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The US president must chart a new course

US president must come to the region early in his second term and, backed by the international community, lay out parameters to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict

Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News
Gulf News

A mere 24 hours after it takes office this month, President Barack Obama’s new national security team will come face to face with a fundamentally different political reality in Israel and the Palestinian territory than their predecessors dealt with.

The real story of the Israeli election scheduled for January 22 is the meteoric rise of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) Party and its new leader, Naftali Bennett. Likely to head the second or third-largest party in the next Knesset, Bennett advocates immediate annexation of 60 per cent of the West Bank.

Gone from Israel’s next government will be any semblance of a moderate voice favouring a two-state solution. Instead, the ruling coalition will feature leaders such as Moshe Feiglin, a firebrand who wants to rebuild a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount, denigrates Muslims and democracy and suggests paying Palestinian families to emigrate.

Cabinet members are still likely to include Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein, who says Israel should move towards gradual or total annexation of the West Bank and the Education Minister, Gideon Sa’ar, who assures his supporters that “two states for two peoples was never part of Likud’s election platform”.

This is the Israeli reality of 2013, enabled in part by American politicians and staunch supporters in the US, who refuse to question Israel’s policies as the two-state solution slips through the fingers.

Also awaiting Obama’s new team will be a clear message from the Palestinian leaders who still believe in two states: President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Without immediate, meaningful diplomatic action to bring about two states, they will talk about a two-state solution, while Israel colonises the land where Palestinians look to build their state. This is no longer a viable option. Unless Obama acts meaningfully, the Palestinians’ next move is likely to be to either to dismantle the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) or to pursue relief in an international legal forum.

The Obama team’s understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what needs to be done to solve it, has to catch up with these new realities. Sadly, many in the nation’s capital remain convinced that Israel is simply building on land that “everyone knows” it will ultimately keep. In their view, the present colony-building frenzy should not be a problem for Palestinians.

Contrary to The Post’s assertion in its January 2 editorial, “Rash rhetoric,” that there is no concerted Israeli campaign to block creation of a Palestinian state, the words and deeds of Israeli leaders today say otherwise. Construction and planning are taking place in areas far outside the “consensus” blocs that former president Bill Clinton envisioned remaining with Israel in 2000.

From construction in Shiloh and Beit El, to accrediting a national university in the outlying colony of Ariel, to planning to develop the E-1 area east of occupied Jerusalem, the government of Israel is unrelentingly establishing that it has no interest in the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

If Obama believes that achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a fundamental American national security interest, he will need to chart a far different course than has been tried before — and quickly.

He cannot impose a settlement. But these parties — with their lack of trust and wildly conflicting narratives and interests — cannot and will not work this out on their own. America needs to stop fixating on “direct talks” as the only option and move the focus away from simply getting the parties “to the table”.

Obama must go to the region early in his second term and, backed by the entire international community, lay out the parameters for resolving the conflict, a credible timeline and a process for mediated discussions that assures both sides that their concerns will be heard.

He and the world need to exert meaningful pressure on both sides to decide whether they will accept the well-known terms of a viable two-state solution. If the majority of the people on both sides believes the package offered is reasonable — and polling consistently shows these majorities will support a reasonable two-state deal — then the leaders will be pressed by their own constituencies to say yes.

Israelis will have to decide between leaders such as Feiglin and Bennett, who say no to compromise and peace, and those who — like all six of Israel’s living internal security chiefs — are willing to lead the way to a two-state solution.

Palestinians will have to decide between leaders such as Abbas and Fayyad, who believe in nonviolence and diplomacy, and Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel’s existence. Inaction on the part of the US is a recipe for a continued spiral towards extremism on both sides.

Allowing this conflict to fester will be disastrous for the region and US interests. And throwing one’s hands up in despair or saying there’s nothing to be done until the parties themselves solve the conflict is not a policy.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is president of J Street, a Washington-based organisation that advocates a diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.