Obama’s post-election Middle East peace process options

Obama’s post-election Middle East peace process options

Shortly after Election Day on Nov. 8, we should have an answer to an intensely debated question among policymakers and foreign policy analysts: What will President Obama say or do about the Israeli-Palestinian issue prior to his departure from office?

As with several of his predecessors, Obama began his presidency believing he could broker a Middle East peace agreement. Clearly this was one of his foreign policy priorities, and much time and effort were expended by senior administration officials toward this goal. Now that such an agreement is well beyond reach, speculation has turned to what he wants his legacy to be on this issue.

The president’s options include doing nothing at all, delivering a major foreign policy speech outlining parameters for a final agreement, or seeking to advance U.S. policy objectives through action at the United Nations. One possibility is for Obama to develop a new binding UN Security Council resolution in concert with other key nations that would update and replace UNSC Resolution 242, which was adopted in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War and calls for immediate negotiations toward a peaceful settlement. (There is also an ongoing debate over whether Resolution 242 calls for Israel to relinquish territory seized during the war.) Another option would be a more limited resolution targeting Israeli settlement activity.

However, given the entrenched anti-Israel bias at the UN, it is inconceivable to me that a truly balanced resolution could be adopted at the world body, and a one-sided resolution condemning settlements conveys an unjustified message that Israel alone stands in the way of peace.

In discussing this issue with colleagues, I found no support for a UN option. Even J Street, perhaps the likeliest candidate to support UN action, rejects it. J Street’s New Jersey representative, Dan Siegel, observed, “Israel’s greatest ally putting forward parameters to serve as the basis for future talks would be the precise opposite of an imposed, binding solution by countries or entities hostile to Israel.”

Robert Sugarman, past chair of the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, offered another alternative in his op-ed “How Obama can still advance Mideast peace” (visit njjewishnews.com). Sugarman believes the president should put forth immediate steps for each party to facilitate a future two-state outcome, especially in the security sphere, but avoid offering U.S. parameters for a permanent status agreement.

“A parameters statement,” he writes, “would be a fruitless exercise; it will not bring the parties any closer to a resolution than they are today, particularly because Obama will no longer be president and will have no leverage to bring his vision to fruition.”

The American Jewish Committee’s NJ director, John Rosen, was similarly unenthusiastic about a parameters speech. “The contours of the two-state vision are well established, and more speeches or UN resolutions cannot substitute for Israel and the Palestinian Authority negotiating directly the details of the permanent agreement.”

I certainly agree with Sugarman about the desirability of immediate actions and with Rosen about the necessity of direct negotiations over the details. But I respectfully differ on the value of a presidential parameters speech. It is well known that in previous negotiations the parties were prepared to compromise on their taboo issues — exclusive sovereignty over greater Jerusalem for Israel, and an unfettered “right of return” of refugees for the Palestinians. But because this was too “hot” politically, the sides never publicly acknowledged what they were prepared to accept privately.

In my judgment, Obama would make a positive contribution to the peace process by essentially codifying these compromises as a U.S. position that could then be built upon by the next administration. It also would have the effect of moving both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples toward acceptance of political reality.

For this hypothetical speech, I would suggest that President Obama focus on these points:

– Based on the principle of national self-determination, the Palestinians are entitled to a state based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed-upon land swaps. The drawing of final borders should consider both demographic changes since 1967 and Israel’s legitimate security concerns. Israel must maintain its ability to defend itself against any current or future threat. With regard to borders, it is in Israel’s interest that a future Palestinian state be large enough to accommodate a growing population, including resettled refugees and their descendants and possess the necessary natural resources for economic success.

– Israel is the legitimate expression of the Jewish people’s right to a nation-state. Their historic and unbroken attachment to the land is unquestionable, and their presence is, in no way, colonial. As part of a conflict-ending agreement, the Palestinians should be expected to acknowledge these truths. The century-long struggle over ownership of the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea is not one of right versus wrong, but rather of right versus right.

– Regarding those aforementioned taboo issues, some Palestinian refugees may be allowed to return to their communities inside Israel on humanitarian grounds. But that is Israel’s decision to make. The bulk of the refugee population will either be resettled in the newly established State of Palestine or elsewhere in the world. With respect to Jerusalem, the city should remain undivided and access to the holy places assured for people of all religions. At the same time, a creative formula should be sought that will enable the city to serve as the capital for both Israel and Palestine.

– The final agreement should be the product of non-coercive, direct face-to-face negotiations between the parties. But the United States always stands ready to actively facilitate those negotiations and to help the parties overcome their differences. As progress is made on the Palestinian issue, the wider Arab world also has an important role to play in offering a regional context to future cooperation with Israel especially on security-related challenges.

– In the short term, Israel should freeze any building activity outside the main settlement blocs. Failure to do so demonstrates a lack of genuine commitment to the two-state formula. And Palestinians should end their incitement against Israel and the glorification of terrorists as “martyrs.”

– The U.S. and international community agree to dramatically increase resources made available to Israeli and Palestinian NGOs striving to break down barriers and promote social and economic cooperation.

No doubt, only parts of such a speech would be welcomed by the current leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Yet as Israel’s “occupation” of the Palestinian land is about to mark its 50th year, those in New Jersey and beyond who are concerned about Israel’s ability to remain both Jewish and democratic should express support for the whole package. It would be helpful if other world leaders added their endorsements, as well. 

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