The Prospect for a Breakthrough

by Alon Ben-Meir Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
Web: www.alonben-meir.com
25.09.2009

Although the Obama administration's efforts to resume the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have not, as yet, produced tangible results, the prospect for a breakthrough in negotiations may be closer today than it has been in many years. Notwithstanding the inherent skepticism about the prospect of real progress, the conversion of certain regional and international developments have altered the political dynamic and created a new set of opportunities for a negotiated settlement. The Obama administration stands a greater chance for success than any of its predecessors, as long as it remains consistent and unwavering while keeping the end-game in sight. There are six factors that have made this historical moment ripe for significant progress, if not actually achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

There is no doubt that the early push for the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations by the Obama administration has created a sense of urgency that the time has come to put an end to this debilitating conflict. President Obama's early involvement signals that the United States views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a wider context, and sees that its continuation reverberates and impacts other regional conflicts, as well as prevents many Arab and Islamic states who wish to normalize relations with Israel from doing so. Moreover, the United States is aware of its central role in facilitating peace, and Obama's insistence on a renewal of negotiations illustrates that he understands that the intractability of the conflict and the innate skepticism of all the players involved requires time to build confidence between the conflicting parties.

Where previous administrations spoke about the requirements for peace, the Obama administration is taking action to insist on some of these requirements-asking the Israelis to declare a moratorium on the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the Arab states to open a trade section in Israel and allow Israel to fly planes over Arab territory are two cases in point. Early engagement offers a clear indication that the Obama administration's heavy investment of political capital will not allow the United States to cut and run. Obama has made clear his intentions of seeing negotiations through at the tri-lateral meeting he hosted this week between Netanyahu, Abbas and himself. All sides must now be prepared for the long haul while the United States is ready to provide them with the political cover they need to make the required concessions.

The second significant factor that came on the heel of the administration's early involvement is the present general lull in violence. For obvious reasons, nothing disrupts the peace process more than acts of violence, which shatter any desire by either party to cooperate politically. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has recognized that progress can be made only under the condition of a tangible calm, and the genuine efforts of the PA Security Forces to prevent any wanton acts of violence against Israelis has persuaded Israel to begin to ease the brunt of the occupation on Palestinian civilians. Scores of road blocks have been removed by the IDF, and economic development has been on the rise throughout the West Bank. To this regard, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's unveiling of his government program to build the apparatus of a Palestinian state within two years is an admirable, bold and welcome initiative. Fayyad and the PA's commitment to build a future based on equality and restoration of self-dignity in a non-violent atmosphere changes in a fundamental way the mindset of nearly every individual in this conflict. The forward of the plan by Salam Fayyad states specifically that:

Palestine will be a peace-loving state that rejects violence, commits to co-existence with its neighbors, and builds bridges of cooperation with the international community. It will be a symbol of peace, tolerance and prosperity in this troubled area of the world. By embodying all of these values, Palestine will be a source of pride to all of its citizens, and an anchor of stability in this region.

Israel in particular should embrace this initiative as it would strengthen the efforts of Palestinian moderates, cementing this lull in violence and setting in motion a peaceful negotiating process.

This development has not been lost on Hamas. The clear evidence of economic growth and prosperity in the West Bank has created a stark contrast to the situation in Gaza, which illustrates to all parties involved in the conflict that moderation leads to results. Although Hamas' adherence to the ceasefire may in fact be tactical, its actions are still motivated by the organization's desire to change the dynamic of its relations with Israel-especially after the Israeli incursion into Gaza in December 2008 and Hamas' subsequent terrible political and military losses. Moreover, as Hamas seems to be losing popular support compared to the Palestinian Authority, its leaders are eager to show some progress on the political front. To that end, Hamas has been working through Egyptian mediators to negotiate a prisoner exchange with Israel and an agreement to ease the border crossings into Gaza to allow for goods to pass through. Most importantly, on more than one occasion Hamas' leaders have said that they can see themselves accepting a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, which signals that they have been taking to heart the changing Arab political wind toward Israel.

