Published Originally in the JHU Politik on November 18, 2012.
Let us be clear: it is never a “convenient” time to work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We live in a tumultuous world, with many serious foreign policy problems happening all at once.
And, unfortunately, due to the nature of our political system, an American president has only so much political capital, time, and space to act on a number of issues before the next election cycle approaches.
In his second term, President Obama will need to deal with the rising possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, plan for the safe withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, decide how to proceed with his controversial drone-strike policies, secure strong economic and military interests in Asia, and address problems that have yet to materialize. However, the time to use vigorous U.S. diplomatic leadership to negotiate a two-state solution is now; it will not be any easier four years down the line. Many experts agree that the window to achieve such a peace deal, –a deal supported in principle by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and every U.S. Administration since George H.W. Bush–is diminishing. Both sides know what the agreement would look like: what we now need is the political will to achieve it.
The relationship between Netanyahu and Obama is strained, yet it is imperative that the two leaders get past their political differences and work together for two states. The two-state solution is simply the only way for Israel to remain both a Jewish and democratic state, and for Palestinians to be freed from a 45-year military occupation and obtain the full political rights they deserve.
Negotiating peace is also a national security interest for the United States. We spend billions of dollars annually on Israeli security, but countries with clearly defined borders are more secure and better able to defend themselves against threats.
In 2009, Obama visited the Middle East, and Israelis understandably felt snubbed that he failed to stop to meet with leaders in Israel. But despite the lack of presidential speeches in Israel, actions speak louder than words. Under Obama’s leadership, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, have all publicly stated that the security relationship between Israel and the United States has never been stronger. The amount of financial and military sup- port the Obama Administration has given to Israel is unprecedented.
Netanyahu received a lot of justly-deserved flack from Israelis and the international community during the U.S presidential election for intervening on behalf of Governor Mitt Romney. As Israeli Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz, asked of Netanyahu in the Knesset, “Who are you trying to replace? The Administration in Washington or that in Tehran?” Netanyahu was open about his distrust of Obama’s strength, determination and capabilities, despite the praise that Obama had received from Israel’s intelligence and defense community.
On the Palestinian side, there is a partner for peace. Recently in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2, Abbas declared: “Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital… The West Bank and Gaza is Palestine. Everything else is Israel.” Hold no illusions: if the Palestinian Authority collapses (as Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman pledged to ensure if the Palestinians seek upgraded non-member status at the U.N.), the next Palestinian leader will not be so moderate, or so inclined to work towards a two-state solution. An inability to reach an agreement with Abbas and the PLO will only strengthen the hand of Hamas, making it more difficult to deal with the situation in Gaza. Rocket fire from Gaza is not an example of why peace is impossible, but how the absence of negotiations and agreements perpetuates an endless cycle of violence that leads nowhere.
Obama must use some newly acquired political capital to revitalize the peace process. Netanyahu, Abbas, and Obama must move past rhetorical games and work to- gether for a long-term secure and just future. Early in 2013, I would hope that Obama travels to Israel and Palestine, making clear to both sides that the peace process will be a priority. The United States wants and needs their President to act forcefully and urgently, before it is too late.