Conditions Not Perfect for Israeli-Palestinian Peace -- But May Be as Good as They'll Get

07/17/2013 06:42 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2013
  • Alan Elsner Author, 'Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons'

A classic cartoon in the New Yorker shows a man standing in front of an open window speaking on the phone. "No, Thursday's out," he says. "How about never -- is never good for you?"

I'm reminded of that image by some of the discourse surrounding Secretary of State John Kerry's latest trip to the Middle East and his pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

For some, there will never be a good time to make peace and always be a thousand reasons not to. Among some of my fellow American Jews, the upheaval in Egypt is the latest excuse.

We can't make peace with the Palestinians now, the argument goes, as long as the outcome in Egypt remains unclear. The region is too unstable, we don't know who will come out on top or whether Egypt will simply dissolve into chaos.

Add Egypt to the list of excuses. Some of these same doubters have also been telling us that Israel can't make peace as long as there's civil war in Syria; they say this is not a good time as long as Hezbollah rockets threaten from Lebanon and Hamas missiles from Gaza; or as long as Iran continues with its nuclear weapons program -- and the list goes on. Perhaps we should wait for the Washington Redskins to return to the Superbowl or for the Messiah to come. Or maybe we should just say, "How about never -- is never good for you?"

Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev captured this perfectly in a recent article headlined: "Of Course Israelis Want Peace but Now is not a Good Time: Can You Come Back Later?"

In fact, the situation in Egypt proves the absolute opposite. Just imagine the situation had Israel not signed a peace treaty with Egypt 34 years ago. True, it has been a cold peace and not allowed for a blossoming of people-to-people relations as we all wished. But that peace agreement has taken the danger of a military confrontation between these two nations, who fought four wars between 1948 and 1973, off the table. It's not something we have to worry about.

The deposed President Mohamed Morsi was no friend to Israel -- but he kept the peace treaty. And Israeli analyst Ehud Ya'ari, a veteran and highly-respected observer of the Arab world, said recently that military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Egypt during the year of Morsi's presidency, was "perhaps the best it has ever been."

To those who argue that Israel should not make peace with Arab nations because they are insufficiently democratic, the obvious response is that precisely the reverse is true. Only through peace treaties, endorsed and enshrined by the international community, can Israel hope to achieve security and predictability in its relations with its neighbors.

Some of the same doubters who bring up Egypt also argue that Kerry is misspending his time in pursuing an Israeli-Palestinians peace deal because there are so many other issues that are more important clamoring for his attention. They are also dead wrong for many reasons.

As Kerry realizes, solving this conflict is a prime U.S. national security interest because it is used by our enemies worldwide as a recruiting tool for terrorists and to stoke anti-American feeling and because it undermines our efforts to champion political rights and the cause of democracy and self-determination around the world.

Unlike Egypt and Syria, this is the one issue where the U.S. has the leverage and ability to actually play a constructive role. The civil war in Syria and unrest in Egypt are both very important -- but it is not clear what the U.S. can or should do and how much influence it can exert. However, on Israel-Palestine, the U.S. remains the indispensible broker with enormous influence on both parties and a clear policy -- namely the two-state solution.

Securing Israeli-Palestinian peace would inject some stability into an unstable region. It would strengthen moderates, bolster the vulnerable government of Jordan, a key U.S. strategic ally, weaken Iran and its allies and proxies and pave the way for relations between Israel and the important Gulf States. It would springboard the Palestinian economy and act as a driver for economic activity throughout the Middle East, eventually boosting Egypt too.

Without viable peace talks, the status quo could quickly fall apart; instability will grow between Israel and the Palestinians, heightening the threat of violence in the West Bank and a new crisis between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Now may not be the perfect time -- but tomorrow is likely to be worse and the next day worse still. This may be the best chance we still have.

Finally, although it is a tough task, it is not impossible and there are some reasons for cautious optimism. Both Israelis and Palestinians continue to support two states as recent polls have again demonstrated. Kerry's indirect negotiations have been substantive and have narrowed gaps between the parties forming a better framework for talks than in some past efforts. And neither side wants to be blamed for failure.

It's easy to find excuses not to make peace but that attitude achieves nothing. Working for peace is harder, no doubt, but the rewards are so great that it would be criminal not to try.