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Recognizing Israeli-Palestinian Realities Requires that the U.S., Not the Arab League, Change Direction

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Last week an Arab League committee proposed a change in their 2002 peace initiative in which they promised to normalize relations with Israel following a complete Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 and an agreed upon resolution of the issue of the Palestinian refugees. Modifying this somewhat, what the Arab League committee did last week was reaffirm that the 1967 borders should be the basis for a final peace between Israel and Palestine, while acknowledging the notion that "land swaps" would be an acceptable part of such a deal. This gave Israel a major concession, allowing it to keep massive settlement blocs that have been established since 1967 -- some along the '67 border, others surrounding Jerusalem, and still others jutting out into the heart of the West Bank, dividing many areas of the Palestinian territories.

While some Palestinians decried the Arab League committee's decision as an unwarranted concession, some in the Israeli peace camp heralded the move as an important breakthrough. For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu poured cold water on the offer dismissing it as inconsequential, stating that the most important issues that have separated Israel from the Arabs have never been territorial.

This rejection should have been expected, and it is surprising that it was not. It is an unfortunate fact that discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and actions of some players are often misdirected since they all too often ignore important realities we know to be true.

In the aftermath of this Arab League meeting, I listened to a senior Arab official present an assessment of the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He began by noting "facts" which he said define the state of play: Israel has moved to the right, with a government beholden to the hard-line settler movement that is unwilling to surrender what they believe is their "divinely inherited" land; Palestinians are divided, with neither side demonstrating a willingness to commit to reconciliation -- Hamas, because they don't want to become marginalized, and the Palestinian Authority, because they don't want to lose the international funding and support they are convinced would follow from any unity arrangement with Hamas; the U.S. cannot be an "honest broker," given the politics of Washington; and the Arab World is in chaos, with the Muslim Brotherhood in assent in some areas and Iran the preoccupation of other states in the region.

After laying out this rather stark and depressing portrait, the conversation moved, almost seamlessly, to a discussion of current state of the "peace process" and the steps being taken to restart negotiations. What was most interesting to me was the near total disconnect between this phase of the discussion and the presentation of the "facts" that had preceded it.

If Israel's governing coalition has a determined hard-line pro-settler bent that is not able to make territorial concessions; if the Palestinian movement is hopelessly fractured; and if the U.S. is deemed incapable of pressing the Israelis to change course, then, one can reasonably ask "what is the point of offering Israel more concessions for a peace they won't accept; especially when these concessions will result in cutting Jerusalem off from its Palestinian environs, and creating even deeper fissures in the Palestinian polity?"

Ignoring reality in the Israeli-Palestinian context has consequences. In the lead up to the post-Gulf War Madrid Peace Conference, for example, the Arab states agreed to end their secondary economic boycott of Israel in exchange for Israel's participation in the conference and their agreement to freeze settlements in the occupied territories. Twenty years later, peace talks have ended and the number of settlers in the territories has tripled. After surrendering their pressure, the Arabs found they had no leverage left to use with Israel, and without the U.S. using its muscle to enforce the promised "freeze," the peace process dragged on and settlements continued to grow.

None of this speaks for inaction, but it does urge caution and a change in direction. One way forward is to look again at what President Obama said in his recent speech in Jerusalem where he committed to support Israel while challenging Israelis to recognize and deal with Palestinian need for justice. The president's remarks were, I believe, born of his belief in the need to acknowledge the importance of reality in shaping policy.

Given this, the right course of action for the Obama Administration is for the president to put muscle behind his words to the Israeli public. His Jerusalem speech had two parts. He committed his Administration to fully supporting Israel's security, and he pressed Israelis to deal forthrightly with the matter of Palestinian rights. Having delivered on the former (with unprecedented amounts of security assistance), he needs, as an Israeli peace activist recently suggested, "to take the bull by the horns" and make it clear to the Israeli public where their government's policies are leading them. If the way forward, as the president suggested in his Jerusalem speech, is for the Israeli people to demand a change in direction, then he must make a commitment to help change the politics inside Israel. If the U.S. only makes more political concessions to the Netanyahu government and then presses the Arabs to make still more concessions, how will this ever change Israel's calculations? The president has given Israelis love, now he must deliver tough love and hard truths.

And recognizing that peace isn't possible with only one half of Palestinians in agreement, the U.S. should provide an opening to the Palestinians to push for reconciliation -- making it clear that if Hamas accepts the well-established conditions for a Palestinian unity government, it will support such an agreement and urge the other members of the Quartet and Congress to support it as well.

In short, given current realities, peace may not be possible. But if current conditions in both internal Israeli and Palestinian politics can be changed, and if the United States can demonstrate that it can be an effective agent of this change, then doors, now closed, may be opened.