Time for some sleeve-rolling

Direct talks will not produce substantive results unless the US takes a number of pivotal steps to ensure that the progress made is irreversible and will eventually lead to a final agreement.

August 27, 2010 16:28
Netanyahu and Obama meet at the White House

Obama Netanyahu 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

The Obama administration’s success in moving the Israeli-Palestinian talks from proximity to direct negotiations is an important achievement. However, direct talks will not produce substantive results unless the US takes a number of pivotal steps to ensure that the progress made is irreversible and will eventually lead to a final agreement. This is the only way the US can avoid the pitfalls of past bilateral negotiations, so that if they stall or break down, they can be resumed from where they were left off. Moreover, the US must remain directly and actively involved, serving as the depository of any incremental agreement, while delinking progress on any particular issue from the remaining unresolved issues.

To that end, the Obama administration ought to focus on four different steps.

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First, it must persuade Israel to start the direct negotiations by focusing on the issue of borders. Addressing the final borders would signal that an issue at the core of the conflict is to be negotiated in earnest.

This will also have a tremendous psychological and practical impact on the Palestinians as it will inadvertently address the status of the majority of the settlements in the West Bank. Delineating the borders will allow both sides to determine through negotiations which of the settlements will be incorporated into Israel proper through a land swap, and which will be dismantled.

As a result, settlement construction should no longer be a point of contention, as Israel would build only inside the settlements that are determined to be part of Israel proper.

SECOND, THE US must expand the negotiations beyond the scope of the Quartet and the road map by officially embracing the Arab Peace Initiative as the central framework for a comprehensive Arab- Israeli peace accord. Such a step is critical for several reasons:

1) It would give the Arab states confidence that the US is committed to a comprehensive solution, and therefore they would be more inclined to invest greater political capital in the process.

2) It would allow the US to insist that some of the leading Arab states make certain concessions to Israel in return, including goodwill gestures such as overflights and opening trade. Such measures would go a long way toward ameliorating the attitude of many Israelis who oppose the Arab initiative, and disabuse many others who do not believe that the Arab states intend on making peace. In addition, it would strengthen Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s hand with his coalition partners by providing him with the necessary political cover to make concessions as negotiations are advanced.

3) It would increase the stakes of the Arab states in the peace process and strengthen their resolve to deal with any rejectionist groups by bringing them back to the Arab fold.

4) Representatives of leading Arab states should continue to be present as observers at the negotiating table. Their participation will bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s position, serving as a political shield that will provide the backing he needs to make difficult decisions.

5) Embracing the Arab Peace Initiative would also provide a necessary context with which to try to co-opt Hamas into the political process as well as advance Israel-Syria talks. If Hamas is ignored, it will stop short of nothing to undermine the negotiations.

Similarly, the Obama administration must prepare the groundwork to reopen the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Peace between them remains central to achieving regional stability. Finally, throughout these efforts, the US must remain actively involved, advancing new ideas, bridging differing positions and inducing collaborative approaches.

Third, it is extremely important that President Barack Obama address the Israeli public directly, preferably by visiting or, at a minimum, by dedicating an exclusive press conference. Although he has repeatedly stated America’s unshakable commitment to Israel’s national security, there is still considerable consternation about his personal commitment. It is critical that the president demonstrate to Israelis not only America’s nonnegotiable commitment to their national security, but that pursuing peace based on a two-state solution offers long-term security guarantees and remains the only viable option.

Indeed, the president must emphasize that America’s strategic interests in the Middle East are intertwined with Israel’s national security interests. Moreover, Israelis must understand that dealing with any threat emanating from Iran or its surrogates, Hamas, Hizbullah and others, requires an end to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

A VISIT by Obama at this particular time may evoke criticism from some who may accuse him of political pandering in an election year. Conversely, a visit could blunt the impact of administration critics who have begun to use the past friction between the White House and Israel as a political tool.

Putting such cynicism aside, there is nothing more powerful than the presence of the president of the United States in a country which is eagerly seeking to restore the unflinching bond that has symbolized the relations between the two nations. Furthermore, only when the Israelis are confident in the state of USIsrael relations, will they be more likely to make the kind of meaningful concessions needed to conclude a peace agreement.

Finally, Obama should use his visit to reassure Israelis that the US is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. His spelling out the US commitment to avert such a scenario, in unequivocal terms, will send an important message not only to the Israeli people, but to Iran as well.

He does not need to threaten the Iranian regime with military force to show solidarity with Israel. However, such a message would be particularly important because if force is ultimately used as a last resort against Iran’s nuclear facilities by either country, both countries would be implicated.

Obama has already invested substantial political capital in trying to resume meaningful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and must now invest even more to bring an end to the conflict. The resumption of direct negotiations gives him his first chance to meaningfully pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace through a two-state solution. It most likely will be his last chance. A failure to achieve a breakthrough will not simply delay a peace agreement or restore the status quo ante; it will seriously erode the president’s credibility, and could usher in a period of intense violence and instability.

Neither Israel, the US nor the Arab states can afford such a breakdown, especially when the war in Afghanistan continues, violence is still raging in Iraq, tension between Israel and Lebanon is simmering and Iran is racing toward acquiring nuclear weapons.

This is the time when the US must insist that all the parties to the conflict put their cards on the table and demonstrate once and for all that their protestations to seek peace are genuine. By demonstrating leadership, the US can ensure that the parties no longer claim to seek peace without making the difficult decisions necessary to achieve it.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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