This development is better understood when examined against the third important development in the current political climate, which is the evolving nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fatigue that seems to have engulfed all sides. That is, it is entirely possible that the Israelis and Palestinians have reached a mutually disadvantageous stalemate, where they have both realized that the continuation of violence diminishes, rather than enhances, their bargaining posture. This is not to suggest that Israel and the Palestinians are ready to settle their differences and sign a peace treaty today. It only suggests that both sides seem to have concluded, without publically admitting, that regardless of how much longer this conflict persists, neither side can improve appreciably their position enough to warrant further hostilities and suffering. This can be seen in the recent International Peace Institute poll which showed that nearly two-thirds of Palestinians now support a two-state solution and the steps it would involve to see it come to fruition. The two-state solution is not one of many possibilities, but the only outcome of any negotiated settlement. Surely, the hard bargaining will continue throughout the negotiation process, and only a naïve will predict that peace is just around the corner. But given other regional developments, the resumption of large scale violence akin to the second Intifadah seems increasingly more remote, as the political climate is shifting more toward reconciliation and the benefits derived from moderation.

The fourth element contrasts the view that the rise of a right-of-center government in Israel is a detriment to peace, when in reality no lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace can be forged without the full support of the center and right-of-center parties. The current Israeli coalition government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu with Labor's leader Ehud Barak as Defense Minister, is in a strong position to conduct the initial hard bargaining necessary to move negotiations forward, while still meeting some of Israel's core requirements. Although this government may not be in a position to make significant concessions such as those on East Jerusalem and still remain in power, Netanyahu may end up forming a unity government with the centrist Kadima party, and will thereby encompass the Left, Center, and Right, representing the majority of the Israeli public opinion. Historically, major concessions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were made by Prime Ministers of the Likud party; Begin withdrew from the Sinai as a part of a peace agreement with Egypt in 1979, Netanyahu pulled out from Hebron under the Wye River agreement in 1998, and Sharon evacuated Gaza in 2005.

Moreover, the Israeli public is ready for peace with security, and the Israelis are fully aware that there is a demographic time bomb in the making. Israel must choose between a democratic state with a sustainable Jewish majority, which necessitates giving up most of the West Bank, or risk losing the Jewish majority in Israel, in which case Israel will be thrust into two untenable situations-either accept the one-state solution, which if democratically elected, would be governed by a Palestinian majority, or disfranchise the Palestinians to stay in power, which would inevitably lead to catastrophic consequences. Natanyahu will not miss an opportunity to sign a peace treaty that meets Israel's principle requirements: a sustainable Jewish majority, territorial integrity and national security-none of which negate the establishment of a Palestinian state living in peace side-by-side with Israel.

The growing receptivity of the Arab Initiative in Israel and by the Obama administration presents the fifth critical element in the evolution of the peace process. The Arab Initiative provides a comprehensive formula for an Arab-Israeli peace and the means to unravel the political conundrum between Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel. The Arab Initiative was adopted first in Beirut, Lebanon in March of 2002, and reintroduced in March of 2007 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Initiative establishes the following principles: 1) Full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967, 2) Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, 3) The acceptance and the establishment of a Sovereign Independent Palestinian State on the Palestinian territories occupied since the 4th of June 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital, 4) The Arab-Israeli conflict ended, a peace agreement with Israel, and security for all the states of the region and finally, 5) The establishment of normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace. The conditions are now ready for all parties involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to endorse this historical Initiative, which will facilitate an end to the conflict that still meets the fundamental requirements of the stakeholders involved.

The sixth and final factor that may accelerate the peace process and bring Israel and the Arab states closer to a settlement is the Iranian nuclear program, which threatens both Israel and the Arab states. Although the Arab states-with the exception of Egypt-have thus far refused to cooperate with Israel publicly, and have sought first to extract some concessions from Israel on the Palestinian front, there is no doubt that these countries count on Israel to obstruct Iran's regional ambitions. There is certainly no love lost between Shiite Iran and the majority Sunni Arab states, and when viewed with this incentive, Israeli-Arab cooperation is bound to grow. Motivated by self-interest and national security concerns, the Arab states will become increasingly more accommodating to Israel, as the Egyptian government and some of the smaller Gulf States have already amply demonstrated. Iran, which has effectively undermined the peace process in the past, may now inadvertently aid the process by virtue of its regional ambitions and pursuit of nuclear weapons.

