OPINION: Obama can end the Israel/Palestinian conflict

(Reposted from talkingpointsmemo.com)

If I could say two things to President-elect Barack Obama today, I would first express my gratitude for making me proud to be an American again. His campaign and election did that. And, second, I would tell him that he has more opportunity to transform the Middle East than any previous President.

Barack Obama's opportunity was created by his unique background, his historic victory, and by the Gaza war. Had it not been for the war, Obama might have been able to take his time before addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He promised to deal with it during his first year in office, which meant he had until December 2009. That luxury is now gone. He must deal with the Middle East immediately.

His first task will be to help put in place a ceasefire that will hold. There are ceasefires and then there are ceasefires. There are those that are nothing more than the silencing of guns (infinitely better than the alternative). The second kind addresses the problems that led to war in the first place. It is a prelude to negotiations to permanently resolve the conflict.

Obama's intervention is necessary to achieve both kinds, to not only end a humanitarian disaster but also to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This effort will begin to restore America's standing in the Middle East.

The last eight years have destroyed much of the good will that the United States had in the Middle East and in the Muslim world. Obama's election lifted our standing dramatically, but the Gaza war may have eliminated most of those gains. Because we are Israel's ally and arms supplier, much of the world holds us as responsible as Israel and Hamas for the Gaza tragedy.

Obama can only turn that around by playing the role of honest broker in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The American President cannot continue to operate as 'Israel's lawyer,' as negotiator Aaron Miller has put it. One side's attorney cannot simultaneously serve as a mediator.



I don't think President-elect Obama needs any persuading on this score. His statements about Gaza have been fair and even-handed. He decried the terrible suffering of the people of Gaza but he also spoke of the provocations by Hamas--the incessant shelling of southern Israel--which brought on Israel's attack. Although the right hates the very idea of, what they call, 'moral equivalence,' Obama does not hide behind that artificial distinction. The killing of innocent people is wrong, even if the innocents are nominally on the side that may have instigated the war.

Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton spoke similarly in her impressive responses at her confirmation hearing. She did not sound like a New York Senator but like a Secretary of State. In fact, she sounded a lot Barack Obama. To him, a dead or traumatized child is the same whether in Israel or Gaza. A President with Muslim siblings, and a Muslim father, is incapable of seeing Muslim kids as of less intrinsic value than Jewish, Christian, or any other children.

The days when America refused to see the humanity of Palestinians are over. What is not over is America's relationship with Israel. Under Barack Obama, America will continue to defend Israel in international councils, will continue to enhance the strategic relationship, and will continue to provide Israel with billions of dollars in foreign aid (more than any other country).

It is precisely the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship--and its nature--that empowers Obama in his dealings with Israel. He can demand an end to the siege of Gaza. He can say that the procrastination must end and that Israel must live up to promises made to ease the plight of West Bank Palestinians--an immediate settlements freeze, the dismantling of illegal outposts, and the removal of unnecessary and redundant internal checkpoints.

Simultaneously, he must demand a Palestinian commitment to a total cessation of violence, a commitment that applies to Gaza and to the West Bank. (That can only be achieved through some sort of Palestinian unity agreement; Israel needs one Palestinian negotiating partner, not two).

Obama's mettle is being tested--especially by the Israelis--and he has to show what he is made of.

Of course, many of the politicians Obama talks to will probably tell him to keep quiet. They will tell him that it is politically dangerous to offend the potent Israel lobby and that he should not use his chips on a quixotic pursuit of an end to this conflict. Besides, they will tell him, if you push Israel, it will reduce our funding in the 2010 election. The fact is that most Democrats, including the usually antiwar liberals, view the Middle East as the party's cash cow. That is, in fact, their sole interest in the region. Fundraising.

He should ignore them. The lobby may not want Obama to aggressively pursue negotiations (or ever to call on Israel to do anything it would prefer not to do) but it will not oppose a popular American President who chooses not to take their advice. Besides, the lobby is an American lobby and many of its members--like other Americans--admire Obama and want him to succeed. Even more significantly, they recognize how formidable an adversary he could be.

The lobby tends to tread carefully with popular American presidents. It lives in fear of the day a popular President will take to the airwaves and say to the American people: look, I'm trying to broker peace here. And I'm being stymied by special interests. The lobby knows that it can never win a battle like that. And, accordingly, it will stand down.

True, it attacked Jimmy Carter over a United Nations vote on Jerusalem in 1980, and it confronted George H.W. Bush for taking a strong stand against settlements in 1992. In each case, the President in question was both unpopular and facing a primary challenge for re-nomination.

However, when the popular Ronald Reagan issued his comprehensive peace plan following the disastrous Lebanon war, the lobby barely peeped in protest. Similarly, when the popular Bill Clinton established full relations with the PLO and invited Yasser Arafat to the White House, it smiled through clenched teeth.

Barack Obama, at the dawn of his term, enjoys record popularity. No President in recent memory has come to office with numbers this high. He is also a Democrat, who won 80 percent of the Jewish vote and has the strong support of a Democratic Congress. (Even the Democrats who 'love' Israel -- and the funding their 'pro-Israel' stance produces -- know that opposition to a popular Democratic President will marginalize them.

Believe me, no pro-Israel organization of any consequence is going to take this President on if he insists that both Israelis and Palestinians live up to the commitment each has made to the United States and to each other.

Lobbies, like politicians, tend only to engage in battles that they have a chance of winning. On the Middle East, it is Barack Obama who holds all the cards--not Israelis, not Palestinians, and certainly not the lobby.

He should play them, and achieve an end to a conflict that threatens not only the people of the Middle East but also the people of the United States. 9/11 taught us how events in the Middle East can produce horrific blowback. It is not far-fetched to believe that Americans too will pay a price for this war, which means that there is no time to waste.

The peace plans are all written. Obama can choose between, or combine, elements of the Clinton Parameters, the Bush Vision, the Roadmap, the Arab Initiative, or--the simplest of all--UN Resolutions 242 and 338. They all say the same thing: Israel gives up the occupied territories in exchange for peace and security. It's a good deal. And it is the only possible one.

The problem has been the absence of a President willing to put his weight behind them.

He arrives on Tuesday.

----- M.J. Rosenberg is director of policy analysis at the Israel Policy Forum (www.ipforum.org).