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Change They Can Believe In

Author: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
December 17, 2008
International Herald Tribune


Reviving the Middle East peace process is the worst kind of necessary evil for a U.S. administration: very necessary, and very evil.

It is necessary because the festering dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians in a volatile, strategically vital region has broad implications for U.S. interests and because the security of Israel is one of the American public's most enduring international concerns.

It is evil because it is costly and difficult. The price of engagement is high, the chances for a solution are mixed at best, and all of the available approaches carry significant political risks.

The incoming U.S. president, Barack Obama, faces a daunting task. He needs to develop a Middle East peace strategy that makes a clear break with the past, that is politically sustainable at home and abroad, that offers real hope for a final resolution, and that in the interim can bring benefits to the two peoples, the wider region, and the United States itself.

The way to do this is to change the way that a peace deal is framed.

In the past, U.S. peacemakers have had an Israel-centric approach to the negotiating process; the Obama administration needs to put Palestinian politics and Palestinian public opinion at the center of its peacemaking efforts.

Despite their military weakness and their political factiousness, the Palestinians hold the key to peace in the Middle East. And if the United States hopes to create a more secure and stable environment for Israel, it must sell peace to Israel's foes.

This will take work. But to a very important degree, Israeli and Palestinian interests are linked. A peace agreement that does not address central Palestinian concerns will lack the legitimacy in Palestinian public opinion that is necessary give the Palestinian state the authority and support it needs to enforce the peace and protect Israel's security.

Unless the Palestinians get enough of what they want from the settlement, the Israelis will not get enough of the security they seek.

This linkage offers a historic opportunity for the Obama administration to improve the chances for peace and to align the United States with key Palestinian aspirations without moving away from or against Israel.

Although some of the most contentious issues dividing the two parties are zero-sum, in which any Israeli gain represents a Palestinian loss, and vice versa, significant elements of a compromise solution are not.

What the Palestinians want from peace is, first of all, an acknowledgment of the injustices they have suffered.

That said, it would be unfair to place all responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem on Israel. The United Nations' failure to provide elementary security for both the Arab and the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine as the British withdrew was the immediate cause of both communities' suffering in the late 1940s--of the initial clashes between them, of the accelerating spiral of violence, of the Arab armies' entry into the conflict, and then of the prolonged hostility.

Modern Israel should acknowledge and account for its part in those tragic events, but the international community at large must accept ultimate responsibility, acknowledging the wrongs done and sincerely trying to compensate Palestinian refugees today.

The key to cooperation, even on the tough zero-sum issue of the right to return, which would logically be limited if the Palestinians accepted a two-state solution, is to assure the Palestinians that the refugees and their heirs will be given several viable options. Palestinians who choose not to exercise their right of return or whose right is in some way restricted in the final Israeli-Palestinian agreement should be substantially compensated by the international community (including Israel).

The Obama administration will also need to address the structural imbalance of the peace process. Negotiations are front-loaded in favor of the Israelis; by recognizing Israel from the outset, the Palestinians concede Israel's core demand and receive only the right to start talking.

At the back end, however, the imbalance is reversed. Here, it is Israel that has to make key concessions: withdrawing from territory, dismantling settlements and military posts, recognizing the Palestinian state.

To address these imbalances, the Palestinians should be given from the outset some clearer commitments on both the duration of the talks and the benefits that would result from any agreement; the Israelis should be provided greater assurance that a future Palestinian state would have both the necessary means and the incentives to deliver on security.

The Obama administration need not choose the Israelis over the Palestinians or the Palestinians over the Israelis. But it must engage with both sides more deeply than past U.S. administrations have done and use the full power of the U.S. presidency to develop a comprehensive peace strategy.

This is one of the most difficult challenges the new president will face, but real progress is possible. At the very least, Obama can change the terms of the debate in the Middle East--which in itself would be no mean achievement.


This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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