Nov 3rd 2010

“Change we can believe in”

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

With the peace process at a standstill, President Obama must shake up the current efforts, and his Mideast peace team, in order to get the Israelis and Palestinians back on track toward a peaceful resolution of their conflict. The Obama White House has invested an enormous amount of political capital to advance Middle East peace since taking office, yet has little to show for it. Even so, the United States cannot abandon its efforts and leave Israel and the Palestinians to their own devices. It is therefore time to recognize that the current U.S. strategy is not working-significant changes are needed if there is to maintain any hope for reaching a breakthrough in the coming year.

The new strategy must begin with President Obama's visit to Israel after the midterm election. Rightly or wrongly, Obama's decision not to visit Israel following his June 2009 Cairo speech and other trips to region was interpreted as a slight to Israel. This month, the President will make his third official overseas visit as President to four Asian countries, including a Muslim majority country, Indonesia, once again skipping Israel and sending the message to the Israeli public that he is uninterested in engaging the Israelis directly. Because of President Obama's long overdue visit to Israel, the Israeli public is becoming increasingly more skeptical of the President and his administration. Although the majority of Israelis support a two-state solution, the public remains passive and acutely cynical with regard to the current peace efforts. This relatively silent majority will only become aroused in support of the peace process if they understand what is at stake, and why it is in Israel and the United States' best interest to achieve peace now. The Israeli public needs to hear it directly from the President of the United States. President Obama must connect with ordinary Israelis and forcefully deliver the message that while America's commitment to Israel's national security is unequivocal and unconditional, only sustainable peace offers Israel ultimate security. A personal appearance by President Obama before the Israeli Parliament would have a decisive impact on Israel's public opinion and on his own personal standing and credibility in the Israelis' eyes. The President needs to explain that America and Israel are in this together, and that the U.S. will stand with Israel shoulder-to-shoulder and at all times to confront any potential threat from any direction. What the President needs is a game changer, and only when the Israeli public subscribes to the peace process with confidence and a belief that peace can be achieved with security, will they raise their voice in support of peace "now."

During Netanyahu's visit to the U.S. in July he said to President Obama in the Oval Office: "You know, I've been coming here a lot, it's about time you and the First Lady come to Israel, sir." "I'm ready," was Obama's response. "We look forward to it. Thank you." Whether or not Netanyahu wishes for the President to visit Israel at this juncture, President Obama has been invited. He should, as soon as possible, announce his readiness to visit Israel because there may not be a better time to do so if he wants to seriously impact the peace process.

For President Obama to execute a new strategy, he requires a new team. Special Envoy George Mitchell is overrated as a skilled negotiator, and although he has a clear understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he has failed to advance more compelling scenarios that deal with the psychological and emotional perspectives of the conflicting parties-the settlement debacle offers a case in point. In an effort to deflect criticism of the failing peace efforts, Mitchell has noted on several occasions that in his experience in Northern Ireland, he had "700 days of failure, and only one day of success." He will soon reach that 700-day mark, and there is still no sign of progress on the horizon. Meanwhile, although Dennis Ross has reportedly been playing a more assertive role in the White House's peace efforts, he is an old hat, and does not have the trust of the Palestinians. Ross has little to show for his years of intimate involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The recent offer by the United States to provide security guarantees for a 60-day extension of Israel's settlement moratorium exemplifies how the President's Mideast team has failed. The United States' commitment to Israel's security should not be a bargaining chip to advance the negotiation process. Even though Netanyahu is reportedly still entertaining the offer, to make such an offer touches on the most sensitive issue for Israelis and suggests that Israel's security is negotiable or could be enhanced by additional security guarantees from the U.S. and military hardware. This is exactly the wrong message to send to the Israelis, and it is high time to get the message right that Israel's national security will never become a part of the negotiating mix.

Both Mitchell and Ross should resign and be replaced by an envoy that will stay in the region and work daily with both sides so that he/she cannot be ignored. One of the keys to recently retired Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton's success as the United States Security Coordinator charged with training the Palestinian security services in the West Bank was that he lived in the region and spent each day earning the trust of Israelis and Palestinians on the ground. This same principle should now apply to an envoy tasked with advancing peace talks. What is needed is someone who is trusted by both sides, knows the issues intimately, enjoys a solid mandate and provides a blunt no-nonsense approach to moving the talks ahead.

