Only the U.S. Has the Clout to Make Mideast Peace
As Israelis and Palestinians resume direct peace negotiations later this week, for the first time in 20 months, the United States must continue to actively engage in the process and make a determined effort to broker a final peace settlement.A hands-off approach to the conflict, as President George W. Bush learned late in his second term, only makes our broader foreign policy aims in the region more difficult to achieve. Finding a solution to the conflict remains central to our long-term success in the Muslim world, including our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as our fight against al-Qaeda.
During his Cairo speech in June 2009, President Obama articulated a clear and balanced vision for ending the conflict. Implementing that vision would make a pivotal difference in restoring America’s power and prestige, whereas a failure to translate it into concrete policy changes will deepen our divide with the Muslim world and give further ammunition to its violent extremist elements.
To improve America’s relations with the region, President Obama must seek a legitimate settlement that addresses the security concerns of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. The truth is, in the absence of presidential pressure Israel will not make the painful concessions (withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories and dismantling settlements) that are prerequisites for moving beyond the current stalemate.
To achieve a breakthrough, Obama must be willing to put considerable pressure on Israel. This will be politically challenging on the domestic front, especially during an election year, and also because Israel is now led by a formidable and hawkish Likud-run government. But for the sake of America’s vital interests, Israel’s long-term security, and the long-sought ambition of the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own, President Obama must push forward with a two-state solution before the window of opportunity closes forever. He must not let the extreme elements on either side of the conflict veto American policy and national interest. Furthermore, any breakthrough requires that the president actively engage pro-peace groups in both countries in order to exert pressure on the extreme elements that are currently trying to sabotage any peace settlement.
The Arabs are ready for peace. In the last few years there has been a dramatic shift in attitude across the Arab world regarding peacemaking with the Jewish state. A clear consensus exists today among Arab elites and the general public that land-for-peace- remains the only viable option, with Israel withdrawing from the 1967 occupied Arab territories, including East Jerusalem, in exchange for full diplomatic recognition by all Arab countries. This was clearly articulated in the 2002 and 2007 Arab Peace Initiative and accepted by all Arab governments.
Clearly there are political risks for the president; however, the rewards he would garner if he succeeds are worth the possible risks. An American-brokered Arab-Israeli solution and the establishment of a viable, fully independent state for the Palestinians with its capital in East Jerusalem would dramatically improve America’s credibility among Muslims, facilitate its political engagement with Iran and its decision to find a region-wide formula to stabilize Afghanistan, and deal with the rising political extremism in Pakistan.
If Obama wishes to accomplish more than just repairing the damage wrought by his predecessor, he must have the political will and vision to chart a new course of action toward the region and accompany those eloquent Cairo words with concrete action. Great presidents have always taken risks, and Obama could even go down in history as the only president who was able to bring peace to the Holy Land. More importantly, a peace settlement would bring lasting security to Israel and end the chronic suffering of the Palestinians.
Farid Senzai is the director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is also an assistant professor of Political Science at Santa Clara University.
This article also appeared in the Sacramento Bee on September 2, 2010.