How to ‘Re-start’ Mideast Peace Process

by the victorious Allies, would thwart Wilson's idealism. History also proves that many, if not most, effective covenants, or treaties, are not "openly arrived at." How do the lessons of Wilson's failed vision apply to the current efforts by the Obama Administration to restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Let us consider some recent developments:

In the lofty ideals of his “Fourteen Points,” President Woodrow Wilson included “Open covenants, openly arrived at” among his bedrock principles to assure that the lethal First World War would indeed be “the War to End All Wars,” and that the “world would be made safe for democracy.” As history painfully proved, the Versailles Treaty of 1919, along with the harsh terms imposed on Germany by the victorious Allies, would thwart Wilson’s idealism. History also proves that many, if not most, effective covenants, or treaties, are not “openly arrived at.” How do the lessons of Wilson’s failed vision apply to the current efforts by the Obama Administration to restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Let us consider some recent developments:

a) In his June speech in Cairo, President Barack Obama addressed the Muslim and Arab worlds, expressing his hope for a new and positive relationship to redress the strains and rifts that resulted from the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In those remarks, Obama reaffirmed that the support by the United States for Israel is “unbreakable,” while pointedly stating that there must be a freeze on Jewish settlements. The latter statement was expanded upon by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make it clear that the administration would not allow for exceptions in the settlement freeze, even for “natural growth,” despite assurances from the Bush Administration that such expansion was acceptable.


b) President Obama hosted a meeting at the White House for the leaders of 16 major Jewish organizations. At that meeting, while the Jewish leaders were generally supportive of the President’s olive branch to the Arab and Muslim worlds, concern was expressed by the Anti-Defamation League’s longtime national director Abraham Foxman and others that there was a growing perception that Israel was being unfairly singled out for pressure on the specific issue of the settlements, with no comparable pressure on the Palestinians to comply with previous understandings that terrorism must be not only denounced but stopped — along with an end to teaching incitement against Israelis and Jews in schools under the Palestinian Authority.

Foxman wrote in a blog post last weekend on the Huffington Post Web site, “Everyone understands how to measure compliance with a demand to ‘freeze’ all settlement activity. But there is simply no way to objectively calculate improving and extending ‘positive actions on security’ or acting ‘forcefully against incitement’ or refraining ‘from any action that would make meaningful negotiations less likely.’ There is no way to quantify the ‘steps’ Arab states should take ‘to improve relations with Israel’ or ‘prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel.'”

Foxman makes a good point when it comes to the pressures being placed on Israel, but he is not quite on target in his assertion that there is “no way to objectively calculate” the steps that could be taken by the Palestinians and the Arab states to improve the climate for peace. If there is indeed a long-term and sustained cessation of terrorist activity, if Palestinian textbooks that defame Israelis and Jews are withdrawn, and if Arab states proactively recognize Israel as a permanent reality in the region, these certainly can be “quantified” even if they have not as yet materialized.

Adding to the mix of the fast-changing events in the Middle East was the major policy speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his speech, Netanyahu became the first sitting head of the conservative nationalist Likud Party to formally embrace a two-state solution. Netanyahu said his government would be willing to accept creation of an independent Palestinian Arab State alongside Israel, provided that it recognize Israel as a Jewish State and be de-militarized. The request that Israel be specifically recognized as a Jewish State is not exactly a radical new position. Going back to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which Great Britain “viewed with favor,” the establishment of a “Jewish National Home” in Palestine, and the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947, which explicitly mandated separate Jewish and Arab states, along with the obvious de facto reality of Israel’s status, Israel is, and has a right to be recognized as, a Jewish State.

The Obama White House and the Clinton State Department both “welcomed” Netanyahu’s embrace of the two-state solution with no accompanying criticism or “pressure.” In the meantime, the flurry of diplomatic activity by the U.S. in the region has continued. George Mitchell, the special Mideast envoy and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates were both in Israel last week, as evidence that the Obama Administration is serious about its intention to create momentum towards peace in the Middle East.

We urge caution in over-reacting to each and every public utterance made at news conferences following high-level talks in the Middle East. Often the greatest diplomatic progress is made in behind-the-scenes and off-the-record meetings and back-channel approaches. Such methods were used for the ultimately successful meetings between the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin which led to the Camp David talks and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Back channel talks also paved the way for the Oslo Accords in which Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization exchanged formal recognition to each other and paved the way for the structure of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“Open covenants openly arrived at,” (as Wilson discovered) is an idealistic goal that seldom succeeds. As an administration deals with a complex world of over 189 independent states and a Middle East with 22 Arab states, a Jewish State, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a fanatic and repressive regime in Iran seeking nuclear weapons, a “one size fits all” approach will not work.

As we approach another Jewish New Year in just a few weeks, we pray that perhaps “next year” will bring the peace that the United States, Israel and the majority of Palestinians and other Arabs seek and deserve.