Alon Ben-Meir Headshot

Winning Back Israel

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During his recent meeting with Egypt's President Mubarak, President Obama expressed cautious optimism about the progress being made in the Arab-Israeli peace process. While both presidents noted that there was "movement in the right direction," eight months of American direct engagement in the Arab-Israeli conflict has produced few tangible results. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who has been shuttling back and forth to the region to negotiate between parties, has yet to persuade the Israelis, Palestinians, and the surrounding Arab states to undertake the necessary parallel confidence measures needed to breathe life back into the process. The Netanyahu government's ongoing refusal to declare a moratorium on settlements expansion has been met with Arab leaders' obdurate resistance to offer Israel concessions of their own, raising questions about Mitchell's strategy and the viability of the process. For this reason, the Obama administration can no longer afford to wait for the Israelis and Palestinians to see eye-to-eye and instead it must interject itself more forcefully by establishing the general parameters for a peace agreement.

Before the Obama administration launches this new initiative it must first take a number of corrective measures to create a more positive atmosphere in the region, especially among the Israelis. As a proponent of the two-state solution based on 1967 borders, President Obama's envisioned peace agreement between the Arabs and Israelis does not differ much from his predecessors', including the efforts at Camp David and Annapolis. Yet President Obama's strategy and advocacy have been much more pronounced since his first days in office, where he has championed the role of a committed and evenhanded interlocutor. In his efforts to repair the relationship between the US and Arab world that was left in tatters after the Bush administration, President Obama has along the way created an atmosphere of doubt among many in the Israeli camp.

A growing number of Israelis are concerned that in his efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Arab world, President Obama has not been as sensitive as his predecessors to Israel's specific plights on national security issues. Moreover, many Israelis have become less trusting of President Obama and feel that his speech from Cairo to the Arab and Muslim world sought improved relations with Arab states at Israel's expense. As a result, an increased number of Israelis are showing greater forbearance to Netanyahu's rejection of Obama's demand to freeze the settlements -- even at the expense of creating tension with Washington.

It is critical at this juncture that President Obama now personally appeal directly to the Israeli public. This must include a massive public relations campaign, where the US President can reach out to Israelis through op-eds in Israeli papers, interviews on Army Radio, and appearances on Israeli television channels. The purpose would be not only to restate America's unshakable commitment to Israel's national security, but also to show that Israel's ultimate security and prosperity lies in peace with the Arab states. The President ought to explain that he seeks to realize what President Clinton attempted to achieve at Camp David in 2000 and what President Bush continued with his efforts to strike an Israeli-Palestinian peace through the Road Map. He must make it abundantly clear that his focus on the settlements is not arbitrary, but represents a critical point of departure if Israel is to ever to seek peace with the Palestinians. Indeed, the settlements not only reinforce the occupation practically and psychologically, but they also diminish the Palestinians' hope for establishing a state of their own. President Obama in his own words must make it clear to Israelis that as much as the Palestinian extremists will never be able to build a Palestinian state on Israel's ruins, Israel will not see peace unless an independent Palestinian state is established in the West Bank and Gaza.

The requisites for a peace agreement have been discussed and negotiated at length by countless administrations; what the President ought to project now to the Israelis is a vision of an overall solution consistent with previous discussions between the parties. While parallel confidence-building measures are still vital to the process, they must be seen as building blocks that clearly point to an endgame visible by all sides. The President must also explain that in order to keep his commitment to seeing out a final agreement, the parameters must cover all conflicting issues, especially the final border, settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the future status of East Jerusalem. By providing a vision of the "big picture" President Obama would be able to foster the confidence that incremental building measures will indeed lead to the desired structure of peace. For Israel to make progress on halting settlement growth, Netanyahu must be able to trust that Obama is applying equal pressure on the Arab states to deliver concessions with the goal of normalizing relations with Israel.

Finally, the President must invoke the historic dimension of the Arab Peace Initiative which offers Israel peace with all 22 Arab states in exchange for the occupied territories and a just resolution to the Palestinian refugees. The President must be vehement about this timely opportunity for the Israelis, while the conditions on the ground are ripe and they have moderate partners in the process. The choice for the Israelis, he must emphasize, will be to end more than 60 years of bloodshed and destruction and live in peace. Should they choose not to acknowledge the collective will of the moderate Arab community, they risk dealing with a much more extreme Arab world as a result.

Moreover, for the President to regain the trust of the Israeli public that has substantially diminished in the past few months, he must be more fervent in his resolve to counter Iran's nuclear agenda, which Israelis dread the most. While there is an ongoing dialogue between US and Israeli intelligence and security communities concerning Iran's nuclear ambitions, President Obama must assure the Israeli public as well that it is in their best interest that all diplomatic options are first exhausted with Iran. He must intimate that all other options, should diplomacy fail, will be thoroughly discussed with the Israeli government. To be sure, the Israelis must feel confident that the Obama administration will resort to any means necessary to eliminate what they consider the Iranian existential threat.

Whereas it was critically important for the Obama administration to improve its relations with the Arab states to regain its moral footing and influence, it absolutely cannot undermine the nature of US-Israeli special relations. This unique bond has offered successive American administrations a strong leverage with Israel, allowing it to exact important concessions in negotiations, as Clinton was able to do with Netanyahu in the Hebron agreement in 1997. Although Arab states have in the past complained about American lack of evenhandedness, they understand that the US-Israeli relationship gives the American President a leverage to deliver for them. Any erosion of that relationship will create serious difficulties in future negotiations, as President Obama is currently finding out for himself. President Obama must now correct that impression before he can move the peace process forward, restoring the trust and confidence of the Israeli people.