit itself to a proactive anti-terror policy, as
violence and a peace process do not go hand-in-hand.
have to come to the negotiations with realistic positions that have a chance to
be agreed with by mainstream Israel when it comes to a peace deal and along the
lines of the last deliberations between Abbas and then-prime minister Ehud
There must be an understanding that the process leading to an
independent Palestinian state will not result in unilateral steps, such as in
the United Nations, but will depend on accommodation with Israel. Israel and
Palestine are next-door neighbors and will remain so.
Abu Mazen has to
face reality – that Israel is here to stay, that Israeli public opinion and
motivation are important in this process and that the United States is the only
international player with real influence on peacemaking in the region. And
furthermore, that, while the occupation of the West Bank is illegitimate, Israel
has every right to exist in security within the 1967 lines as the homeland of
the Jewish people. Such recognition by Abu Mazen would be very useful for
enhancing the prospects of negotiation toward a two-state solution.
with Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state are not incompatible; indeed
there is hardly a chance of creating an independent, democratic Palestine with a
developing economy and recognized by the international community without peace
In the context of the upcoming presidential visit, the
Palestinians should understand that all 138 countries that voted for their
statehood bid at the United Nations in November are of lesser significance than
the support for it by the one leader of the free world.
interdependent positions from both sides that Obama should demand and expect in
preparation for his visit. This visit to the region, from Obama’s point of view,
primarily serves American strategic interests in the Middle East. Obama knows
all too well that the interests of a more stable Middle East, and of curtailing
the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism and radicalism, depend to a
large degree on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
It will facilitate the
necessary collective diplomacy in the region (such as on Syria and Iran), having
also Russia, China and the EU on board, as well as cooperation with the Arab
world, where the vox populi that matters now a great deal is attentive to
American policy on the Palestinian issue. Above all, on his visit, Obama should
create new paradigms for future American peace policy: • Friendly relationships
with Israel and the Palestinians are not incompatible and serve the purpose of a
necessary peace process.
• Israel remains the No. 1 strategic ally of the
United States in the region, an alliance that must be based on a commonality of
values and interests.
The US, also in the second Obama administration,
will guarantee Israel’s security interests in the region and its technological
and qualitative edge. This is true also vis-àvis the Iranian threat. Israel’s
security, while in need of this strategic partnership with the United States, is
best safeguarded and sustained by a viable peace process, a coalition of
pragmatics and a two-state solution.
• The United States is interested in
the creation of a modern, democratic, demilitarized Palestinian state as an
equal part of the family of nations. Such a state can and should come about in
the foreseeable future as a result of peace negotiations with Israel. The US
administration will assist in the development of a more independent and
developed economy of future Palestine, while assisting in the development of
modern, transparent and democratic institutions. A growing economy is a peace
economy, not under Israeli control, but in cooperation with Israel.
negotiations must be based on the background of earlier agreements in the best
judgment of the honest American peace broker.
The Obama vision, as
expressed in his 2011 State Department speech, will be the basis on which
negotiations will begin with a realistic and necessary timeline – the beginning
of negotiations should take place in spring of this year, with the terms of
reference being the task of the new secretary of state, John Kerry.
Peace in the Middle East will be made by governments but for the people of the
region. For peace to be sustained, it must be inclusive of mainstream
constituencies and legitimized by them. Obama should hold periodic dialogues
(also online) with the people of the region, mainly the young generation, who
are the agents of change.
These are the paradigms for a new Middle East
peace process that Obama could outline in his historic visit.
In the end,
it is up to the region’s leaders to agree to move with courage in these
directions of change. Sooner or later they will do it anyway. The critical
question is: Will it happen before the eruption of major regional violence, with
much futile bloodshed, or after? The Obama visit is the opportunity to do it
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served
as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords. This oped was edited by