Feb 1st 2013

Earning The Nobel Peace Prize

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

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama early on in his first term was largely based on the premise that he would pursue peace and end existing violent conflicts to make the world a better and safer place for all people. The President’s efforts to end the war in Iraq and wind down the war in Afghanistan are admirable, regardless of what may befall these countries in years to come. The President, however, fell short in his effort during his first term to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which remains extraordinarily pivotal to regional stability. The raging conflicts throughout the Middle East —the horrific civil war in Syria, the unending violence in Iraq, the instability in Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Libya, and the simmering conflict with Iran— may appear to have little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet they are interconnected and will affect one another. A resolution to this decades-long explosive conflict will have an immediate and direct impact on the stability of the entire region and singularly earnPresident Obama the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded.

With the confirmation of John Kerry as Secretary of State, the Obama administration must develop a comprehensive strategy geared toward stabilizing the region and remain engaged to preserve its sphere of influence and ensure continuing stability while maintaining its strategic interests. There is not a single Arab country that does not seek American support to end the civil war in Syria and to protect its own turf; there will be no solution to Iran’s nuclear weapons program without direct American involvement and no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without direct and active American engagement. President Obama may well be reluctant, especially following the two bruising wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to involve America in other conflicts which may require direct or indirect military intervention. The US, however, will have little choice but to project its multi-faceted powers -economic, political and military- to influence, if not shape, the outcome of these conflicts before they explode in America’s face and spin the entire region out of control.

A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stands out as the singular most troubling conflict because the Palestinian problem continues to feed into the Arab frenzy, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring. Although the Israelis and Palestinians are not slugging each other day in and day out, that does not suggest that the relative quiet can last as the conflict continues to simmer beneath the surface. Given the regional turbulence and the continuing debilitating status of the Palestinians, I strongly believe that unless the US initiates a new peace offensive, it will only be a matter of time until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict explodes with more far-reaching regional repercussions than can be envisioned. In Prague, on his first European visit in April 2009, President Obama emphatically stated, “When we fail to pursue peace, then it stays forever beyond our grasp.” No individual, let alone the President, can ignore a conflict that has spanned over three generations in such a pivotal region when the stakes are so high for the United States and its allies.

It is interesting to note that throughout the Israeli election campaign, all political parties from the extreme left to the far right focused primarily on domestic socio-economic issues, while the conflict with the Palestinians received scant attention. In his confirmation hearing, John Kerry stated “There were elections yesterday [in Israel] and we still don’t know which government it’s going to be…I pray that maybe this will be a moment that will allow us to renew the effort to the one they were on in the last few years. I would like to try and do that.” Mr. Kerry’s efforts to “bring the parties to the negotiating table and go down a different path” should not be mere wishful thinking. The US must realistically assess where Netanyahu, who will most likely form the next Israeli coalition government, really stands on the prospect of the two-state solution and what kind of measures the US is prepared to take if it wishes to lead Israel and the Palestinians toward a peace settlement. The result of the Israeli elections will more than likely force Netanyahu to invite Yair Lapid, the leader of left-of-center party Yesh Atid (who made bread-and-butter issues and social justice his central political themes), to join his government. This should not mislead anyone to think, however, that Netanyahu will automatically moderate his views about the Palestinians and actually act to advance the two-state solution as the only practical option to end the conflict. He will publically support such a solution to pacify the US, but will certainly be guided by his conviction and play for time, as he does not believe that Israel is an occupying power and that the West Bank is an integral part of the Jewish people’s ancestral land.

The Palestinian victory in becoming a non-member observer state at the UNGA has yet to yield any improvements in their condition on the ground; on the contrary, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is now facing dire financial problems. The Obama administration’s opposition to the Palestinian bid for UNGA membership has in fact encouraged Netanyahu to accelerate the expansion of settlements while withholding tax revenue from the Palestinians, making their acute financial crisis even worse, albeit he recently transferred 100 million dollars to the PA. Adding to their financial difficulties, Palestinian factionalism and infighting (the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas) further complicates the prospect of genuine peace negotiations, especially since Hamas continues to openly seek Israel’s destruction. Here, the Obama administration must rethink its position in relation to the Palestinians and how it must treat Hamas, which ultimately cannot be excluded from the peace process if the US wishes to pursue sustainable peace.

While it seems logical that the Israelis and the Palestinians should sort out their own problems, history has shown that they have simply been unwilling or unable to do just that. Indeed, the conflict transcends territory, security, refugees, settlements or the future of Jerusalem; it is highly emotional and shrouded with intense hatred and distrust, further hampered by psychological hang-ups emanating from deep historical experiences and religious beliefs.

