A New U.S. Administration: Another Chance for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

A New U.S. Administration: Another Chance for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

The election of Barack Obama has already sparked a lively debate over the scope, direction and timing of US efforts to encourage peace with security between Israel and its Arab neighbors. While written prior to the election, the recommendations in the following CMEP policy analysis newsletter remain on target.

The election of Barack Obama has already sparked a lively debate over the scope, direction and timing of US efforts to encourage peace with security between Israel and its Arab neighbors.   While written prior to the election, the recommendations in the following CMEP policy analysis newsletter remain on target.

During his campaign, Obama talked about the importance of moving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward early on in his Presidency.  Secretary of State Rice recently spoke of the urgency of getting a peace agreement “quickly”.  In the coming weeks and months, as the key people and policies of the Obama Administration take shape, we will work hard to urge that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be given priority attention.  We are gearing up now for new advocacy initiatives aimed at the incoming Administration and will continue to be the voice of U.S. churches on Capitol Hill encouraging strong US leadership to resolve this conflict.  The current breakdown in the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and the heightened closure of Gaza is a grim reminder of the need for U.S. diplomacy to help create a climate conducive to peacemaking.

For those of you who were not able to join the insightful and lively CMEP network conference call last Thursday, November 13th, with Steven Clemons of the New American Foundation, “What Will the Obama Presidency Mean for U.S. Policy Toward the Middle East? – A Washington Insider’s Perspective”, an online recording is available here.

Warren Clark
PS:  You may also read this issue of CMEP’s policy analysis newsletter online here or download the PDF Version

A  New U.S. Administration: Another Chance for Israeli-Palestinian Peace
December 2008                                
By Ambassador (ret.) Warren Clark, Executive Director

The pace of the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors has ebbed and flowed over the years, often in response to war, and is about to take another turn.  Now with negotiations having gone on for a year, a new U.S. administration on the horizon, a new Israeli government likely and prospects for Palestinian unity increasing, a more active peace process in 2009 is in the cards.

The 1973 war led to peace in 1979 between Israel and Egypt and later with Jordan.  The 1991 Gulf war and breakup of the Soviet Union led to the Madrid Conference and the Oslo Accords that resulted in PLO recognition of Israel and launched the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. 

The failure of the Oslo process, the poorly prepared Camp David summit in 2000, the second intifada, reoccupation, and the unresolved second war with Iraq have left U.S. leadership distracted and unwilling to exploit opportunities for effective peacemaking.  As the Middle East status quo is never static, years of US diplomatic neglect have left the political and physical landscape far worse off than before.

Talking About Jerusalem

Although Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have met routinely since the Annapolis conference last year, one reason why skepticism about the seriousness of the negotiations remained was because the subject of Jerusalem was officially off the table. Refusal by the important Shas political party to participate in a coalition government if the status of Jerusalem is being negotiated is one of the reasons Israel is now on course for new elections.  Thus, when President Bush was in Jerusalem last January he noted only that Jerusalem was a “tough” subject.

However, in mid-September just after his resignation as Prime Minister to head a caretaker government Ehud Olmert said, “we will withdraw from almost all the territories…including Jerusalem, with special solutions  that I can envision on the topic of the Temple Mount and the sacred and historical sites.”   Although lacking the force the statement would have had earlier when he was the fully empowered Prime Minister, it nevertheless puts the notion of a shared Jerusalem more fully out in the open. He added that any land retained by Israel east of the 1949-1967 borders would need to be exchanged one for one for land west of the border in Israel. 

Any agreement on Jerusalem will need to include a mutually acceptable solution on access to Holy places and the Old City, sacred to three faiths.  This is a most complex and delicate problem, but a Canadian-led team and others have been looking closely at possible solutions with attention to details on security, legal issues and governance not previously explored.  

In addition to political pronouncements and scholarly papers, the reality of daily life in  Jerusalem, a city that is very much divided between its Arab and Jewish communities, underscores the need for a negotiated solution that can allow it to heal.  As Olmert said, “Whoever wants to hold on to all of the city’s territory will have to bring 270,000 Arabs inside the fences of sovereign Israel.  It won’t work.”  Indeed, city life remains precarious.  The route of the separation barrier, house demolitions and residency restrictions are putting intense pressure on Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.  In a new and troubling development that reveals simmering tensions, Palestinian East Jerusalemites have carried out terrible attacks against Israelis.  Jewish violence against Palestinians is also on the rise as are new housing units in East Jerusalem, the latter perhaps a symptom of concern about the pace and scope of peace negotiations. 

Revisiting the Arab League Peace Proposal and 1967 Borders 

Two of the mistakes of the failed Camp David negotiations in 2000 was lack of attention to the significance of Jerusalem to the Arab and Muslim world and a failure to consult with important Arab states on the course of the peace process.  It is now understood that no agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is likely or could be durable unless it was widely supported by neighboring states and the Palestinian diaspora and includes East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.

Ehud Barak, head of the Labor Party, recently signaled his interest in regional peacemaking. In an October statement he said Israel should look again carefully at the Arab League peace proposal.  First presented in 2002, and repeated in 2007, the Arab League peace plan generated little resonance in Israel or the U.S.  The proposal is an offer of peace and normal relations between Israel and all Arab states, provided an agreement is reached with Palestinians based on the 1967 borders.

When it was first introduced in 2002, a horrific suicide bombing seized the headlines and drowned out the desire for peace.  Even in 2007 as the Annapolis process focused on regional outreach, it was mostly ignored.  However, it remains a ground-breaking proposal that provides an essential element for Israeli-Arab peacemaking and for Palestinian reconciliation.

