Israeli-Palestinian peace - the hidden agenda item

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This is how Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak framed it in his speech to AIPAC: “We need a daring peace initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians. A two-state solution is the only viable long-term solution. It is a compelling imperative for us, in order to secure our identity and our future as a Jewish and democratic state; it’s not a favor for the Palestinians.”

Sadly, peace has been largely off the agenda for both Israel, the Palestinians and the United States for over two years. But with Obama about to visit Israel next month, where he will be greeted by a new, more centrist Israeli government, now is the time to revive those efforts.

Obama has said he’s going to Israel and to the West Bank largely to listen. His trip will also be a priceless opportunity to build political capital by reaching out directly to both the Israeli and Palestinian publics and to assure them he has their best interests at heart. The more he can establish confidence, the better the prospects for renewed negotiations.

Although there are some pundits and politicians both in Israel and the United States advising Obama not to waste his time on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the fact is that failing to seize this opportunity would invite potentially disastrous consequences.

Israeli strategic experts agree. For example, retired Brigadier-General Michael Herzog, in a recent analysis, said that without political momentum between Israel and the Palestinians in coming months, a negative cycle could develop which would risk the collapse of the Palestinian authority, a serious erosion of Israel’s relations with Europe and have a negative impact on security for both sides.

And retired Brigadier-General Shlomo Brom, writing for Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said that absent progress toward peace, Palestinians in the West Bank would surely launch a new uprising against Israeli rule sooner or later.

“It is unreasonable to think that the Palestinians in the West Bank will agree to continue to live under Israeli occupation with no time limit. It is more reasonable to assume that there will be a Palestinian uprising every certain number of years, and just as there was a first intifada and a second intifada, there will be a third intifada, and so on,” Brom wrote.

More years of diplomatic inaction will also allow Israeli settlements to continue to grow and eventually close off any chance of establishing a Palestinian state. Israel would then either have to grant the two million Palestinians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem the right to vote, in which case Israel’s Jewish majority would vanish, or deny them that right, in which case Israel as a democratic state would vanish. Or it could try to persuade them to accept limited autonomy in certain enclaves. History has given us a word for that – “Bantustans” -- and neither the Palestinians nor the international community would stand for it.

We need to recognize that without determined US leadership and creative mediation, the parties will be incapable of making much progress, despite the fact that a sizeable majority on both sides still favor a two-state solution.

Obama’s trip should be seen as a step in the right direction, not an end in itself. It needs to be followed quickly by efforts to address the most pressing concerns of both parties in a way that would reduce their mutual suspicions. Nobody is expecting a breakthrough from this visit but neither should it be seen as purely ceremonial.

One practical first step could be an agreement by both to refrain from unilateral actions that the other side sees as provocative. Other confidence-building measures could follow that could set a more positive atmosphere for a renewed diplomacy to reach a two-state solution.

We are at a decisive moment. The future of Israeli-Palestinian peace, of Palestinian statehood and of Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state all hang in the balance. The parties, the region and the world are waiting for Obama’s leadership.

Elsner, a former Jerusalem, State Department and national correspondent for Reuters, is vice president of Communications for J Street