President Obama has concluded a long-awaited visit to Israel. It was a truly remarkable and historic trip which moved the policy needle in the correct direction. He strongly reaffirmed the United States-Israel alliance and friendship. He articulated the historic rootedness of Jews in the Promised Land and the blessing of modern-day Jewish statehood.
The president also used the occasion to call upon the Israeli people and government to pursue peace with the Palestinians. “There are always going to be reasons to avoid risk,” said Obama; however, “the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine…. Two states for two peoples.”
Listening to the inspiring and eloquent words of Barack Obama might even lead one to forget the sorry history of the peace process under Obama’s predecessors.
On the Syrian peace track, for example, Prime Minister Ehud Barak took a great “risk” in 1999 in presenting President Bill Clinton’s team with a proposal intended to end that conflict. Israel was prepared to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights as part of a peace agreement. And yet, as noted by Clinton’s chief negotiator, Dennis Ross, in his 2004 book The Missing Peace, Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad remained dismissive. Why? For the first time in the history of the process, he added the claim that the Sea of Galilee belonged to Syria. Thus a deal died.
Similarly, in 2000, Barak took a “risk” and accepted the “Clinton Plan,” ready to implement a two-state solution.” Regrettably, Yasser Arafat refused to comply. President Clinton reflected his disappointment with Arafat in his memoirs. “I am not a great man,” Clinton told Arafat in one of their last conversations. “I am a failure and you have made me one.”
Saeb Erekat, Arafat’s chief negotiator at Oslo, explained his chairman’s thinking in an interview with Al Jazeera. According to Erekat, Arafat told Clinton, “I will not be a traitor. Someone will come to liberate [Palestine] after 10, 50, or 100 years. Jerusalem will be nothing but the capital of the Palestinian state.”
Regrettably, this pattern of rejecting Israeli “risk-taking” repeated itself in 2008 during the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency. In her memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalls the effort by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to take “risks” in negotiating a permanent peace. Rice referred to this blueprint — giving the West Bank to the Palestinian state with only minor land swaps, and internationalizing Jerusalem’s “Holy Basin” — as “the best deal ever.” Rice noted that “to have an Israeli prime minister on record offering those remarkable elements and a Palestinian president accepting them would have pushed the peace process to a new level.”
Unfortunately, Mahmoud Abbas rejected the Olmert plan. Bush “took Abbas into the Oval Office alone and appealed to him to reconsider. The Palestinian stood firm, and the idea died,” Rice writes. According to Erekat, Abbas “responded with defiance, saying, ‘I am not in a marketplace or a bazaar. I came to demarcate the borders of Palestine — the June 4, 1967, borders — without detracting a single inch, and without detracting a single stone from Jerusalem, or from the Christian and Muslim holy places.’ This is why the Palestinian negotiators did not sign.”
These episodes stand in contrast with Israel’s success in taking “risks” for peace with Egypt, withdrawing totally from the Sinai, and altering borders with Jordan. In each instance, Arab leaders — President Sadat and King Hussein — reciprocated and signed formal peace accords. Israel took risks by unilaterally withdrawing from southern Lebanon under Barak and from Gaza under Ariel Sharon. Both times, the absence of Arab reciprocity resulted not in peace but in the intensification of the Mideast conflict.
President Obama’s call for peace is most welcome. Two states for two peoples living in secure borders is a dream shared among the vast majority of Israelis and world Jewry. The Israel partner already has shown its ability to rise to the occasion, time and again taking risks on its path toward peace.
However, the call for taking “risks” and being courageous in seeking peace must also be broadcast openly to President Abbas and his constituents, so that they become willing to publicly affirm and pursue a goal of a Palestinian Arab and an Israeli Jewish state living side-by-side in tranquility.