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November 4th, 2010, by Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan

Last September, when President Obama invited Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House to launch a new round of peace talks, he invoked the great historical figures on both sides of the conflict who had come before them. “Each of you are the heirs of peacemakers who dared greatly – Begin and Sadat, Rabin and King Hussein – statesmen who saw the world as it was but also imagined the world as it should be,” the president said. “It is the shoulders of our predecessors upon which we stand. It is their work that we carry on.”

What Obama failed to mention is that for all of their effort and sacrifice, none of those brave statesmen managed to bring the Israelis and Palestinians one step closer to peace. Indeed, after three decades of agreements and accords, initiatives and “road maps,” we are arguably further than ever from achieving a viable two-state solution to this seemingly intractable conflict.

It was precisely this record of abject failure that President Obama promised to reverse when he first came into the White House. He said he would think outside of the box and bring a fresh perspective to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He would be an honest broker, someone who could force both sides to make the sacrifices necessary for peace to prevail.

Yet in his two years in office, President Obama has offered no substantive policy shift from previous administrations, no specific proposals for achieving peace between the two sides, no framework for dealing with final status issues, nothing fresh or new whatsoever save for an unbounded sense of confidence that he could achieve in a year what all of his predecessors, going back to Jimmy Carter, failed to achieve in their entire tenures in office.

It did not have to turn out like this. When Obama traveled to Cairo last year, he spoke eloquently about the daily struggle of Palestinians living under Israeli “occupation” (the first sitting American president ever to use that word). He followed that historic speech by calling for an immediate and unconditional halt to all Israeli settlement construction in the Occupied Territories —“not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions,” as Hillary Clinton famously put it, but all settlement construction.

When that demand was ignored (much to the embarrassment of the White House), the Obama Administration immediately backpedaled, accepting as “heroic” Netanyahu’s decision to put in place a ten-month moratorium on new settlement construction in the West Bank. As that moratorium expired last month, President Obama placed his reputation on the line by sending a secret letter to Netanyahu in which he offered substantially more aid, more weapons, and more attention to Iran’s nuclear ambitions in return for a 60-day extension of the settlement freeze. That too was embarrassingly rebuffed, leaving Obama looking weak and ineffectual to both its allies and enemies in the region.

Since then, another 600 settlement units have been authorized for construction in the West Bank, adding to what the Israeli Human Rights group B’Tselem estimates to be approximately half a million Israelis who currently live over the Green Line, in what is supposedly designated as the future Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian president has walked away from direct negotiations while, according to a Netanyahu aid, the Israeli prime minister is content to wait for “friends of Israel in the House of Representatives, which is expected to have a Republican majority that is opposed to Obama,” to help him in “repelling the American president’s initiative.”

If there is any other way to describe the present state set of affairs other than utter failure, I do not know it. It turns out, then, that Obama was right: he truly is following in the footsteps of the great statesmen who came before him.

Still, all is not lost. The president has an opportunity, particularly after the midterm elections, to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process by doing exactly what he promised he would do two years ago – think outside of the box. What does that entail?

First, it means breaking from the Bush-era policy of pitting Hamas and Fatah against each other and instead using intermediaries to bring Hamas into the negotiations, as both the former director of Mossad and the former head of Israel’s National Security Council have advised. Second, it requires spelling out the consequences for both sides if America’s demands are not met. There is no reason why the US should not link the billions of dollars in American taxpayer money that is sent to the Israelis and Palestinians every year to their respective obligations in working toward a two-state solution. And finally, it necessitates doing more than merely talk about a Palestinian state (even George W. Bush did that), but actually making it a reality. The United States should join with the European Union and the United Nations in stating that its intention to officially recognize the existence of an independent Palestinian state in two years if negotiations toward a two-state solution are not immediately put back on track. That is a statement that Netanyahu will not be able to ignore.

These may be bold, unprecedented steps. But that is precisely what is needed if Obama wants to avoid the same fate as the “peacemakers” upon whose shoulders he claims to stand.

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