In his speech at the United Nations in September 2011, President Obama said: “Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians—not us—who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem.” If the President feels today the way he felt then, he should not expect a breakthrough in the peace process any time soon. The United States’ rolehas been and remains indispensable, as was reflected in John Kerry’s speech in March 2009 at the Brookings Institution when he said: “While I believe there must be an enhanced role for the regional players, nothing can substitute for our [the United States’] crucial role as an active and creative agent for peace [emphasis added].”

Given the current regional upheavals and the Iranian threat of regional ambition, if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved over the next couple of years it could ignite a massive violent conflagration that will undermine the prospect of achieving a settlement and severely damage the U.S.’ strategic interests and credibility in the region. Notwithstanding Obama’s failure to achieve a breakthrough in the peace process during his first term, he now has one last chance to push for an agreement. John Kerry, who is only too familiar with the travails of the conflict, may succeed with the full support of the President where others have failed.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, however, as Palestinians watch young men and women in several Arab states fighting and dying for their freedoms, their own relative passivity will not last forever. In his speech after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in December 2009 the President said: “For peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.” The President must now live up to that premise. He cannot kick the ball down the field and leave the region to the whims of other powers–Russia and Iran–that will go to any length to undermine American interests while tearing the Israelis and Palestinians further apart without any prospect of reconciliation.

For these reasons, what President Obama and his Secretary of State do within the next few months will have a clear and immediate effect on how the Israelis and Palestinians conduct themselves in anticipation of a new American initiative to resolve the conflict. The notion that the U.S. should not have a greater desire for peace than the parties to the conflict is flawed. The lack of peace will continue to erode the U.S.’ interest and influence and undermine its role in shaping the outcome of the multiple upheavals sweeping the region in the wake of the Arab Spring. The United States may well have to save the Israelis and the Palestinians from themselves and use both inducement and coercive measures if necessary to that end.

To advance the real prospect for peace between Israel and Palestine, President Obama must take a number of critical steps:

First, within the next few months, the President should visit the region and directly address the Israeli as well as the Palestinian people. For most Israelis, Obama’s failure to visit their country when he traveled three times to the region during his first term (visiting four Muslim states) was nothing short of a slap in the face. Skipping Israel and the Palestinians seemed odd, especially in light of the fact that President Obama made a solution to the conflict a top priority in his first term by appointing former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as a Special Envoy to the region only a few days after his first inauguration. A visit to Israel in particular could be a game changer, where the President can explain why only peace will ultimately ensure Israel’s national security, democracy and the Jewish national identity of the state. The President should reiterate his commitment to a two-state solution and emphasize that the U.S. will use all means available at its disposal to advance the peace process while maintaining an unshakable commitment to Israel’s national security. President Obama’s visit to Israel will further reinforce the belief that nearly all Israelis share—that the United States is the only ally they can trust without any reservation. The President may also expand the existing strategic agreement with Israel by offering to enter into a mutual defense treaty with Israel once a peace agreement with the Palestinians is achieved. Such a bilateral defense treaty could then develop and become a part of a regional securityumbrella between Israel and every Arab state that is at peace with Israel.

Second, the President must carry with him a general framework for peace based on a prior understanding negotiated between the two sides, especially those achieved in 2000 (at Camp David between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak) and 2007-2008 (between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas). In both sets of comprehensive negotiations, the two sides had been able to resolve the vast majority of the conflicting issues; in the latter, then-Israeli Prime Minister Olmertstated both sides had come “very close, more than ever in the past, to complete a principle agreement that would have led to the end of the conflict.” These prior agreements should be placed on the table anew and modified to factor in the changing conditions on the ground, creating a clear basis for negotiating a comprehensive agreement with the U.S.’ direct and active participation. The US must use all means available at its disposal, including political, economic, and coercive measures to exact the necessary concessions from both sides to reach an agreement.

Third, to increase the framework’s effectiveness, a new independent envoy should be appointed with a clear presidential mandate to work relentlessly to advance the negotiation process while maintaining a top-level American official in the region to keep up the momentum and the pressure in case of the occasional absence of the envoy. By way of example, former President Clinton would be a remarkable choice, or for that matter former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or someone in their caliber; namely, a widely respected figure who would be welcomed by both sides. The envoy should be present in every single session to find out how sincere the Israelis and the Palestinians are in the search for peace and to what extent they are prepared to make the painful concessions needed to reach an agreement. The Israeli and Palestinian contention that there is no partner with whom to negotiate or that the other cannot be trusted to negotiate in good faith would be dispelled or confirmed in these face-to-face negotiations (only, however, with an American presence).

