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Post-Biden Visit: Accountability Needed in the Mideast

The Israeli announcement of 1,600 new housing units to be built in East Jerusalem has potentially derailed the proximity talks, and in doing so, placed the two-state solution in jeopardy. Achieving a two-state solution will require the United States to play an active role as an honest and credible mediator between the parties. But the timing of this Israeli decision during Vice President Joseph Biden's visit puts America's credibility on the line.

Rectifying the peace process now will require significant U.S. leadership. Thankfully, the Obama administration's response to the Israeli announcement indicates that it is up to the task. The strong statement from the White House that "the United States condemns the decision" was a welcome start. Even more significant was Vice President Biden's statement during his speech at Tel Aviv University that "as we move forward I promise you this: the United States will continue to hold both sides accountable for any statements or any actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks." The world is now watching closely to see if the U.S. is truly capable of fulfilling this promise.

The Obama administration has faced criticism regarding its early Mideast peacemaking efforts. Indeed, after a highly promising start, progress in the peace process has been minimal at best. Recently, Israelis and Palestinians have each pointed to their political constraints while being actively encouraged by this administration to agree to a limited settlement moratorium and indirect talks, respectively. President Obama has repeatedly stated that seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a favor we do for the parties, but represents a national security interest of the United States. Now we must prove it.

To the Israelis, we can communicate that moving forward with this East Jerusalem construction at this time would be considered an affront to the United States, and highly destructive to the peace process. In doing so, we need to challenge those who question the commitment of President Obama and his administration to Israel's security and the US-Israel relationship. This administration has done much to strengthen U.S. - Israel ties. It opposed the Goldstone Report, pulled our forces from a military exercise with Turkey and other nations after Israel's participation was withdrawn, increased our joint military exercises, and enhanced U.S.-led efforts by the international community to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, just to name a few significant examples. The visit to the region by Vice President Biden - a longtime advocate of the State of Israel - was intended to strengthen the U.S. - Israel relationship further, particularly regarding America's commitment to Israel's security. Even after the ill-advised announcement of East Jerusalem housing construction, the vice president spoke movingly during his visit of the "unshakeable" bond" between our two nations that is "impervious to any shifts in either country and in either country's partisan politics."

Against this backdrop, halting this construction plan in East Jerusalem in order to advance our common interests is the least Israel should and must do. Actions that pre-judge negotiations over Jerusalem's final status can lead to dangerous unrest in the city and across the region. In this regard, the recent report that some 50,000 units are in various stages of planning for East Jerusalem is an ominous sign of where developments could be headed if they proceed unchecked.

At the same time, the United States should continue to communicate its readiness to support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take the bold steps necessary to achieve a two-state agreement that would ensure Israel's security as a Jewish and democratic state. Netanyahu's endorsement of a two-state solution and his implementation of a ten-month settlement moratorium in the West Bank were significant steps. To take more, he will need sustained U.S. encouragement and support.

To the Palestinians, we should be clear that withdrawing from the proximity talks now will significantly damage the prospects to achieve a Palestinian state. As we address the Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, we must be prepared to hold the Palestinians and Arab states accountable as well. The path to a two-state solution will undoubtedly not be an easy one. We cannot allow the Palestinians to walk away from dialogue at every bump in the road. The U.S. should continue to indicate its willingness to substantially support Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad's plan to build the infrastructure for a future Palestinian state. But without the support of the Arab states, and without a political track alongside the state-building effort, Fayyad's initiative has little chance to succeed.

Finally, the Obama administration can provide leadership by promoting a comprehensive approach to advancing peace and security in the region. We should press for a resumption of the Turkey-mediated indirect talks between Israel and Syria, commend the Arab states for the Arab Peace Initiative and challenge them to take steps to advance the proposal. And, we need to work closely with the international community to address the humanitarian conditions in Gaza.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have each endorsed the concept of a two-state solution. Now is the time for the U.S. to discover whether they will demonstrate the courageous leadership needed to rise above their domestic politics and achieve this goal. We must support them when they do, and hold them accountable when they do not. Doing so would demonstrate that this White House has the wherewithal to reach and sustain a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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