Charting the road to Middle East Peace

In 2003, the Bush administration proclaimed that attacking Iraq would usher in an era of democracy in the Middle East.  Yet after years of “birth pangs” leading up to what was supposed to be a new and improved Middle East, it is clear that the whole notion was inaccurate and destructive, both to the U.S. and the region itself.

Today, however, there does exist a plausible way to advance peace, democracy, and prosperity in the Middle East; and one that does not involve fighting protracted wars in the Muslim world: Solve the Palestine Question.

The real catalyst for peace and democracy in the region is not to be found on the rocky road through Tehran or Baghdad, but rather on the road through Jerusalem.  Were the U.S. to once and for all apply its full weight on Palestine-Israel, peace in the region as a whole would become more attainable. It’s not a magic bullet, not all regional problems would be solved, but a just Israeli-Palestinian peace would help considerably.

U.S. General David Petraeus grasped the import of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he addressed the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.  He noted that “enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the area of responsibility.” And, he added, “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples [in the region].”

Petraeus is on to something that for too many years American policy has sought to downplay: the urgency of Palestinian aspirations for freedom and the frustration of people in the region with American backing for Israeli actions at odds with American principles of freedom, equal rights, and liberty, not to mention international law. Palestinians also wonder why the traditional American call for democracy, separation of powers, freedom of expression  and rule of law seems to bypass them.

Time is now of the essence. Due to Israel’s willingness to ignore international law, to place illegally more than 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and to avoid implementing previous peace agreements, the two-state solution is on the brink of disappearing forever. If so, it is either one state with equal rights for all or apartheid. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said as much.  So, too, has former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Unlike these Israeli officials, I believe we have already reached an apartheid reality. There is a dual system of Israeli law operating in the West Bank, one applying to Jewish settlers and a discriminatory one imposed on Palestinians. Israel’s illegal settlement activity and separation Wall (which is three times longer than the Berlin Wall and in places twice as tall) squeeze us into ever-smaller Bantustans. On average, a Palestinian uses 50 cubic meters of West Bank water yearly, while an Israeli settler consumes an unfair and vastly disproportionate 2,400 cubic meters.

While President Obama rightly seeks to rein in Israeli expansionism and thereby save the two-state solution, the Israel lobby is racing to undercut him with “pro-Israel” letters from American congressional leaders. These acts harm the future of both Palestinians and Israelis.

Congress, however, could play a responsible role in expediting a just settlement to the conflict. First, tax-deductible contributions to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories should be halted. Settlers are violently implanting themselves in our midst in violation of international law and private property rights. The most extreme among them attack us, intimidate Palestinian farmers, uproot olive trees and, most recently, set fire to mosques. They are very rarely prosecuted.  American tax policy should not facilitate settlers’ efforts to wreck the prospects for regional peace and to destroy the last chance for the two-state solution.

Second, a congressional resolution could back President Obama’s June call in Cairo for nonviolent Palestinian resistance to the occupation. Such a resolution would insist Israel cease its violent repression of a growing nonviolent protest movement. We are in the midst of vigorous advocacy for nonviolence and have created informal coalitions including Palestinians, Israelis, and international citizens intent on peacefully resisting Israel’s West Bank land grabs. American calls to end violence would resonate more strongly here if members of Congress were staunchly upholding the right of Palestinian and Israeli peace activists to protest nonviolently against decades of oppression.

Third, Congressional hearings ought to be called that feature a wide range of Palestinian-American experts. The United States has enormous expertise it can tap into, but the exclusion of most Palestinian-American voices results in members of Congress not being exposed to important viewpoints on the conflict.

The failure to hear a range of voices risks congressional shock when Palestinians and others give up on the two-state solution and declare support for a South Africa-like struggle for equal rights and one person, one vote in one democratic state. This day is drawing nearer. Congress, if it wants to help the president achieve the two-state solution more than it wants to placate AIPAC, should take up these three moderate proposals – rule of law, support for nonviolence, and open debate – that Palestinian democrats have advocated for years.

Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi is secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.  He was a candidate for the Palestinian presidency in 2005 and is a nominee for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

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