With a new team in place, the Obama administration must not allow Israeli settlements to remain the foremost obstacle impeding progress. The White House made the mistake of making a settlement freeze a precondition for negotiations without taking into consideration that Netanyahu might reject such a freeze, and without a 'Plan B' in the event that he would do so. The Palestinians latched onto the position of the United States and now the process-yet again-is stuck over the issue. To move forward, the U.S. must change the dynamics completely by persuading the Palestinians to let go of the issue of the freeze for now, in order to focus on something larger and more important to the Palestinians-a border agreement. Netanyahu continues to say he would be willing to discuss all issues with the goal of reaching a two state solution. The Palestinians, with the support of the United States and the Arab League in particular, should take him up on the offer. In doing so, the issue of borders should be the new launching point, with a goal to resolve the issue within 6 months. In addition, any incremental agreement is reached; including borders, the United States should institute new rules of engagement: any agreements that are established in the negotiations should be deposited with the United States. Too much time has been wasted determining the point of departure for the negotiations. The United States' depositing agreements would ensure that should talks breakdown, future negotiations could start where this effort left off.

The United States' stakes in the Middle East are extremely high, and Washington cannot play a meaningful leadership role and lose what is left of its credibility in the region without some kind of solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. For this reason, should nothing move forward, the U.S. must prepare a peace plan of its own. Although the Netanyahu government is on record opposing any plan imposed from the outside-including one from the United States-by indicating that the US is preparing to go that route should it become necessary, will send a clear message about the seriousness and the urgency the US attaches to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, the knowledge that such a plan is in the making will put the Netanyahu government on notice that it must sooner than later change course. That said, in preparing the plan, the Obama administration needs also to communicate to the Israelis that although an Israeli-Palestinian peace serves America's strategic interest in the region, any peace plan will be consistent with Israel's legitimate security concerns and requirements. The contours of an agreement are already largely known. Any plan would naturally take into consideration the numerous negotiation efforts of the past, and include areas of general agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Without negotiations toward a two-state solution, the Palestinians are already exploring the possibility of gaining international recognition for the unilateral declaration of a state along the 1967 borders through various international forums, including the United Nations Security Council. As stated by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's recent comments, "one cannot rule out in principle the Security Council option." Based on current international sentiments, the Palestinians are likely to gain broad support for such a move in the United Nations General Assembly. Even though a Resolution in the UNGA in favor of creating a Palestinian state is not binding, it would have a tremendous psychological effect and may well pave the way to a similar resolution in the UNSC. Should the peace process continue to dissolve and this U.N. campaign materialize, the United States will be forced into a no-win situation-if the Obama administration were to veto such a resolution in the Security Council, it would enrage the Arab world; if it were to pass it, it would infuriate Israel. The U.S. also cannot abstain and absolve itself from influence over the peace process. Moreover, the United States voted in favor of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1850 in December 2008, which called for a two-state solution and support for the "Palestinian institution-building program in preparation for statehood which is being feverishly implemented in the West Bank on the basis of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Fayyad's plans." Can the U.S. go against statehood now? To avoid such a scenario, the U.S. needs to get negotiations back on track-and soon.

Skeptics may argue that the Mitchell team needs more time, that a U.S. plan-even as a last resort-will undoubtedly fall flat, or that the U.S. should give up and stop its efforts altogether, particularly if the President emerges from the midterm elections in a significantly weaker political position which is more than likely. But the Obama administration cannot give up under any circumstances. America's strategic interests throughout the Middle East are incalculable, its credibility across the globe-and especially in the Arab and Muslim world and in Israel-is now at stake. A new strategy, a new message and a new team are sorely needed. President Obama must create a new dynamic moving forward that will demonstrate the kind of leadership and resolve that is necessary to end this festering malaise.

President Obama was elected with a promise to deliver "change we can believe in." His election raised expectations-perhaps too high-both in the United States and in the Middle East. Thus far he has achieved very little. However, he still has an opportunity to be a transformative leader who can deliver peace and security in the Middle East. To do so he must now deliver on his promise of change.

Next: Who might be the best Presidential Envoy to the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations?

*A similar version of this article was published by The Jerusalem Post on October 29th, and can be accessed at http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Features/Article.aspx?id=193070

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