It’s conventional wisdom that due to the divided Palestinian polity and the lack of bold Israeli leadership and political will, not much can be done to advance a two-state solution, at least not in the foreseeable future. A panel of Israelis organized by Israel Policy Forum begs to differ. In a new policy paper, they assert that, on the contrary:
“The current vacuum of leadership in this region provides President Obama with an opportunity to lead the Middle East toward greater moderation than in the past and enhanced prospects for accommodative efforts. A viable U.S. strategy based on a comprehensive regional vision and a two-state solution should be presented shortly after the new Israeli government is concretized.”
There is much to be mulled over in this paper. Some of the people who signed it are former senior level Israeli officials (although there are no surprises on this list; they were all advocates of –or participants in– the Oslo process). The most important message is that some serious Israelis are asking Obama and his team to push hard, and to push quickly. The obvious implication is that this push should come regardless of the make-up of the Israeli government, and regardless of Palestinian divisions.
Indeed, in a conference call organized by IPF to discuss the paper, Colette Avital said, “It is important to have a plan and make it policy as soon as possible. Do it now!”
I don’t want to dumb this paper down by providing just a few excerpts. Here is a rather lengthy summary, plucked from the IPF web site:
Proposal for US Engagement Following Israeli Elections
February 25, 2009A Policy Paper of the IPF Israel Roundtable
The first visit to the region by newly appointed US special envoy George Mitchell at the end of January was a strong indication of the determination with which the Obama Administration plans to deal with the Middle East. Termed a “listening trip”, Mitchell undoubtedly heard a great deal of opinion on how best to move forward in resolving the enduring bi-lateral and regional conflicts that will occupy his time in office. With a long agenda that includes continuing tensions and reconstruction in Gaza, Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, Syria, Hezbollah, Iranian influence, the role of moderate Arab states and the future of the two-state solution, Mitchell’s portfolio is full.
The formation of a new Israeli government adds a critical element and new interlocutors to the mix. But given the convoluted results of the Israeli election, as the new government is being formed, many Israelis will be looking closely at the new messages carried by Senator Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on their trips to the area in the coming days.
During Senator Mitchell’s first trip, a group of Israeli experts composed of academics and former diplomats and generals, brought together in a roundtable discussion by Israel Policy Forum, offered the US President their thinking. It is unusual for such a group to offer Americans advice in this type of forum, but they concluded that the challenges are great enough and the opportunities of a new and very promising American presidency sufficiently tempting, that these are the appropriate suggestions for the moment at hand. In this light, the group advocates that the new government in Israel continue the policies toward accommodation with Israel’s neighbors that was pursued by the Olmert government.
A brief summary of the results of these discussions is contained below.
A U.S. REGIONAL PLAN
It is critical that the American approach be regional and take into account the need to strengthen pragmatic Arab states and the Arab Peace Initiative, and further encourage their engagement in the peace process. At the same time, Iran must be addressed as a central component of the conflict.
There is a strong need to provide external support to those leaders in the region who are prepared to advance the peace process, in order to help them meet domestic considerations. It is therefore critical that the new president, with the hope that he inspires and the immense credit he currently has, show the way. This is not only necessary because of the propensity for leaders in this region to make wrong decisions and miss concrete opportunities, but because involvement in the peace process is in the U.S. national interest.
Effective leadership requires that a U.S. plan or vision be placed on the table. There is no need to dispose of earlier initiatives such as the Clinton Parameters, the negotiations that followed the Annapolis process (i.e. the Olmert-Abu Mazen draft agreement and the Livni-Abu Ala process), or the Arab Peace Initiative, but it is essential to go beyond what has been done by including a regional perspective and a clear vision for the end game including the tough issues of Jerusalem, refugees and borders. The imperative of a U.S. vision is such that it need not wait for an agreement of Israeli or Palestinian leaders; it must reflect the comprehensive thinking of the new administration on a final resolution of the conflict.
A POLICY DEBATE ON PALESTINIAN NATIONAL UNITY
Key to this vision should of course be the urgency of a two-state solution. Recognizing that Hamas is a factor that cannot be ignored, and that the current PA is weakened, the majority of the group recommended the creation of a new paradigm that promotes Palestinian unity. They argued that any hope of achieving a two-state solution requires that both Gaza and the West Bank be party to it. Both the US and Israel will be able to deal with a Palestinian national unity government without engaging Hamas directly nor excluding it.
But the idea of a national unity government of the Palestinians encouraged by Americans and Israelis is more controversial within this group than the idea of an American initiative. No one objected strongly to a U.S. Plan, but the majority view of encouraging a national unity government was received by strong skepticism among a minority of the group.
It was acknowledged by all that while Israel currently conducts indirect discussions with Hamas vis-Ã -vis the ceasefire, border passages and Gilad Shalit, the overall goal continues to be the enhancement of the PA as the best option for Palestinian leadership. But several members, though a minority, argued that a PA-Hamas deal might empower Hamas and further weaken the PA. They claimed that unity would not enhance the chances for moving toward a two-state solution. Under present circumstances, a Palestinian unity government would lead to new Palestinian elections (constitutionally mandated within the year) that Hamas would win, which they believed would be a negative result for everyone.
