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Obama's Peace Offensive (Part 2)

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This is Part 2 of a two-part series on what the Obama administration must do to achieve a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal

Ending the Settlements Expansion:

Ending the settlements expansion is one of the most critical elements in changing the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. More than anything else the settlements send a clear message that Israel has no intention of seriously relinquishing territory and that the idea of a two state solution is dead. If Israel were to stop expansion, it could strengthen Mahmoud Abbas' hand as he would be able to claim credit for an extraordinary Israeli concession. To resolve the conflict on this issue between the Obama administration and Israel, both sides must agree on a moratorium for a specific period of time (instead of an open-ended freeze) pending a resolution to the borders dispute. The expansion can then be resumed on the settlements that would be incorporated into Israel proper by agreement with the Palestinians. The Israeli government must also control the settlers currently residing in the West Bank who have on a number of occasions resorted to violence against the Palestinians. In return for an Israeli cooperation and a moratorium on the settlements, the Obama administration must demand and receive from the Palestinian Authority an immediate cessation of all incitements against Israel in the Palestinian media, especially those in Arabic. This must include the revision of text books, as is being promoted by the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. Moreover, although violent attacks against Israel have been reduced dramatically since the Gaza war, the PA must demonstrably continue to take whatever action needed to prevent future acts of violence. In addition, the PA must undertake a major public relations campaign to foster the virtues of peaceful coexistence with Israel.

Promoting a Palestinian Unity Government:

Establishing a unity government remains central to promoting a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Obama administration must exert tremendous pressure on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to do everything in their power to advance a unity government between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Every effort must be made to pressure Hamas to accept the Arab Peace Initiative. It is unlikely that Hamas will abandon their charter and recognize Israel outright; therefore, accepting the Arab Peace Initiative as an act of solidarity with the 22 Arab states may allow its leadership to save face. It would also allow Israel and the US to come to an indirect agreement with Hamas should they start looking seriously at the Arab Peace Initiative as a viable framework for peace. Having been substantially weakened by the Israeli Gaza offensive late last year, the continuing closure of border crossings and the growing disenchantment of its policies by Palestinians in Gaza and other Arab states, Hamas may now be more inclined to forge a unity government than at any time before. Moreover, Hamas' leadership seems more open to discuss a two-state solution in order to have a say in the peace process. Otherwise, the growing chasm between Hamas and the PA will not serve the interest of any of the players in the conflict and will only perpetuate the possibility of large scale violence.

Reducing Tension in the Territories:

Although there has been significant progress in the West Bank and the Palestinians are enjoying greater freedom and relative economic prosperity, Israel can do considerably more to make the life for the Palestinians in the West Bank easier. Israel moreover, must further strengthen Mahmoud Abbas. Israel cannot weaken Abbas, and then blame him for being weak and inconsequential. Israel should continue to remove scores of road blocks, release thousands of prisoners and allow thousands more Palestinians to work in Israel. These concessions should be awarded to Mahmoud Abbas as a triumph and result of negotiations. Israel must also grant more construction tenders to Palestinians living in overcrowded housing that need to build schools and housing units. Between years 2000 and 2007 a meager 91 construction permits were given to Palestinians in West Bank while 18,472 housing units were built for Israeli settlers in the same area, which can only breed more resentment. Changing this status quo will first and foremost strengthen Abbas in the eyes of ordinary Palestinians and allow him to make important concessions to Israel especially in connection with border adjustments and the issue of Palestinian refugees. In addition, these efforts would further bolster Abbas in his negotiations with Hamas to form a unity government as he can demonstrate that he is the more effective interlocutor with the Israelis. Finally, Israeli concessions will help to create the contrast in the quality of life and personal freedoms for Palestinians in the West Bank, to demonstrate that moderation pays and is rewarded.

Translating the Arab Peace Initiative into Confidence-Building Measures:

The Obama administration must persuade the Arab states to translate the Arab Peace Initiative into confidence building measures. Such an historic document that calls on Israel to return territories captured in 1967 for peace while finding a just solution to the Palestinian refugees is not only momentous but provides the foundation for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. In a recent Op Ed in the Washington Post, The Crown Prince of Bahrain, Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa expanded on the necessity for Arabs to back the Peace Initiative in a more robust way: "We must stop the small minded waiting game in which each side refuses to budge until the other side makes the first move, we've got to be bigger than that. All sides need to take simultaneous good-faith action if peace is to have a chance." The Arab states for example can take specific actions, however symbolic, such as allowing Israeli passengers and cargo aircraft to fly over Arab territory, opening trade offices in Arab states other than Jordan and Egypt, holding cultural exchanges and lifting the ban on Arab officials from meeting with their Israeli counterparts to demonstrate their sincerity behind the Initiative.

