What's Love Got To Do With It - Part Two

(This is the second of a two-part post marking Senator Mitchell's appointment as Middle East Envoy.)

Make no mistake: Palestine is not Hamas and Israel is not its settlers, though the trends are depressing. Poll after poll shows that a majority of Palestinians still want peace with Israel: Palestinian elites look forward to cooperation with Israelis on advanced businesses, higher education, construction, and tourism; they may even have some affection for Israelis; they know that their economic dignity and secular life depend on staving off Hamas. 

And a majority of Israelis still want peace with Palestine, skeptical as they may be of Palestinian political institutions. Israeli elites are stirred by globalization and know that West Bank business infrastructure cannot development with 500 checkpoints. They know their own economic growth and cultural vitality depend on peace; their children, many of whom are leaving the country, hate guarding and paying for settlements.

Yet both sides’ leaders, no matter who they are, cannot break out of a now impossible bind. They cannot imagine prompting a near-term fight with their own rejectionists, which means wide-scale civil disobedience, even civil war, for a long-term negotiation that would be hostage to the first atrocity. Peace advocates are exhausted, increasingly cynical, overwhelmed by military professionals and insurgent militias depicting their own actions as preempting the other side in a fight-to-the-finish. Hamas and Israeli rightists do not oppose a peace deal the way Republicans oppose Keynes. They have killed their own leaders to get their way. And this—not just a stalled “peacemaking process”—is where America comes in.

THERE IS ONLY way out of this trap: the Obama administration must make it clear—crystal—that the deal embodied in the Clinton parameters is American policy and a vital American national interest. To oppose it is to oppose America. Negotiation is over the details of implementing it, like the Geneva Initiative group, but not over its main principles. For the record, the Israeli government under Ehud Barak accepted these principles in December 2000, while Yasir Arafat dragged his feet, accepted them with reservations, but then authorized the PA negotiating team to follow up at Taba (out of which the Geneva negotiations sprouted). Later in 2002, as the violence spread, Arafat accepted the Taba plan.

So in adopting the Clinton parameters, the Obama administration would not exactly be pushing on an open door, but it would be embracing the deal that any Israeli and Palestinian leader sincere about peace has already embraced. Adoption would certainly expose leaders who are not sincere about peace--people who use the other side's threat as a cover for ultra-nationalist ends. One such leader may soon be the Israeli prime minister. 

The PA's current leaders, many of whom have participated in creating the deal, are not likely to act in ways that will undermine it. They are its most obvious immediate beneficiaries, and will no doubt use it to gain international legitimacy for a stronger security force, and new infrastructural investment, leading to a Palestinian state. And adoption would reinvigorate the Israeli peace camp; it would immediately reimpose an invisible border. In any case, Israeli leaders must see that resisting this deal means foiling American interests, those of the European Union, and moderate Arab regimes, too; that this is the world’s deal, based on conventional notions of civil rights and utilitarian principles; that Israel risks growing isolation, political and economic, if it fails to adapt to it. New settlements beyond this border, in the West Bank or Jerusalem, will be met with sanctions.

Israel’s leaders, in other words, must start their planning for a permanent border, and new administrative arrangements for Jerusalem. As CBS’s Bob Simon put it, they must be put into a “panic” that American support is now conditional on specific behavior. The Road Map, which was Mitchell's brainchild, speaks of building confidence—Israel by stopping settlements, Palestinians by containing terror—before moving to a deal. If this sequence ever made sense, it now gets things exactly backwards. Both sides need the deal to be etched in their imaginations and reinforced by all manner of international actions. Only then does it make sense to speak of building confidence.

THERE IS A serious change in approach here, as there has been with the economy, but it is not hard to imagine how to proceed. Senator Mitchell is coming here next week, according to reliable reports. Secretary Clinton might come immediately after his initial meetings to address both the Israeli Knesset and what's left of the Palestinian parliament to announce that the Clinton parameters are American policy; that she challenges all sides to embrace them. Obama, for his part, should then stress how failure to accept the parameters will be viewed as inimical to American plans for the region.

In parallel, Clinton and the new National Security Advisor, General James Jones, should line-up support from the EU and the UN Security Council, which will almost certainly rally to them. But their vision should not end there. They should speak positively about President Sarkozy’s idea of a Mediterranean Union, with Israel and Turkey acting as anchors. Clinton should offer to help organize a start to a regional water carrier to bring Turkish water to Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. There should be talk of an common market between Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Jones should speak about a bilateral defense pact with Israel and an American naval base in Haifa. The U.S. must get away from the idea that peace means "We give them land, and then maybe they'll leave us alone."

Rather, the deal should appear a part of an emerging global consensus—like cooperation on emergency financial reform, or police action against terror. The talk should be of new federal relations and new economic unions: a patently Jewish state that is also a state of global citizens; a Palestinian state linked to Jordan and Israel that is patently a state of laws and civil rights. People who oppose the consensus must be made to feel like international pariahs, not just opponents of some (spineless) domestic “peace camp.”

YET--AND THIS is crucial--President Obama should stress that implementation need not be rushed. As long as all know where we are going, we can get there with deliberate caution, in a gradual but time-certain way that permits affected parties--Israeli settlers, returning Palestinian refugees, Israeli defense specialists nervous about letting go of the tiger's tail--to take steps toward a new reality in ways that minimize the furies of disappointment and grief. A little compassion, and a lot of hopeful oratory, can go along way here. The deal will overturn many lives; it will take some time for people to see its virtues.  Obama's ability to speak about generational transformation is a unique asset here.

Israeli settlers must be given time, perhaps five years, to find new homes within the Israeli state. The Israeli state apparatus should have time to repatriate and compensate Israelis who return; to plan, with the help of international forces, to cut settlements off according to a time-table from the Israeli power grid and water network.

The PA, for its part, should be given time to develop an effective domestic security force, like the one in Ramallah and Jenin, to establish its authority throughout the West Bank. Before refugees begin returning, the PA must be given time to engender the businesses and construction projects that will employ them. The state must develop an “absorptive capacity,” as the British once said about the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine. Only then will the PA be able to restart dialogue with Hamas from a position of strength. Meantime, the border between Gaza and Egypt should be opened.

Most important—and even before Israel terminates its occupation—the U.S. should lead the creation of a 10,000-person NATO force in and around Gaza and the West Bank, to monitor events and buttress anticipated areas of demilitarization. The force should give greater confidence to foreign investors, working alongside—not in place of—the emerging PA police. All members of the Arab league should make clear that recognition of Israel and full peace goes along with the deal; they should offer as down payment open academic and business exchanges with Israel. In this context, a peace with Syria should be concluded, with the demilitarized Golan turned into a demilitarized nature preserve.

The point is, if we have learned anything from this past year it is that things that “cannot go on” eventually can’t. The current carnage in Gaza is nothing if not a wake-up call: peace is not impossible, but Jerusalem could become a kind of Sarajevo in a matter of weeks, with Israeli Arabs joining in the fray. President Obama has the privilege of coming into power during a Middle Eastern crisis, which like all the other crises create opportunity. He can bring a new era to this region, but as with his plans for economic recovery, climate change, and the rest, the greatest danger is in thinking small.