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Pushing The Peace Process

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by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Pat Garofalo

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Earlier this week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), "the nation's major pro-Israel lobby," held its annual policy conference in Washington, DC. Attended by "more than half the members of the House and Senate," the conference featured major foreign policy speeches by Vice President Biden and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA). Noting America's "commitment to the peace and security of the state of Israel," Biden said that"all of us have obligations to meet, including the Israeli and Palestinian commitments made in the road map." "The Palestinian Authority must combat terror and incitement against Israel," the Vice President said, "but Israel has to work towards a two-state solution. You're not going to like my saying this, but not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts, and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement based on their first actions." Kerry echoed Biden's themes, arguing that while the Palestinians "must do enormous work to uphold their end of the bargain," "Israel, too, must take hard steps towards the path to peace." "And nothing will do more to show Israel's commitment to making peace than freezing new settlement activity," Kerry said. Though new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "has so far shied away from publicly supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," the AIPAC conference this week indicated some potential movement toward that position. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's Ron Kampeas noted yesterday, "The AIPAC delegates' wish list included endorsements for two congressional letters that unequivocally support a 'viable Palestinian state.'" "Such an endorsement for the concept by AIPAC is unlikely to have come without some sort of nod fromJerusalem," wrote Kampeas, pointing out that "Netanyahu addressed the conference via satellite and sent some of his top advisers."

PROGRESS ON SECURITY IN WEST BANK: In his speech, Biden noted that "the United States and its partners have provided funding and training for a reformed Palestinian security force, which has impressed everyone, including the Israeli security officers with its recent demonstrations of professionalism and effectiveness." "We are right now seeking funds from Congress to expand this program," said the Vice President. Last week, the State Department released a report on worldwide terrorism that said "the Palestinian Authority's (PA) counterterrorism efforts improved in 2008, with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's government engaged in efforts to control terrorist groups, particularly Hamas." "All observers, including Israeli security officials, credited [Palestinian Authority security forces] with significant security improvements across the West Bank," said the report. At the same time, the report noted that the security forces' "ability to counter terrorism was hindered by a lack of resources, unclear chain-of-command, and [Israeli Defense Forces]-imposed restrictions on their movement, equipment, and operations." In March, retired Brigadier General Ilan Paz, the former head of the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank, told the Middle East Bulletin (MEB) that while "there is a need" for roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank, "changing the existing situation of access and movement in the West Bank is very, very important for Palestinians." "Therefore, I believe that we have to continue reducing the number of these obstacles," said Paz. Meanwhile, Hamas -- which controls the Gaza Strip -- continues to spar with its rival Fatah over a power-sharing agreement. Attempts to resolve differences between the two factions have failed thus far.

MOVING FORWARD ON OBLIGATIONS: In the same interview with the Middle East Bulletin, Paz called settlements "one of the main challenges affecting any kind of peace agreement in the future." As Kerry explained in his speech at AIPAC, "the fact is that settlements make it more difficult for Israel to protect its citizens." "New settlements, especially in sensitive areas like E-1, don't just fragment a future Palestinian state, they also fragment what the Israeli Defense Forces must defend. They undercut President Abbas and strengthen Hamas by convincing everyday Palestinians that there is no reward for moderation. The settlements also empower the enemies of peace in the region," said Kerry. During a hearing on rebuilding Gaza last February, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) argued that the continued growth of settlements hurt the prospect of a two-state solution. "The notion that Israel can continue to expand settlements, whether it be through natural growth or otherwise, without diminishing the capacity of a two-state solution, is both unrealistic and, I would respectfully suggest, hypocritical," said Wexler. The commitments made in the road map included taking "all necessary steps to normalize Palestinian life." But as Robert Drumheller, the vice president of structured finance for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, told MEB in April 2009, the "high number of checkpoints" is a detriment toward improving the Palestinian economy. "Clearly, if you can minimize the checkpoints or at least develop some solution to move commercial goods in an expedited manner through checkpoints, that would make a big difference," said Drumheller.

LINKING IRAN TO PROGRESS ON TWO-STATES: In an interview with the MEB, Israeli President Shimon Peres said that he believed "it is worthwhile to leverage the positive spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative to assist in a regional peace process." At the same time, the new Israeli government, led by Netanyahu, "is seeking to reorient the country's foreign policy" to focus on "the rising hegemonic appetite of Iran" rather than the peace process. In contrast, "President Obama views the region as a whole, and trying to isolate each problem does not reflect reality," a senior U.S. official told the New York Times. "It will be a lot easier to build a coalition to deal with Iran if the peace process is moving forward."Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt told the Council on Foreign Relations recently that "these are complex interwoven issues which have to be dealt with in a rather nuanced but very aggressive manner. And in the first instance, the diplomatic engagement on both tracks -- the Iranian and the Arab-Israeli peace process issues -- really is called for." American officials believe that "the opportunity for a regional alliance against Iranian influence is great," but they argue that in order for "Arab leaders to work alongside Israel on this, even quietly, requires demonstrable Israeli movement on ending its occupation of the West Bank by freezing or reducing settlements and handing over more power to the Palestinians." The desire for Arab leaders to engage constructively with Israel, as Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Brian Katulis has noted, means that the Obama administration "will need to manage the linkages between these two challenges carefully." "As the international community works to ratchet up the pressure on Iran and increase the costs on the regime for its nuclear program, it is not inconceivable that Iran would seek to distract and act on other fronts -- like trying to scuttle any efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and further undermine the situation," Katulis wrote last November.