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Obama's Peace Offensive (Part 1)

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This is Part 1 of a two-part series on what the Obama administration must do to achieve a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal

On a recent trip to the Middle East I had the opportunity to meet with many Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life, including high government officials, settlers and members of the Peace Now movement. I also met with academics, poll takers, journalists, former military and intelligence personnel, and scores of other ordinary people. Paradoxically, while repeated polls confirm that a majority (between 68 and 72 percent) of Israelis and Palestinians seek peace based on a two-state solution, no such unity exists between the various groups and factions who continue to promote their own agenda regardless of the consensus of the majority. What I heard and saw simply reconfirmed the profound lack of political cohesiveness within both Israeli and Palestinian communities.

Political factionalism coupled with intense personal rivalry too often prevents majority support of one leader or party. This is the case for Netanyahu's coalition with Shas, Yisrael Betanu and other right wing elements, just as it is for Mahmoud Abbas' support within Fatah and with Hamas. More alarming is that while disconnect within each community persists, there is still a misperception between Israelis and Palestinians about each others' national aspirations, requirements and ultimate intentions. Too many Arabs and Israelis remain highly suspicious and oblivious to each others' psychological dispositions. Yet with a significant majority of Israelis and Palestinians in favor of a two-state solution with peace and normal relations, why then there is no national drive in either camp to push for a solution? The answer may be attributed to the following:

First, both sides generally have little faith in their own leadership's ability to deliver peace with security and dignity anytime soon. Israelis and Palestinians lack determined, visionary and courageous leaders. In Israel, the nature of a coalition government often prevents the Prime Minister to rise above the fray and take decisive measures toward peace without risking the collapse of the government. While Netanyahu's coalition represents a majority within the Knesset, it by no means represents the overwhelming number of Israelis who are ready for a leader who can maintain a united government and deliver peace.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, suffer from a chronic factionalism, making it impossible for a leader to make the necessary concessions without risking his position of power. Mahmoud Abbas is meant to represent the moderates, although most moderates have a hard time fully backing him because he has been unable to achieve any significant gains for them. Hamas' charter -- which calls for Israel's destruction -- is both offensive and intolerable to Israel and much of the international community, yet they are far more organized and enjoy popular grassroots support in Gaza. Without reconciling the political agenda of these two groups, Israel and the U.S. will not have a strong partner with which to negotiate. Moreover, both sides often use this internal division and lack of consensus as an excuse for inflexibility.

Second, many Israeli and Palestinian leaders still feel that more time may further improve their position and lead to more concessions, hence they argue against 'rushing' into any agreement. This is coupled with strong rejectionist elements in both camps. In Israel there are those who still seek "Greater Israel," especially among the settlers. On the Palestinians side there are several groups, such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, who want all of mandated Palestine, including Israel. They believe if they cannot take it by force then they can wait and use demographics to overwhelm the Jewish majority, therefore, the idea of a one state solution has began to gain some currency among Palestinian radicals.

Third, neither the Israeli nor Palestinian government has been preparing the public over the years for the inevitability of peaceful coexistence based on a two-state solution. Whereas Israeli officials talk about the lack of a worthy Palestinian interlocutor and complain about continued violence perpetrated against Israel, the Palestinian media and public condemnations of Israel continue to incite the public against Israel, often using venomous language that makes the possibility of coexistence seem beyond repair.

Fourth, both sides are wrapped up in a tit-for-tat process where neither party wants to show its cards first. Both remain internally conflicted as to how far they can go to accommodate each other while maintaining the upper hand in negotiations. For example, on the surface it appears that the Israeli government would not compromise on the future unity of Jerusalem as "Israel's eternal capital" while the Palestinians would presumably not compromise on the issue of the right of return of the refugees. In reality however, both sides have substantially modified their positions and reached agreements in principle on both of these critical issues in previous negotiations.

Lastly, there has not been consistent pressure exerted from the outside to prompt both Israelis and Palestinians to settle their differences. Although the United States has exerted some effort over many years, it was neither consistent nor did it display the leadership needed to bring parties together to forge peace. The Clinton and the Bush administrations focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict largely at the eleventh hour of their presidencies. The U.S. has failed to assert itself as the most influential power, and has too often allowed excessive violence to severely undermine the peace process as happened during the second Intifada under the Bush administration's watch between years 2000 and 2006. The Arab states too have often used the Palestinian plight to cover for their domestic failures. It is only in the past few years that some Arab states have put forth a concerted effort to advance the Arab Peace Initiative that calls for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. Although historical in its dimensions and implications, the Initiative remains static because neither side is ready or willing to translate it into a real peace process.

Considering this paradoxical reality, both Israelis and Palestinians have shown that they are simply incapable of resolving this conflict on their own. This is why the Obama administration must pursue an aggressive political agenda with unwavering commitment to produce concessions from all sides to provide the basis for an agreement. The United States cannot equivocate with the Israelis, the Palestinians or the Arab states as to what is required to forge a lasting peace. But for peace to occur, the Obama administration must secure a number of prerequisites to avoid the pitfalls of previous administrations and capitalize on the changing political environment in the Middle East especially among the Arab states that favor peace with Israel.

Read part two here