The majority believe that it is impossible to ignore Hamas at this point, and therefore some formula must be found for dealing with both the P.A. and Hamas together. This group also argued that the idea of the creation of a Palestinian unity government would enable the moderate powers in the Middle East to play a positive role along with the US in solving this conflict, as well as other disputes in the region.
STEPS TO TAKE– CARROTS OR STICKS
SYRIA. An American endorsement of a Syrian-Israeli dialogue can encourage new regional alignment whereby Syria moves away from the Iranian axis and toward the moderate Arab coalition. Given that prospects for an agreement with Syria seem more likely in the short-term than with the Palestinians, active American engagement can contribute to early success on this track and add momentum to the resolution of other outstanding conflicts in the region.
GAZA. Toward the Palestinians, Gaza must be Washington’s first priority, working to ensure a serious and lasting ceasefire and participating in the rebuilding process. It will be important for the U.S. to lead an aggressive reconstruction campaign by Western democracies that will outpace Iranian support. U.S. and international assistance should be conditioned on P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas controlling the funds, thereby enhancing the stature of the P.A. as responsible for the rehabilitation of Gaza, while precluding accusations of Israeli collaboration. The Saudi offer of one billion dollars in aid to Gaza underscores the importance of this arena, and their readiness to take on Iran in the race for influence there. But while all these efforts proceed, the economic boycott of the Gaza Strip should be reconsidered; the question of to what extent it strengthened Hamas should be examined.
THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PEACE PROCESS. In order to gain critical public support for the peace process both Israelis and Palestinians will need to know that the U.S. is serious about promoting peace and is committed to meaningful measures and timely implementation. The Obama team will need to consider the priorities of each stakeholder in order to raise the level of trust in the process and in U.S. leadership. Key factors for Palestinians are settlements and borders; for Israelis, refugees and security; for both, Jerusalem. Within the context of a balanced American vision, both carrots and sticks should be used to show viability and demonstrate credibility with immediate results.
US STEPS TO TAKE TOWARD ISRAELIS AND PALESTINIANS. To seriously engage Palestinian support, Americans will have to enhance the economy of the West Bank and offer hope through a political vision. The U.S. will need to be firm on demanding Israeli adherence to removing outposts, freezing settlements and reducing checkpoints. But American support for a settlement compensation package for settlers who voluntarily leave the territories can provide an incentive. U.S. government assistance can come through funds that have been withheld from Israel due to past settlement expansion.
ISRAEL AND THE REGION. A broad regional approach that engages Egypt and Saudi Arabia and moves the process beyond bilateral agreements would be seen as beneficial by Israelis, coupled with concerted Egyptian, U.S. and international efforts to stop the smuggling of arms from Iran into areas that threaten Israel. At the same time, Israel’s fundamental concerns must be taken into account. Israel, after all, has a strong interest in a stable Iraq that can fend off undue Iranian influence, and therefore will want to discuss the US withdrawal with the Obama administration. Of course, the basic issue of Iran and the continued flow of arms to terrorists must be addressed through political and security commitments that will secure Israel’s place in the region.
IRAN. The Israeli government is focused on Teheran. For the last three years Israel has been forced to confront Iran by proxy through Hezbollah and Hamas. Therefore, it is important for the U.S. to address this central Israeli concern in a serious and determined way within a defined time frame and within the Palestinian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli contexts, as part of a broad regional plan, and as a component of an Iranian-U.S. dialogue. Relevant U.S. security arrangements that strengthen Israel vis-Ã -vis the
Iranian threat will be viewed positively by any Israeli government and will help assuage Israeli fears.
The current vacuum of leadership in this region provides President Obama with an opportunity to lead the Middle East toward greater moderation than in the past and enhanced prospects for accommodative efforts. A viable U.S. strategy based on a comprehensive regional vision and a two-state solution should be presented shortly after the new Israeli government is concretized. In an effort to reinforce Abu Mazen, provide better economic and political conditions for the Palestinians in the West Bank, and underscore the poor existence that Hamas has imposed on Gaza, real change on the ground is needed. The US should present new policies that challenge all players, states and non-states, to change their current conduct. A new American engagement in Syrian-Israeli talks is an example of the changes that are necessary. At the very least, the parties must be convinced that the hopelessness of the present can be converted into a realistic chance for practical solutions.
Ambassador Colette Avital
Major General (Ret.) Ami Ayalon
Brigadier General (Ret.) Shlomo Brom
Roberta Fahn Schoffman
Major General (Ret.) Shlomo Gazit
Prof. Galia Golan
Prof. Tamar Herman
Ambassador Alon Liel
Dr. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman
Prof. Gabriel Motzkin
Brigadier General (Ret.) Israela Oron
Ambassador Alon Pinkas
Dr. Ron Pundak
Ambassador Shimon Shamir