To capitalize on this new environment, the Obama administration must first and foremost stay on course and remain unwavering in its effort to resume the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. President Obama's successful efforts to arrange a trilateral meeting between Netanyahu, Abbas and himself on the sideline of the UN General Assembly is a positive move-regardless of how little it might have achieved in the short term. The President made his determination clear when he stated, "It is past time to stop talking about starting negotiations, and time to move forward."

To further facilitate the progress of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations the Obama administration must allay Israeli concerns over Iran's nuclear weapons program. To that end, there must be a complete understanding between Israel and the US about the course of action needed to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions, as well as a close collaboration between the two countries on matters of intelligence. Moreover, President Obama must assure the Israelis that his call for a nuclear-free Middle East will not bring Israel's nuclear program into question-especially as the P5+1 countries (US, Russia, China, UK and France + Germany) enter into negotiation with Iran on October 1st. Doing so would allow Iran to tie the development of its nuclear program to the existence of an Israeli program, and would cause serious rifts between the US and Israel.

In addition, the Obama team must now capitalize on the existing calm in the West Bank and along the Gaza borders, and work with the Egyptians to secure the release of the Israeli soldier Shalit in a package prisoner exchange. Such an agreement would dramatically reduce the tension between Hamas and Israel, and would also pave the way for opening the border crossing with Israel and allow much needed goods to enter Gaza. In the same vein, with continued American prompting and support, Israel and the Palestinian Authority must continue their security and economic cooperation in the West Bank, which will deepen their vested interest in the evolving mutually gainful relationship.

Although the Netanyahu government has not yet formally endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative, the United States and the EU should first officially endorse it and make every effort to persuade Israel to do likewise. There is nothing in the Arab Peace Initiative that negates Israel's ultimate objective of establishing peace and normal relations with all of its neighbors. That being said, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the leading Arab states who wish Israel to accept the Initiative must now use all the leverage they have to persuade Hamas to adopt it as well. The Initiative offers Hamas a way to achieve land and peace for the Palestinians without having to concede directly to Israel, as signing on to the Arab Initiative would be seen as joining the collective will of the Arab states. By accepting the Initiative, Hamas will fall in line with the other 19 Arab states that are willing to recognize Israel only upon reaching an agreement based on the provisions of the Arab Peace Initiative.

Finally, there is a need to create an economic incentive for the Israelis and Palestinians to come together and cooperate on such contentious final status issues as the Palestinian Right of Return. It is necessary for all countries who endorse peace in the Middle East-including the US, Russia, China, Japan, EU and wealthy Arab states-to prove their commitment to a peaceful solution through a financial commitment of fifteen to twenty billion dollars for the resettlement and rehabilitation of the Palestinian refugees. This not only implies that a solution to the Palestinian refugee question will be reached through negotiation, but more importantly, it redirects the various parties' focus away from fighting over the political issue, and toward how to appropriately spend the money toward a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. This also assures Israel that the international community, along with some of the Arab states, is committed to a solution to the refugee problem that precludes the Right of Return to Israel proper without saying so publicly. Such a pool of funds should be placed under the umbrella of the IMF, the World Bank or the UN. President Obama can play an important role in seeing this through, but the U.S. cannot be seen as the only power endorsing this campaign.

Skeptics and pessimists will view the current geopolitical climate in the Middle East as nothing more than a mirage, and will conclude that President Obama's efforts to push for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are futile. Yet it is not a question of the level of optimism needed to create peace, rather a question of whether the Obama administration can afford to not to act and thus squander a historic opportunity for a breakthrough-however remote that possibility might be. President Obama has demonstrated leadership and courage, the two qualities surely needed to push the process forward. Now he has to demonstrate that he possess the iron will necessary to stay the course and translate this positive political climate into a major transformation in the conflict. As Obama himself stated to Netanyahu and Abbas, "So my message to these two is clear. Despite all the obstacles, all the history, all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward."

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