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Alon Ben-Meir Headshot

Time to Change the Status Quo

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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 Netanyahu's subsequent meeting with President 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 Clinton should be commended on all accounts for an honest and thorough 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 Israeli settlements without making the entire peace process beholden to the inevitable ups and downs of these activities. The settlements agenda is a highly contested issue within Israel itself, 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 in order 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 that the US can actively support the peace process without subjecting itself to the vicissitudes of Israeli domestic politics is to reinforce the Fayyad Plan. Palestinian 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 7% growth rate in the West Bank is one of the surest ways to draw a stark reality 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 between Israel and the Palestinians. The Arab states have taken a huge step toward moderation by willing 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. What the Arab league must understand is that whatever political and economic maneuvering is being done by the US, EU, Quartet, or Turkey to solve this crisis will only benefit if the collective Arab states can muster the will to promote their plan for how the future of their own region should look. Redoubling efforts to promote the Arab Peace Initiative as proximity talks ensue should be top of the agenda for the upcoming summit in Libya. Syria in particular should be vocal in this effort, as the US has started normalizing relations with it while ensuring its claim on the Golan is addressed.

In the context of these deliberations, a player like Turkey should not be dismissed, even as official ties between the Turkish and Israeli governments have been tense since Israel's offensive into Gaza. While Turkey's official role as a mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict has waned, people-to-people development continues as the Turkish Chamber of Commerce has pushed for expanding private sector development in industrial zones throughout the West Bank. Turkey has asserted its interest in seeing an end to the Arab-Israeli crisis, and in lieu of a sound political process has continued to push for development in the future Palestinian state without seriously compromising its close military and trade ties with Israel.

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. Although Netanyahu has emphasized Israel's willingness to enter direct and unconditional negotiations, this suggests that the accomplishments and agreements of prior negotiations can be ignored. The US should be abundantly clear that the parameters of a solution have been established time and again; proximity talks should focus on dealing with core issues where progress has been made and back such agreements so that they will not be subject to renegotiations time and again. While the Jews' historical and biblical ties to Jerusalem must be respected, this Israeli government cannot use that as a crutch to sabotage talks or prohibit it from moving forward with concessions. Netanyahu should brace himself for the pressure and persistence that President Obama will put on Israel when it comes to settlements, a subject that even General Petraeus has listed as a threat to US interests and security abroad. If Netanyahu's current center-right coalition is preventing him from making the necessary concessions, he has every obligation then to bring Kadima back in as a strategic partner in peace. With a major domestic victory under his belt, President Obama will have more time and energy to see that Israel is making progress on the Palestinian track.

On the security front, Obama, Biden 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 to Israel its commitment 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, as this is directly related to Israel's ultimate security needs and American strategic interests.

Beyond that, as Israel continues its campaign to get widespread support against Iran's nuclear agenda, President Obama must make one thing clear: if the US is to confront Iran with sanctions or a military threat, both 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 United States simply cannot and will not confront Iran, especially militarily, before it can secure a real calm on the Israeli-Palestinian track. The Iranian regime, Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda all in some shape or form gain support for their causes through the fact that Israel is still an occupying force and the US supports it as a staunch ally. Trying to separate the rise in power of these groups from the progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front is a futile exercise, and Israel should know that if it wants full support from the US, EU, Arab states, and Security Council against the Iranian threats, it must prove its commitment to seeing out the peace process. The regional alliances that balanced the ambitions of Iran, Iraq, Syria and other leading states drastically changed with an aggressive US military and foreign policy in the Middle East during the Bush era. 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 immensely this past decade -- which have played out on political, military and religious fronts -- security has been globalized in such a way that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is no longer just regional. Benjamin Netanyahu has some serious soul searching to do if he is going to get his coalition to act in Israel's long term interests instead of presumed short term gains. This includes reigning in his coalition ministers and presenting a unified Israeli public voice as well as taking the necessary risks for peace needed to reach an agreement.

Netanyahu should know that while he now has a partner in the US, EU, and Arab League, this may not last, nor will the current lull in violence. The recent scuffle over settlements started as a disaster for Israel's public image, but can end in such a way that Israel could be seen as a country willing to govern constructively for the future instead of hiding behind the perilous status quo.