Fourth, it is imperative that the US reaches out to leading Arab and Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others that can exert pressure on the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to make necessary concessions. Similarly, Egypt and Turkey, who both enjoy great leverage on Hamas, should persuade its leadership to change its acrimonious public pronouncements against Israel, as well as its antagonism and hard-line policy against Israel. In particular, Hamas must renounce violence as a tool by which to reach its political objective of establishing an independent Palestinian state and remove from its charter the clause that calls for Israel’s destruction, in return for the promise of American recognition. Hamas must be treated as a political party who does not need to recognize Israel or accept prior agreements (the principles stipulated by the Quartet), but would be required to do so as a precondition to being a legitimate partner in the negotiations once they become the governing authority of all Palestinians. The Arab states, especially Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood or any other regime, will always have serious stakes in finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and could play a leading role in persuading Hamas to change course. Indeed, the government of Egypt has mediated several times between Hamas and Israel in the past under the Mubarak regime. More recently the Egyptian government arranged for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas with American involvement. In fact, Israeli officials had direct contact with Hamas in Cairo in order to negotiate the terms of the latest ceasefire, following the violent flareup between the two sides in mid-November 2012.

Fifth, in reaching out to the Arab and Muslim world, the President should help reignite the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which still represents the most comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The revival of the API remains critically important, as even top Israeli officials includingPresident Shimon Peres and former head of the Mossad Meir Dagan have strongly endorsed the API as central to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the wake of the Arab Spring, restarting the API will have special thrust; as the whole region undergoes revolutionary change, the API represents a key factor in maintaining and enhancing the momentum toward positive and constructive regional change. In his Brookings speech, Mr. Kerry rightly invoked the Arab Peace Initiative when he said: “This bold step never received the focus it deserved when Saudi King Abdullah proposed it in 2002. We cannot underestimate the importance that, through this initiative, every Arab country (including all Muslim states) has now agreed to the basic formulation of land for peace, recognition of the state of Israel, and normalization of relations.” The creation of a “sovereign independent Palestinian state,” which the API calls for, will greatly contribute to stabilizing the region. Indeed, most if not all Arab and Muslim countries will begin normalizing relations with Israel and foster a lasting peace that will ultimately improve the lives of millions of ordinary citizens throughout the region.

Sixth, the perception that Congress is more supportive of Israel than the President must be dispelled, and no one can do that better than the President himself. During his first term, President Obama provided Israel with greater political, economic and military support than any of his predecessors. Before he embarks on a new peace initiative, the President should use the opportunity of his upcoming State of the Union Address, or seize any other opportunity to articulate to the American people and to Congress how critical it is for Israel to forge peace and why it is in the best interests of the United States to take the lead, however uncertain the prospect may be, to help Israel reach peace with security. The President needs to explain that by not taking action now, Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state could be jeopardized. Being a trusted friend of Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry can further articulate and emphasize to Congressional leaders the need to act soon, because Israel’s peace with the Palestinians is an integral part of the US’ commitment to Israel’s national security and key to regional stability.

Seventh, one of the most difficult impediments between the Israelis and Palestinians is mutual distrust and the psychological underpinning of the conflict. It is critical for the US to exert every conceivable pressure on both the Israelis and Palestinians to begin changing their public narratives about each other, ending mutually acrimonious statements, expressions of hatred, and distrust. In addition, the US should insist that both governments encourage universities, nonpartisan think-tanks, and media to begin a process of changing mindsets about some of the inevitabilities which will be required to reach an agreement.

Even if Israeli and Palestinian leaders reach an agreement behind closed doors, they cannot simply come out with pronouncements of concessions that were made without first preparing the public. For example, an agreement on Palestinian refugees might entail the return of only a small fraction of refugees to Israel proper, so as to preserve the Jewish identity of the state, but the vast majority of Palestinians still believe in the right of return. In addition, there can be no two-state solution without East Jerusalem becoming the capital of Israel and Palestine, and though the city will remain united, this will be difficult for the Israeli public to accept. For this reason, the groundwork must be laid concurrently with the resumption of the negotiations, if not before, in order to shift the public narrative and psychologically prepare the populations on both sides to accept the necessary concessions. The willingness to encourage public discourse on these sensitive issues and others will further indicate the extent to which either or both sides are committed to reach a mutually gainful agreement. In addition, to avoid deadlocks, the agreement should be implemented in a number of phases, making sure that any concession made by one side is reciprocated by the other based on prior agreements to gradually engender trust.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has been overshadowed in recent months due to international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, the bloody civil war which continues to rage in Syria, and the unending insurgency and terrorism that continue to plague many nations in the region. Meanwhile, the conflict is quietly simmering underneath the surface and is becoming worse as Israel continues to establish new and expand existing settlements while the Palestinians remain hopelessly factionalized, unable to present a unified front and demonstrate the keenness necessary to make peace to be taken seriously.

Finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has gone on for more than sixty years, should now be a top priority for President Obama as it is central to Arab-Israeli peace and will dramatically enhance regional stability. The status quo is not sustainable, and it can only lead to a new violent and perilous conflagration that will leave no victors—only horrifying destruction, irreparably deepening the already existing gulf between the two sides. The United States has both the interest and the responsibility to put an end to a self-consuming conflict in a region where the stakes for all concerned cannot be overestimated.

President Obama may well deserve the Nobel Peace Prize, but by successfully forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians he will have earned it, and that will be his greatest legacy.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jan 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Thanks to cutting-edge digital technology, cars are increasingly like “smartphones on wheels”, so manufacturers need to have access to the latest patented 4G and 5G technologies essential to navigation and communications. But often the companies that hold the patents are reluctant to license them because manufacturers will not accept the high fees involved, which leads to patent disputes and licensing rows."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favorable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "In the absence of a declaration of war against Iran, the killing of a foreign official – by a drone strike on Iraqi territory – was possibly illegal. But such niceties do not perturb Trump. The evidence is that Trump’s decision was taken without consideration of the possible consequences. The national security system established under Dwight D. Eisenhower, designed to prevent such reckless measures, is broken to non-existent, with ever-greater power placed in the hands of the president. If that president is unstable, the entire world has a very serious problem."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is possible that Trump’s reverential base won’t be sufficient to keep him in the White House past 2020. But such ardent faith is hard to oppose with rational plans to fix this or that problem. That is why it is so unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "If anything has become clear in our recent Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling in Iraq, is that most Iraqis are tired of their country being used as a playground for regional conflict, especially the conflict between the US and Iran. In fact, our polling has shown Iraqis increasingly upset with the role played by both the US and Iran in their country. Majorities see both of these countries as having been the major beneficiaries of the wars that have ravaged their nation since the US invaded in 2003. "
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Under his [Suleimani's] leadership, Iran helped Hezbollah beef up its missile capabilities, led a decisive intervention to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supported the Houthi rebels who have been waging a war against Saudi-led forces in Yemen, and backed a wave of resurgent Shia militias in Iraq. According to Gadi Eizenkot, who completed his term as the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of general staff last year, Suleimani had plans to amass a proxy force of 100,000 fighters along Syria’s border with Israel."
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: ".....stunning technological progress during the 2010s makes it possible to cut GHG emissions at a cost far lower than we dared hope a decade ago. The costs of solar and wind power have fallen more than 80% and 70%, respectively, while lithium-ion battery costs are down from $1,000 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 to $160 per kWh today. These and other breakthroughs guarantee that energy systems which are as much as 85% dependent on variable renewables could produce zero-carbon electricity at costs that are fully competitive with those of fossil-fuel-based systems."
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "Predicting the next crisis – financial or economic – is a fool’s game. Yes, every crisis has its hero who correctly warned of what was about to come. And, by definition, the hero was ignored (hence the crisis). But the record of modern forecasting contains a note of caution: those who correctly predict a crisis rarely get it right again. The best that economists can do is to assess vulnerability. Looking at imbalances in the real economy or financial markets gives a sense of the potential consequences of a major shock. It doesn't take much to spark corrections in vulnerable economies and markets. But a garden-variety correction is far different from a crisis. The severity of the shock and the degree of vulnerability matter: big shocks to highly vulnerable systems are a recipe for crisis. In this vein, the source of vulnerability that I worry about the most is the overextended state of central-bank balance sheets. My concern stems from three reasons."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Conspiracy theories about sinister Jewish power have a long history. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery published in 1903, popularized the notion that Jewish bankers and financiers were secretly pulling the strings to dominate the world. Henry Ford was one of the more prominent people who believed this nonsense."
Dec 13th 2019
EXTRACT: "In previous British elections, to say that trust was the main issue would have meant simply that trust is the trump card – whichever leader or party could secure most trust would win. Now, the emerging question about trust is whether it even matters anymore."
Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."