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04/07/09

The fierce urgency of peace

By Roger Cohen, International Herald Tribune, 25 March 2009

WASHINGTON, DC - Pressure on President Obama to recast the failed American approach to Israel-Palestine is building from former senior officials whose counsel he respects.

Following up on a letter dated 6 November 2008, which was handed to Obama late last year by Paul Volcker, now a senior economic adviser to the president, these foreign policy mandarins have concluded a "Bipartisan Statement on US Middle East Peacemaking" that should become an essential template.

Deploring "seven years of absenteeism" under the Bush administration, they call for intense American mediation in pursuit of a two-state solution, "a more pragmatic approach toward Hamas", and eventual US leadership of a multinational force to police transitional security between Israel and Palestine.

The 10 signatories - of both the four-page letter and the report - include Volcker himself, former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Senator Chuck Hagel, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, former US Trade Representative Carla Hills, former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former US ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering.

My understanding is their thinking coincides in significant degree with that of both George Mitchell, Obama's Middle East envoy, and Gen. James Jones, Obama's national security adviser who worked on security issues with Israelis and Palestinians in the last year of the Bush administration, an often frustrating experience.

This overlap gives the report particular significance.

Of Hamas, the target of Israel's futile pounding of Gaza, the eminent Group of 10 writes that, "Shutting out the movement and isolating Gaza has only made it stronger and Fatah weaker".

They urge a fundamental change: "Shift the US objective from ousting Hamas to modifying its behaviour, offer it inducements that will enable its more moderate elements to prevail, and cease discouraging third parties from engaging with Hamas in ways that might clarify the movement's view and test its behaviour."

Although this falls short of my own recommendation that the United States itself - rather than European allies - engage with moderate elements of Hamas, such a shift is critical.

Without Hamas' involvement, there can be no Middle East peace. Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and president of the Palestinian Authority, is a beleaguered figure.

The report goes further: "Cease discouraging Palestinian national reconciliation and make clear that a government that agrees to a cease-fire with Israel, accepts President Mahmoud Abbas as the chief negotiator and commits to abiding by the results of a national referendum on a future peace agreement would not be boycotted or sanctioned."

In other words, stop being hung up on prior Hamas recognition of Israel and watch what it does rather than what it says. If Hamas is part of, and remains part of, a Palestinian unity government that makes a peace deal with Israel, that's workable.

Henry Siegman, the president of the US/Middle East Project, whose chairman is Scowcroft and board includes all 10 signatories, told me that he met recently with Khaled Meshal, the political director of Hamas in Damascus.

Meshal told him, and put in writing, that although Hamas would not recognise Israel, it would remain in a Palestinian national unity government that reached a referendum-endorsed peace settlement with Israel.

De facto, rather than de jure, recognition can be a basis for a constructive relationship, as Israel knows from the mutual benefits of its shah-era dealings with Iran.

Israeli governments have negotiated a two-state solution although they included religious parties that do not recognise Palestinians' right to statehood.

"But", Siegman said, "if moderates within Hamas are to prevail, a payoff is needed for their moderation. And until the US provides one, there will be no Palestinian unity government."

The need for that incentive is reflected in the four core proposals of what the authors call "a last chance for a two-state Israel-Palestine agreement". Taken together, they constitute the start of an essential rebalancing of America's Bush-era Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy.

The first is clear US endorsement of a two-state solution based on the lines of 4 June 1967, with minor, reciprocal, agreed land swaps where necessary. That means removing all West Bank settlements except in some heavily populated areas abutting Jerusalem - and, of course, halting the unacceptable ongoing construction of new ones.

The second is establishing Jerusalem as home to the Israeli and Palestinian capitals. Jewish neighbourhoods would be under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighbourhoods under Palestinian sovereignty, with special arrangements for the Old City providing unimpeded access to holy sites for all communities.

The third is major financial compensation and resettlement assistance in a Palestinian state for refugees, coupled with some formal Israeli acknowledgment of responsibility for the problem, but no generalised right of return.

The fourth is the creation of an American-led, UN-mandated multinational force for a transitional period of up to 15 years leading to full Palestinian control of their security.

Obama has told Volcker that he would, in time, meet with the signatories of the letter. He should do so once an Israeli government is in place. And then he should incorporate their ideas in laying out the new realism of American commitment to Palestine and the new price of American commitment to Israel.
 


Roger Cohen is a columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the International Herald Tribune. Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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