Jordan and Egypt, as designated by the Arab League to promote the Initiative, must also start to take greater gestures to garner support for it from the Israeli people. Their representatives should make it clear to the Israeli public that the Arab Peace Initiative is a framework for negotiations and a comprehensive peace, and is not simply a take-it-or-leave-it offer. Those Arab states who do not yet have diplomatic relations with Israel should back Jordan in Egypt in these efforts and be seen as publicly supporting a large-scale Arab effort to win over the Israeli public.

Israelis too need to be more proactive in their support for the Arab Peace Initiative to counter what has been seen as a tepid government response thus far. The academics, former military and intelligence officials and ex-ambassadors who discuss and support the Initiative in their offices and private meetings need to take on a more public presence to make this dialogue resonate with the Israeli street.

It should be noted that the Arab Sunni states including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan have a grave concern over Iran's nuclear program and want to put the Arab-Israeli conflict behind them in order to focus on Tehran's threat. They should be far more in tune to make important concessions to Israel at this juncture as they view Israel as ultimately the best defense against Iran's nuclear ambitions. To assuage the Israelis, US Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and the Obama administration will need to work closely with Israel on the Iranian threat and consequently be in a better position to coax the Israelis to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative.

Advancing the Israeli-Syrian Peace Process:

Advancing the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations has to be part and parcel of Obama's peace offensive. Syria holds the key to regional stability and enjoys a very important geo-strategic position with far reaching regional implications. Although the Obama administration seems to be leaning toward an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation first, it must pursue the Israeli-Syrian track with the same tenacity. Peace between Israel and Syria will have serious ramifications on Damascus' influence over Hamas, Hezbollah and its relationship with Iran and consequently could facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The current post-election domestic strife in Iran is of particular note, as Syria may reconsider its strategic alliance with Iran while it is in a state of turmoil. Israel's deep concerns over Iran's nuclear program should encourage its government to focus on Syria. Indeed, the way to distance Iran from the Mediterranean is to distance Syria from Iran, and that can happen only when Israel comes to the conclusion that peace with Syria is more valuable than the Golan Heights. Focus groups of settlers in the Golan Heights have stated their willingness to leave their homes if it would mean peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and yet Netanyahu and his advisors are still stalling on moving forward with the Syria track. Syria is willing to resume the negotiations with Israel from where it was left under Turkish mediation with the Olmert government. Israel, on the other hand wants to restart the talks unconditionally with no regard to any prior understanding. For these reasons, the Obama administration must bring whatever pressure necessary to bear on Israel to reach an accord with Syria. In return, Damascus must unequivocally demonstrate that peace with Israel remains Syria's strategic option and the leadership is prepared to fully embrace complete normalizations of relations with Israel.

Staying the Course:

The question now is will the Obama administration stay the course? This will be a key test in judging the U.S. credibility on the ground, as this conflict has outlived countless US attempts at reconciliation that were too short lived or lacked the political capital necessary to reach an agreement. Having started his peace offensive on day one of his administration President Obama has shown his commitment to finding a solution. He must now demonstrate his resolve to stay the course. The Obama administration must expend tremendous political capital, at least initially, to achieve the tangible results that the 62-year-old intractable conflict will require. President Obama himself must remain relentless as both the Israelis and the Palestinians will continue to check and test his resolve. He must demonstrate even-handedness in his demands from both Israelis and Palestinians without necessarily compromising America's commitment to Israel's national security. Moreover, President Obama must up the ante on his public relations offensive in Israel to extol the virtue of a two-state solution. He must explain why the administration is investing so much political capital behind its push for peace. Both the Israeli and Palestinian public must be made fully aware about what the enormous benefits are and what would be the price of failure. The Israeli public will not tolerate a government that alienates the United States, which they view as an indispensable guarantor for their national security. Orchestrated pressure on Netanyahu and Abbas will also provide both leaders the political cover they need to make the necessary concessions for peace.

The Obama administration cannot retreat in the face of Israeli or Arab resistance because the price of failure will be unacceptable in a region that is critical to America's strategic interests and President Obama's ability to lead. Deferring the peace process will not offer a respite for reassessment but a prelude for unimaginable violent escalation of the conflict from which only the detractors of peace can reap the greatest benefit.

Read part one here