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Obama Prioritizes Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process in UN Pitch

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Watching President Barack Obama's speech to heads of state at the UN General Assembly summit this week in New York -- specifically his pointed prioritization of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- I was reminded of a column I penned with U.S. Congressman Gregory Meeks of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on this very topic.

Remarkably, what we recommended to President George Bush at the time is equally pertinent to the current U.S. president.

This is almost always the case. The U.S. president, in his final term, commits to tackling the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And yet to no avail.

Lest we fail again at brokering peace in the Middle East, perhaps it is worth reviewing the critical policy recommendations that U.S. Congressman Meeks and I posited not so long ago.

Here is what we said then, which must be reiterated now:

The time has come for the world's leaders to face hard truths concerning the Middle East, specifically the conflict between Palestine and Israel.

On this, the president has nothing to lose and everything to gain, including the opportunity to achieve a positive foreign-policy legacy. This is exactly the kind of courage that is needed if peace talks are to be successful.

Beyond courage, however, what else is needed?

Consider for a moment the truths facing the two sides. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis want security. Yet each lives in fear of attack from the other, whether by suicide bombs, random missile assaults, or air strikes. Both nations want to live in communion with the land and sea, as farmers and fishermen but also as businesspersons, bankers, and believers. Yet the land has been usurped and holy sites barricaded with fencing. Both nations want to be prosperous, raising, feeding, and educating their young and building local industry, much of which remains elusive.

Thus, what is needed, in addition to courage, is the commitment to account for the security, economic, and social needs of both Palestinians and Israelis. Anything less, the likes of which has garnered little in the past 40 years, will fail to broker peace.

Beyond a commitment to caring for the concerns of both parties, what else is needed?

Having laid a foundation of courage and commitment, then and only then can we work together to articulate the particulars of a renewed peace process. Ensuring that both peoples have nation-state status whose integrity and security is not only respected but guaranteed by the international community is vital. Palestinians and Israelis both must be granted this assurance.

Ensuring that both peoples have safe and recognized access to their respective holy sites, especially Jerusalem, is critical. Muslims and Jews both must be afforded this opportunity. Ensuring that both peoples are provided a contiguous homeland, with unfettered freedom of movement to allow for religious practice, work, school, and play to continue unabated is essential. These are basic human rights.

Recognizing this prescription will not come easily; the international community must encourage and support the resolve of the Palestinian and Israeli leadership to engage in this task. We must boldly back both parties as they collectively address 1967 borders, settlement and refugee issues, east-west Jerusalem access and rights, taxation responsibilities, and security concerns.

For too long, the conflict between Palestine and Israel has obfuscated diplomatic relations between Israel and the Muslim world. For too long, the conflict has prevented trade and the exchange of social capital from flourishing. For too long has peace been sidelined, thought impossible or intangible.

The time is now to change this. Anything short of what is required could hearken another 40 years of intractability and mounting frustration between Palestine and Israel. Anything less reflects badly on the international community, as we witness the continuation of violence, implying a certain complicity in the continuation of the conflict.

Anything shy of the needed courage, commitment, and indispensable guarantees outlined above, and we give up on the possibility of peace in the Middle East. The time is now for the administration to lead in the manner this moment requires.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.