To Peace Plan or Not to Peace Plan, and When?

Reports earlier this month that President Barack Obama may present a comprehensive U.S. peace plan for resolving the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict have spurred a growing public debate over its wisdom and timing.

While relatively few voices are calling for Washington to table such a plan immediately, some experts argue that Washington should be preparing the ground now, if it is not doing so already, for unveiling possibly as early as the end of the year. 

"I do think there is a point where it’s very important to lay out a plan," according to Martin Indyk, former President Bill Clinton’s top Mideast adviser and currently vice president of the Brookings Institution. He stressed that such a step should, however, be preceded by close consultation with both parties, preferably in the context of their own negotiations. 

Others, most of them closely associated with the so-called "Israel Lobby" clustered around the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), strongly oppose the idea. They argue that any peace accord covering key final-status issues, including security arrangements, borders, the Palestinian "right of return," and, perhaps most controversially, the fate of Jerusalem, can and should be resolved as part of an incremental process of confidence building between the parties themselves. 

These voices, as well as others, also argue that Washington should be focused far more on Iran and stopping its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons than on resolving what has proved to be the chimera of Israeli-Palestinian peace. 

"A protracted disagreement over …the contours of a final settlement is a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant," wrote Richard Haass, president of the influential Council of Foreign Relations in Monday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial views on the Middle East are closely aligned to those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. 

The controversy over a possible U.S. peace plan comes as both the Obama administration and Netanyahu appear to have worked out a "gentleman’s agreement" to resolve last month’s contretemps over Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem that effectively prevented the launch of U.S.-mediated "proximity talks" between the PA and Israel. 

Although he will publicly deny it, Netanyahu has reportedly pledged to enforce a de facto freeze on new construction in the city and prevent other provocations that Abbas has cited as sabotaging a credible peace process and his own political position. 

Washington is hoping that that understanding, as well as additional Israeli steps — among them, the release of some long-held Palestinian prisoners, easing the blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza, expanding the area under PA control on the West Bank, and including future borders and the status of Jerusalem on the agenda of direct or indirect discussions — will be sufficient to induce Abbas to join the proximity talks. 

The deal is expected to be sealed after Abbas consults with other Arab League leaders later this week, followed by a visit by Obama’s special envoy for Mideast peace, Sen. George Mitchell, to the region a few days later. 

Assuming the proximity talks do indeed get underway, the Obama administration, which since its first days in office has pledged to make a final peace settlement a top priority, is expected to press both sides to quickly engage in direct negotiations on final-status issues. It has already suggested that it will offer "bridging proposals" in the event of an impasse. 

Even with bridging proposals, however, many analysts here believe that the two sides will prove unable to agree on the most sensitive issues, notably the "right of return" and Jerusalem’s status. They argue that the articulation of a U.S. plan, largely based on the so-called "Clinton parameters" that were worked out in U.S.-mediated talks between July 2000 and January 2001, will be necessary sooner rather than later if Obama is to realize his ambition of ending the conflict. 

The urgency of that goal has been underlined in recent weeks both by Obama, who last week referred to the resolution of the conflict as "a vital national interest of the United States," and other top U.S. officials. They include the chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, who stated explicitly that the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle has made his work, including weakening Islamist groups like al Qaeda and isolating Iran, much more difficult. 

"Enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the area of responsibility," he told Congress last month. "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples." 

Such assertions have been strongly rejected by AIPAC and its allies. They have argued that Israeli policies toward Palestinians have little or nothing to do with ongoing wars in Iraq or Afghanistan and that achieving a peace accord would, in Haass’s words, fail both to resolve questions of political stability in the "largely authoritarian Arab world" and "weaken Iran’s nuclear aspirations." 

They also argue current circumstances — including the division on the Palestinian side between Fatah and Hamas, the strong rightward shift in Israeli public opinion since the Gaza withdrawal, and the loss of U.S. influence in the region — make prospects for success particularly dim and that failure could be catastrophic to what remains of Washington’s credibility on the issue. 

"To say conditions are not ripe for a U.S. initiative does not mean waiting for them to ripen," according to Robert Malley, Middle East director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), which first called for Washington to present its own plan eight years ago. "It means taking deliberate, sustained steps to make them so." 

In a new report, Malley, who worked on the Middle East for Clinton and advised Obama early in his presidential campaign, calls for Obama to repair strained relations with Tel Aviv without backing down from core U.S. principles; engage key constituencies, including Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlers, that have been ignored in previous peace efforts; adopt a more flexible policy on reconciliation between Abbas and Hamas; and encourage the resumption of peace talks between Syria and Israel. 

Once such a plan is articulated, according to the report, Washington will need to marshal strong international support, particularly among Arab states that can provide political backing to the Palestinians and regional recognition to Israel. 

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.