When President Obama appointed Senator George Mitchell as his Special Envoy for Middle East Peace on January 22, the second day of his administration, he said, “Just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so, too, is a future without hope for the Palestinians.”
Warren Clark, CMEP Executive Director

Hope is a central issue for making any real progress toward ending the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the Holy Land. Time and time again, the history of this struggle between two peoples for legitimacy, security, and justice has shown that when there is no hope for progress towards peace, there will be violence. The question of hope is at the heart of the problem now for both sides and also for the U.S. as we see our own interests affected by this conflict to a degree as never before.

Reasons for Skepticism

When I traveled to the Holy Land in December with members of the CMEP Board, there was universal skepticism about the possibility of a peaceful resolution. Some Israelis were dismayed by the lack of understanding or cooperation between the two peoples while others were fearful and angry at the rockets coming into southern Israel from Gaza. Palestinians complained that they had seen their government negotiate with Israel and the U.S. for over a year with few visible results while Israeli settlements continued their inexorable expansion into Palestinian territories.

Even as internal security in the West Bank improved, with Palestinian police training and Palestinian borders with Israel remaining quiet, over 600 road blocks remained deep in the West Bank, choking off commerce and ready access to jobs, schools, hospitals and holy places.

In Jerusalem, threat of Palestinian house demolitions continued for lack of Israeli building permits while Israeli housing expanded apace. West Bank Palestinians remained unable to reside with a Jerusalem resident spouse. The 1.5 million residents of Gaza, for a second year, remained cut off from the world except for a trickle of “humanitarian” food and medicine, hapless hostages to the political tensions between Israel and Hamas. Hamas remained in control of Gaza and continued to employ indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks. We left the region just before the ceasefire collapsed with a spiral of rocket attacks against southern Israel and massive Israeli retaliation that left a reported 13 Israeli and 1,300 residents of Gaza dead, many of whom were women and children.

In these circumstances hope was a scarce commodity. One thoughtful Christian leader told us there was just too much politics, too much religion, and too much foreign meddling for there to be real progress for peace. His response was to continue working to improve people’s lives in tangible ways, but without much expectation of improvement in the overall situation.

Have circumstances changed since last December to justify any new grounds for hope? The objective situation on the ground is no better and in some ways is ways is worse. The blockade of Gaza remains while the population survives with much of its housing and infrastructure destroyed after weeks of fighting. Only limited humanitarian relief is allowed through the checkpoints in an effort designed in part to deny Hamas the political credit for reconstruction. High level U.S. officials that intervene, including Senator John Kerry (D-MA) the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are reduced to debating whether macaroni is a luxury or should be allowed in as humanitarian relief.

Announcements of new Israeli settlement building and building permits in the West Bank continue. The Israeli non-governmental organization Peace Now notes that if all Israeli housing plans in the West Bank were completed, the Israeli settler population would double. The Israeli elections that came right after the Gaza violence benefited hard-line political parties within Israel. Likud party chief Benjamin Netanyahu, who will lead the next government, favors improving the Palestinian economic situation rather than actually working to create a viable Palestinian state. Other parties that made strong gains support settlement expansion and another notoriously calls on Israel to rid itself of most of its Palestinian citizens that make up nearly 20 percent of Israel’s population.

Changes in Washington

In the face of this grim reality President Obama has demonstrated by word and deed that work for Israeli-Palestinian peace will be a high priority from the beginning of his administration and not a last-ditch end of second term effort like his two predecessors. In appointing Special Envoy Mitchell President Obama said his administration will “…actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors” and “… will sustain an active commitment to seek two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Still, is it realistic to hope that this President’s team can make real progress this time when so many others have failed in the past? The demonstrated inability of the two parties to make progress themselves, given the asymmetries of their power, and with so much hanging on the willingness of the U.S. to exert balanced leadership, Middle East peacemaking is as much about the U.S. political process as it is about the Middle East. That means Congress will have an important voice in policy implementation.

I believe there is a growing shift in U.S. public opinion, reflected in a flurry of Congressional statements, resolutions, sign-on letters and trips following the Gaza conflict. Even during the crisis itself key Representatives and Senators spoke out in support of an end to the violence in over 40 statements that combined strong support for Israel with strong demands for renewed U.S. leadership to achieve Israel-Palestinian peace.
While outgoing Secretary of State Rice put exclusive blame for the fighting on Hamas, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked whether “it was realistic to expect the ceasefire to hold while Gaza remained under siege, rife with hunger, illness, joblessness…while construction of settlements continued and even accelerated….” Public opinion is also reflected by influential popular figures like the late night comedian Jon Stewart voicing criticism for the scope of Israel’s military response in Gaza.

Members of the administration so far have tried to keep a low a profile on the issue. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said as little as possible when she was in Jerusalem and Ramallah in March. Special Envoy Mitchell is in “listening mode” and has avoided the press. All this looks like the careful development of a game plan while waiting for Israeli and Palestinian political developments. It should become clear later this spring how fast the administration feels it can move down the path of bringing about a durable peace with justice between Israel and the Palestinians.

What About Hamas?

Little in the way of meaningful negotiations for peace can proceed as long as the Palestinian polity is split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. In the face of what appears to be a real possibility of meaningful negotiations, Hamas and Fatah have been motivated to agree to talk about conditions for some kind of reconciliation or coalition government. In the past the U.S. and EU refused to deal with a coalition government until Hamas first agreed to recognize Israel, end violence, and accept previous agreements. Hamas has said in the past it would not recognize Israel but might participate in a coalition that recognizes Israel. It is not impossible that creative diplomatic formulas could be found that would allow Hamas to operate with Fatah in negotiations and thereby create a disincentive for violence.

Where Does the U.S. Go From Here?

Having said that the administration will aggressively pursue peace on the basis of a two state solution, the next bullet that must be bitten will be a statement by Mitchell, supported by the President, about the need to hold both Israel and the Palestinians accountable for past agreements, including importantly a full freeze on settlement activity in order to preserve the option of a two state solution.

To be successful any U.S. peace proposal must include a clear vision of the major benefits to the parties that will result from progress. A separate peace between Israel and Syria alone outside a larger political framework as some now advocate would be problematic. Rather, U.S. diplomatic outreach should include a regional component that uses the Arab League proposal of 2002, repeated in 2007, for recognition and normal relations with Israel by all Arab States in return for an agreement based on Israel’s 1967 borders.

Regional negotiation at some point could include Iran; Iran already has been invited to regional talks led by the U.S. about Afghanistan. Traveling in southern Lebanon last December, where Iranian-supported Hezbollah is firmly and visibly in control, it seemed clear to me that while Hezbollah is not able to wage war effectively against Israel, its Iranian patrons can effectively block a peace deal between Israel and its neighbors to which Iran is not a party. In sum, Iran must be part of a final peace equation.

The two state approach, difficult as it will be, is the only one that fits well into the emerging US strategy of a more stable and peaceful Middle East in the next few years that includes reestablished U.S. relations with Syria, plans for talks with Iran and withdrawal from Iraq. A proactive U.S. policy announced as expected in the next few months will inevitably generate strong political opposition. CMEP’s role then as now will remain to help support and strengthen the political forces in Washington, D.C. working for peace.