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Jim Fine Returns from the Middle East: U.S. Role is Critical to Israel-Palestine PeaceJim Fine Returns with Message from the Middle East: U.S. Role is Critical to Israel-Palestine Peace
FCNL's Legislative Secretary for Foreign Policy returned from a delegation to the Middle East last month, where he found an overwhelming sense of urgency for U.S.-led all-inclusive diplomacy to bring about a lasting solution for Israel-Palestine peace.
"It's up to Obama." I heard this statement many times on my two-week trip to the Middle East in early December with Churches for Middle East Peace. The Israelis and Palestinians I talked to said that neither Israeli nor Palestinian politics, without a strong push from the outside, was going to produce momentum for a two-state Israel-Palestine peace agreement, despite opinion polls that show large majorities of Israelis and Palestinians support such an agreement.
Now, as Israel's massive assault on Gaza and Hamas's rocket fire into Israel continue, it is also "up to Obama" to get an Israel-Hamas ceasefire if the fighting continues beyond January 20, or to ensure that a ceasefire lasts if the Bush administration insists on one before leaving office.
Why are the Obama administration's actions so important to people in the Middle East? Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have any expectation of change coming without U.S. leadership. For Palestinians witnessing the accelerated expansion of Israeli settlements, the roadblocks restricting movement within the West Bank, the continued blockade of Gaza and now the Israeli assault, a two-state peace agreement, or any improvement in their situation, seems unattainable. For Israelis who see the weakness of the Palestinian leadership and Palestinian society deeply divided between Fatah and Hamas, the prospects for negotiations with a credible Palestinian government and any movement toward peace seem remote.
In both societies, the public does not demand change it has ceased to hope for. If Palestinians and Israelis believed, however, that the United States was determined to achieve a peace agreement, expectations would change overnight, and the latent support for a two-state peace would become an operative factor in Israeli and Palestinian politics.
"What could the United States do?" we asked the people we met. Several Israelis and Palestinians said that the new president could begin by simply declaring that an Israeli-Palestinian peace was a vital U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian interest. Then he would have to follow up by convincing Israel to stop settlement expansion and ease restrictions on Palestinian movement, by encouraging Fatah and Hamas to reconcile, and by leading Israel to the bargaining table with a reformed and credible Palestinian government.
I also heard two other messages during the trip: (1) a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is still possible, and (2) prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace are closely connected to U.S. relations with Iran.
A Two-State Solution Is Still Possible
"The borders former Palestinian and Israeli negotiators agreed to as part of the informal 'Geneva Accord' are fine," a Palestinian activist told our group. Most of the Israelis we met agreed. Creating a viable Palestinian state would require a double roll-back of the settlements that Israel has established in the West Bank since 1967. In other words, it would require evacuating all the settlements east of the separation wall that Israel has built in the West Bank, and adjusting the border represented by the separation wall to minimize Palestinian losses and swap Israeli territory for West Bank land that would remain with Israel. This is essentially the border of the unofficial Geneva Accord agreed to five years ago, and is as workable now as it was then, if Israeli and Palestinian governments will accept it.
"The key is in Iran"
"Many Israelis believe the key is in Iran," one well-placed Israeli government official told us. "There will be no peace with Hezbollah or Hamas without progress with Iran, although that is not what I would tell you in front of a microphone." Others we met said wide support exists in Israel for dialogue with Iran, although in its current assault on Gaza Israel has, for the moment, chosen a proxy war with Iran instead. Israeli President Shimon Peres said January 4 that Hamas "cannot hide that they are acting by orders from Iran. Iran has two satellites in the Middle East, the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza."
The fighting in Gaza, chances for a two-state peace agreement, and U.S. relations with Iran are all connected. How the Obama administration approaches any one of these problems will affect, for good or ill, what happens with the others. My trip reinforced my sense that U.S. leadership will be key to preventing deadly conflict and achieving stable peace in the region.