Hamas and Gaza: Impossible to Ignore

Intra-Palestinian divisions and hostilities have been a major barrier to peacemaking.  Hamas has carried out suicide bombings, its charter calls for destruction of Israel and it is listed by the U.S. and others as a terrorist organization.  After its victory in January 2006 parliamentary elections promoted by the U.S., Hamas formed part of a coalition government of the Palestinian Authority (PA).  Refusing to deal with Hamas, the U.S. and EU suspended assistance to the PA.  American policy shifted back and forth from passive disapproval to active opposition.  Hamas’ influence increased in 2007 when it took over control of Gaza, expelling the main Palestinian party, Fatah.  This has left the Palestinians split into rivals, with Fatah as the authority in the West Bank but Hamas in charge of a besieged Gaza and each working to undercut the other’s authority.

Who then speaks for Palestinians?   Egypt and others have sought with some success to bring about a cease fire in Gaza between Hamas and Israel. Egypt is also working to promote reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.   Political reconciliation may be possible and necessary for any effective agreement on the final status issues but raises the question of whether or under what conditions Israel or the United States will be willing to deal with Palestinian representation that includes Hamas.  Israel has in fact found a way through intermediaries to deal with Hamas on concrete issues such as a cease fire in Gaza. While in any scenario, Mahmoud Abbas, as President of the PA, would remain chief negotiator for the Palestinian people, it would not seem possible to ignore Gaza and Hamas indefinitely in any serious peacemaking.   

Conflict Fatigue in a Changing Region

An intangible but palpable factor in the prospects for progress on peace is conflict fatigue.  Years of conflict and bloodshed have not resolved issues. There is a “hurting stalemate” that adversely affects both sides as time goes on.  Majorities of both Palestinians and Israelis continue to support a two-state solution, but with less and less confidence that it will actually happen.  There also are no longer strongly anti-Israel Arab leaders as there once was with Hussein in Iraq.  Shiite Iran and its vitriolic President Ahmadinejad is distrusted by most Sunni Arab states.  Twice Arab states collectively have offered peace.  The Iranian nuclear program remains a strategic “equation changing” threat to Israel, and poses a grave threat of proliferation.  However, an agreement between Israel and Palestinians would undermine motives for confrontation and would provide a basis for better regional relations.  Interest continues in both Israel and Syria in achieving a peace agreement.  This could end Syria’s diplomatic isolation and enhance Israel’s security by reducing Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon.    

Risk and Opportunity in 2009

Israeli governments seem unable or unwilling to control the ever expanding settlements, security arrangements and infrastructure in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that threaten creation of a viable Palestinian state.  We may soon be approaching
some unidentifiable but not distant point where  lack of forward motion toward an agreed peace will leave only the likelihood of unilateral measures imposed by Israel.  This would be an invitation to indefinite conflict.

The next President will face numerous and competing challenges and will quickly act to prioritize his foreign policy agenda, particularly in regard to the Middle East.  In both the Bush and Clinton Administration the big push for Israeli-Palestinian peace was largely left for the waning days of their Presidencies, but this pattern cannot again be repeated.  It is now clear that a further delay of peace is detrimental to Israel’s long term-security, Palestinian aspirations for statehood and U.S. interests.  The Annapolis process, stalled as it is, offers a groundwork for continued engagement if the next President is ready to give Israeli-Palestinian peace the urgent and immediate attention it deserves.

Memo to the Next President

•    First, after bi-partisan consultations, there should be a Presidential speech soon after the inauguration, spelling out the clear objective of an agreement on all final status issues, benchmarks for progress, and a clear timeframe for agreement and implementation.

•    There is considerable public skepticism about the seriousness and feasibility of efforts to resolve this conflict.  Congressional consultations and broad agreement on proposals that are considered reasonable and fair by all parties will be essential.  The new Administration must have a strategy in place to ensure that Congress does not negatively interfere in peacemaking.

•    Both Palestinians and Israelis should be invited for consultations at an early date after the speech.  Consultations with Arab states, allies, and multilateral groups – whether it be the “Quartet” or some new formulation – also will be need to promote the widest possible buy-in to the process and to the objectives of agreement on final status issues;

•    The U.S. President should not become too directly involved in negotiations on a day-to-day basis.  To do so as happened in the past can devalue the power of the President as a “closer.”  Rather the President should appoint a trusted envoy in whom he is known to have full confidence and, importantly, give that person full access and public support.      

•    The U.S. will need to do its own homework and develop its own proposals and contingency plans.  U.S. negotiators in the past have been criticized for playing Israel’s advocate rather than mediator.  Given the great asymmetry of political, economic and military power between Israel and the Palestinians, independent advice by the U.S. will be needed to help the two parties reach agreement. 

•    The U.S. should work with international partners to put implementation and accountability mechanisms in place.  Monitoring progress, assessing implementation of promised actions, and, when needed, serious prodding of the parties must be a vital component to a peace process.

•    There needs to be a rainbow visible at the end of the road. Statements will need to emphasize the rewards that success will bring, rewards so attractive as to make the pains of adjustment bearable for both parties.  The clear upsides include broad international recognition, legitimacy, security, dignity for both people in their own states, compensation, and concrete benefits of regional trade and investment.  A “cold” peace may not be durable. It must be a peace in which all unambiguously benefit.  As in the past, lots and lots of money from various sources will be needed to grease the wheels of compromise.  It will be difficult.  It may even be improbable.  But with strong U.S. leadership and skillful diplomacy, it is not impossible.

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Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a Washington-based program of the Alliance of Baptists, American Friends Service Committee, Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Armenian Orthodox Church, Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men’s Institutes, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Church of the Brethren, Church World Service, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Franciscan Friars OFM (English Speaking Conference, JPIC Council), Friends Committee on National Legislation, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Maryknoll Missioners, Mennonite Central Committee, Moravian Church in America, National Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church (GBCS & GBGM).

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