Meyer: After Bin Laden: Israel & Middle East Peace

Carlyn Meyer writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

I recently returned from a trip to Israel and the West Bank. I am not Jewish but work with JStreet, the trip’s sponsor, because it is the only group in the US actively lobbying Congress and the Administration for a two-state solution to the Palestine/Israeli conflict. Especially now, with the growth of democratic movements in Arab countries, I believe the US has a special responsibility to push for an end to this conflict. It is vital to the future of US security and interests in the region .

Nearly everyone with whom I spoke (leading politicians, businessmen, activists, academics, Kibbutz members and Palestinian villagers), Israeli or Palestinian, cautioned against President Obama making another speech on America’s relations with the Arab world unless it includes a concrete proposal to push Israel and the Palestinians back into final status negotiations.

Palestinians and Israelis with whom we met offered their congratulations to the Administration for eliminating Bin Laden. But the death of Bin Laden is not the big story in the Middle East. The Arab uprisings and stalled peace negotiations are.

Parallel to the Arab countries whose youths are fighting for their future against autocrats long supported by the US, a new generation of Palestinians who grew up under occupation is ready and anxious to claim theirs. The occupation is almost 50 years old, and the Palestinians’ disappointment with Obama for failure to follow through on his Cairo speech is palpable.

In the past Israeli officials complained that Yassir Arafat was not a serious partner in peace; today the Palestinians are the ones who feel they have no partner. Netanyahu won’t talk. The Administration refuses to break the deadlocked talks with an American-sponsored initiative, although such action is seen in the region as the sole alternative to a Palestinian petition for statehood at this September’s General Assembly.

If Israel does not feel secure enough to bargain with the Palestinians from its overwhelming, asymmetrical position of strength now, under what conditions would it take the risks? With a military superior to any Arab country as well as to Iran, with the ability to create computer virus that can cause havoc in the computer systems of Iranian nuclear reactors, a clandestine nuclear arsenal and strong economy; having sealed off Gaza and walled-off the West Bank; with over $3 billion in US assistance every year, not to mention the US veto of any Security Council resolution that criticizes it, Israel is far more secure today that it has ever been in its history.

And the reforms Palestine Authority President Abbas and PM Salam Fayyad have instituted in the last two years certainly qualify them as partners in peace.

The most effective (if not only) way the US can show solidarity with the Arab democratic movements and build viable relations within the Arab world is to abandon the illusion that the conflict an be resolved through bilateral negotiation alone without the world community, particularly the US, actively proposing solutions and incentives for peace. If the Administration remains passive on the Israeli/Palestinian issue, I fear its post-Bin Laden attempts to reach out to the region will fall on deaf ears.

Israeli security concerns are real, and the Hamas/Fatah reconciliation agreement adds to them. If continued occupation of the West Bank and isolation of Gaza are the only ways Israel believes it can respond to legitimate security concerns, an end to the conflict is impossible. But that’s not the Netanyahu’s government’s public stance. The government continues to say it stands ready to negotiate with the Palestinians at any time.

Israeli settlement building is what blocks negotiations, not the Hamas/Fatah deal. If the Israelis were willing to negotiate with Abbas as head of the PLO before the current impasse, they should be willing to do the same now. At some point in negotiation, the Palestinians and Israelis would surely need to address the Fatah-Hamas split. Better now than later. As long as President Abbas can enforce the no violence pledge both parties endorsed, Israeli negotiations with the PLO should proceed alongside the Fatah-Hamas talks .

For the Obama Administration: better to risk dramatic action to restart peace negotiations now than wait for an irrevocable shift in the field of play all parties expect in September.

Carlyn Meyer blogs at Read Between the Lines.