Time to change the status quo

Through all the ups and downs of the past few weeks, one thing is clear: The dynamics of the US-Israeli-Palestinian axis have shifted.

Clinton smiles at AIPAC 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Clinton smiles at AIPAC 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The last few weeks have looked like a crash course in Middle East diplomacy, replete with the grandeur of talks and lofty speechmaking and the lows that shamed even those most committed to the peace process. As the media frenzy played out, the public watched as Israel and its closest ally celebrated proximity talks, clashed over the untimely announcement of new construction in Jerusalem and worked through their differences during the AIPAC conference in Washington and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s subsequent meeting with President Barack Obama.
Through all these ups and downs – and the criticisms that have ensued – one thing remains clear: The dynamics of the US-Israeli-Palestinian axis have shifted and a new momentum has been generated as a result. It is now incumbent upon all sides to take this momentum and translate it into concrete actions on the ground.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should be commended for her presentation to AIPAC, outlining a US position which is willing to prod and pressure Israel when needed, while still allaying Israel’s ultimate concern: national security. Clinton was right to proclaim that “staying on this course means continuing a conflict that carries tragic human costs. Both sides must confront the reality that the status quo of the last decade has not produced long-term security or served their interests. Nor has it served the interests of the United States.”
Clinton’s point here, which distinguishes this administration from the previous two, is that the US is finally willing to acknowledge that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inextricably linked not only to US strategic interests, but also to the complex power structures throughout the greater Middle East. For the US to support Israel’s security, especially when it comes to garnering support against Iran’s nuclear advancements, it must continue multilateral tracks to make progress on a political level, a security level and a people-to-people level.
THE US must continue to put pressure against the continued expansion of settlements without making the entire peace process beholden to the inevitable ups and downs of these activities. The settlement agenda is a highly contested issue within Israel, with myriad opinions coming from diverse political parties and ministers in and outside Netanyahu’s fragile coalition. The US should enforce the continued moratorium in the West Bank, and pressure Israel to refrain from public construction announcements like the recent one in east Jerusalem, yet understand that Netanyahu has to appease his coalition in some respects to deliver needed concessions for the time being. For this reason, the US should ensure that proximity talks, continued institutional and economic development in the West Bank and an easing of the humanitarian situation in Gaza are all tended to regardless of the latest settlement uproar.
One of the most promising ways the US can actively support the peace process without subjecting itself to the vicissitudes of Israeli domestic politics is to reinforce the Fayyad plan. PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a moderate economist and technocrat whose
vision for the Palestinian people is a state with viable institutions and economic opportunity – all achieved through non-violent means – should have the unequivocal support of the Obama administration at every step.
Fayyad has started a movement where, in lieu of any political progress, Palestinians can still move forward with the development of infrastructure, institutions and even a central bank. Beyond helping with security training and economic aid, the US should up the ante on its support of this plan and lean on Israel to allow for more land to be devoted to industrial zoning so that moderate Palestinians can feel the rewards of non-violence. A seven percent growth rate in the West Bank is one of the surest ways to draw a stark contrast between violent resistance and moderation. By championing the Fayyad plan and encouraging Israel to be cooperative in these efforts, the US can see to it that progress continues for Palestinians even when negotiations are stalled.
THE ARAB states too should not shirk from their responsibilities or sit back as spectators while the US attempts indirect mediation. These states have taken a huge step toward moderation with their willingness to recognize Israel and normalize relations with it in a land-for-peace agreement outlined in the historic Arab Peace Initiative. Yet by and large, they have watched as their plan for peace has languished for years without doing any substantial legwork to promote it.
Lastly, Israel needs to start delivering concessions on the ground or it will find itself increasingly more isolated as the international community coalesces around the push for a two-state solution. If Netanyahu’s current center-right coalition is preventing him from making the necessary concessions, he has every obligation then to bring Kadima in as a strategic partner in peace.
On the security front, Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, special envoy George Mitchell and most recently Clinton have all made it profusely clear that “for this entire administration, our commitment to Israel’s security and Israel’s future is rock solid, unwavering, enduring and forever.”
The US has gone above and beyond to prove its commitment to Israel when it comes to national security, which should dispel any of the concerns about the nature of the current US-Israeli relationship. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the US will or should back down from pressuring Israel to make necessary concessions for peace.
BEYOND THAT, as Israel continues its campaign to garner support against Iran’s nuclear agenda, Obama must make one thing clear: If the US is to confront Iran with sanctions or a military threat, both of which will require international cooperation, there must be significant progress, if not a full agreement, on the Arab-Israeli track. With the war in Afghanistan and continued instability in Iraq, the US simply cannot and will not confront Iran, especially militarily, before it can secure a real calm on the Israeli-Palestinian track. The last thing the US wants is another regional conflagration where it will need to mobilize support for an unpopular effort. Israel should be well aware of this, as progress on the Arab front will make it much easier for the US to resort to even greater coercive actions against Iran should it become necessary.
Because of the unraveling balances of power that have shifted immenselythis past decade, security has been globalized in such a way that theconflict between Israel and the Palestinians is no longer justregional. Netanyahu has some serious soul-searching to do if he isgoing to get his coalition to act in Israel’s long-term interests. Thisincludes reining in his ministers and presenting a unified publicvoice, as well as taking the necessary risks for peace needed to reachan agreement.
Netanyahu should know that while he now has a partner in the US, EU andArab League, this may not last, nor will the current lull in violence.
The writer is a professor ofinternational relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. Heteaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. www.alonben-meir.com