Can Obama make a substantive contribution to peace?

There are countless traps laid out like a mine field awaiting the return of Barack Obama to substantive engagement in the peace process.

Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
There are countless traps laid out like a mine field awaiting the return of Barack Obama to substantive engagement in the peace process that will commence with his upcoming visit to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman. Peace and the search for peace have failed presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, pundits and activists of every conceivable stripe. What can change in 2013 to make peace achievable? The Middle East is full of issues from Iranian nuclear proliferation and Syrian Civil War, to the generic multi-national wrangling for popular freedom that is fostering revolution from Iran to North Africa. The United States is carefully threading a needle on behalf of freedom in places like Egypt and Libya even as it continues to support the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
It is a quixotic quest for a peace that many believe in but that increasing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis alike believe is unavailable in the foreseeable future.
So what makes 2013 different from 2009? The minefield may actually be fuller of problems that are even more difficult to solve and diplomats with long views who dedicated their lives to peace like Aaron David Miller who now see a solution evading even the most ardent peace-seekers. But the Holy Land is also full of possibilities that must be pursued just to keep the peace or in its absence make too much room for individual, organized and even state-sponsored violence that will once again rear its ugly head and fill the airways with stories of murder and mayhem and potentially light a match that could set the whole region on fire.
It is also well documented that the failure of Camp David II in 2000 led Arafat to begin the second intifada. So, in the aftermath of that bloodbath and the failure of the unilateral disengagement from Gaza that followed in 2005 Israelis are slow to see a path to peace. Palestinians living on the other side of the security wall, living under a system of checkpoints and roadblocks with limited economic opportunities and expanding Israeli settlements are tired of believing in an ephemeral peace. A second group of Palestinians is isolated in post-disengagement Gaza living under the aegis of a combatant Hamas. A third group of Palestinians represents the millions of refugees living in Camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan (which includes more than 1.5 million living outside the camps), who have never found or been provided with an acceptable home beyond the villages, towns and cities they or their parents and grandparents left in 1948.
What has been learned from all the failed attempts made by Israelis, Palestinians and their American benefactors to achieve peace? One of the latest analyses of the history of Middle East Peace finds light in a book entitled The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab- Israeli Peace, 1989-2011, that doesn’t provide a very optimistic forecast. With unity talks between Fatah and Hamas, and Prime Minister Netanyahu stuck cobbling together a coalition government after approving a 3,000 settlement expansion and construction in the disputed E1 territory between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim in the wake of the United Nations vote, facts on the ground present an open protest against any meaningful peace process.
So is President Obama confident or just working hard to keep the lid on a very difficult conflict? I guess the real answer is we’ll see. But the president can act personally to cobble together his own international framework to a peace process that in 2013 requires a great deal more than US guarantees to be taken seriously, let alone begin to open the door again to substantive public and private negotiations. Will the inclusion of Tzipi Livni in the Netanyahu government-to-be, holding the “Peace portfolio,” enable meaningful talks? Again, we’ll see.
If Obama chooses to try to realize peace and wrap his arms around the concept and the consequences of trying to hold onto a major US role in a region that is rapidly changing it will require commitment and the building of new coalitions at home and abroad to endorse his vision. It will require carefully drawing in the Russians, the Chinese and the Arab League as partners as well as the Europeans and others to present and promote solutions that will be made acceptable to the government of Israel and the PA and simultaneously to market it in a big, bold and consistent fashion to both peoples.
Peace must be made viable once again and must be supported internationally by nations as varied as Brazil, China, Saudi Arabia, France, Egypt and Turkey to have a chance to become real to Palestinians and Israelis in a comprehensive, verifiable process that walks each side down a long and winding road to peace and freedom and security and ultimately two states recognizing each other and acting to construct a new prosperity together.
To make all this possible the United States must invite the world in creating a new international system to invest in and support the peace process and the establishment of a lasting agreement.
The writer is president of the Interfaith Community for Middle East Peace, an NGO based in Philadelphia, and can be reached at [email protected] The words represent the beliefs of the author and should not be construed as the policy of the Interfaith Community for Middle East Peace.