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Abdallah Schleifer Headshot

The Middle East Peace Process: Opposing Views

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Peace Is Still Possible

It is difficult now to remember how emotionally overwhelmed I was by a sudden wave of acute optimism when I watched President Obama reach out to the Muslim, Arab and Palestinian peoples in a historic speech at Cairo University in June 2009.

Nevertheless, I am not giving up on Obama or on the direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis that he has tried to revive.

Obama is above all a consummate politician -- so it would not make sense for him to go to the UN General Assembly as he did about a month ago and devote one quarter of his 40 minute speech to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if in his mind the talks were dead. Nor would President Obama have tolerated or perhaps even encouraged his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton to give the keynote speech only a few days ago at the annual gala dinner of the American Task Force on Palestine -- a predominantly Palestinian-American think tank in D.C. devoted to pressing for Palestinian statehood within the two-state formula.

There are several issues that have sidetracked the forward movement of negotiations. The most immediate issue is settlements. Anyone serious about an Arab-Israeli peace deal knows it will be based on the principle of a return of land for peace. This is clearly expressed in the Road Map to Peace, which calls for a freeze on all settlement expansion. With this in mind, President Obama has called upon Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to extend his own temporary and partial freeze on settlement construction. But I would suggest this quite valiant stand reflects a lack of understanding by Obama of the dynamics of Israeli politics, and the influence of the ultra-nationalists. Netanyahu does not have the political clout to support a settlement freeze at this time, and in order to soften the ground with the nationalists, has had to raise another equally distracting issue -- the Palestinian acknowledgment of Israel as a Jewish state.

President Abbas has quite casually noted that the Palestinian Authority has recognized the state of Israel and how the Israelis chose to define that state is their own business. But some Palestinians are allowing themselves to be provoked when Netanyahu raises a long-settled issue as something new that is quite likely to be an internal Israeli maneuver.

But in any case, the renewal of the settlement freeze will not change the terrible situation on the ground. Only a peace deal that finally establishes Palestinian and Israeli borders can end the expansion of settlements. Even if major settlements are annexed by Israel as part of a negotiated peace, that will only happen if the borders of a Palestinian state incorporate new lands that are at present part of the pre-1967 territory of Israel and transferred in exchange to the Palestinians, a point already conceded by Israel in past negotiations.

Netanyahu will need a concrete deal assuring the Israeli public that peace is at hand before risking the break-up of his present government and establishing a new coalition that would allow him to carry on. Stopping the expansion of settlements will be the result of a peace deal -- not a precondition.

Abdallah Schleifer, Professor Emeritus at the American University in Cairo and United Nations Global Expert

Obama's Middle East policy Is a Failure

Last September, when President Obama invited Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House to launch a new round of peace talks, he invoked the great historical figures on both sides of the conflict who had come before them. "Each of you are the heirs of peacemakers who dared greatly -- Begin and Sadat, Rabin and King Hussein - statesmen who saw the world as it was but also imagined the world as it should be," the president said. "It is the shoulders of our predecessors upon which we stand. It is their work that we carry on."

What Obama failed to mention is that for all of their effort, none of those brave statesmen managed to bring the Israelis and Palestinians one step closer to peace. Arguably, we are further than ever from achieving a viable two-state solution to this seemingly intractable conflict.

During his two years in office, President Obama has offered no substantive policy shift from previous administrations, no specific proposals for achieving peace between the two sides, no framework for dealing with final status issues, nothing fresh or new whatsoever save for an unbounded sense of confidence that he could achieve in a year what all of his predecessors failed to achieve in their entire tenures in office.

It didn't have to be like this. When Obama visited Cairo last year, he spoke eloquently about the daily struggle of Palestinians living under Israeli "occupation" (the first sitting American president ever to use that word). He followed that historic speech by calling for an immediate and unconditional halt to all Israeli settlement construction in the Occupied Territories -- "not some settlements, not outposts, not "'natural growth' exceptions," as Hillary Clinton famously put it.

When that demand was ignored, the Obama administration immediately backpedaled, accepting a ten-month moratorium on new settlement construction in the West Bank. As that moratorium expired last month, President Obama sent a letter to Netanyahu in which he offered more aid, more weapons, and more attention to Iran's nuclear ambitions in return for a 60-day extension of the settlement freeze. That too was rebuffed, leaving Obama looking weak and ineffectual to both allies and enemies in the region.

Since then, another 600 settlement units have been authorized for construction, adding to approximately half a million Israelis who currently live over the Green Line, in what is supposedly designated as the future Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian president has walked away from direct negotiations while, according to a Netanyahu aide, the Israeli prime minister is content to wait for a Republican majority in the House of Representatives to assist in "repelling the American president's initiative."

If there is any other way to describe the present state set of affairs other than utter failure, I do not know it.

All is not necessarily lost. The president still has an opportunity, particularly after the midterm elections, to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process. It means breaking from the Bush-era policy of pitting Hamas and Fatah against each other and instead using intermediaries to bring Hamas into the negotiations. It requires spelling out the consequences for both sides if America's demands are not met. There is no reason why the U.S. should not link the billions of dollars in American taxpayer money that is sent to the Israelis and Palestinians every year to their respective obligations in working toward a two-state solution. And finally, it necessitates doing more than merely talk about a Palestinian state. The United States should join with the European Union and the United Nations in stating that its intention to officially recognize the existence of an independent Palestinian state in two years if negotiations toward a two-state solution are not put back on track. Netanyahu cannot ignore that statement.

These may be bold, unprecedented steps. But that is precisely what is needed if Obama wants to avoid the same fate as the "peacemakers" upon whose shoulders he claims to stand.

Reza Aslan, religious scholar, author and United Nations Global Expert