Mideast Political Conundrum; Settlement Expansion Is a Threat to Peace Negotiations
Byline: Ziad J. Asali, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The renewed violence between Israel and Hamas, in which 1.5 million innocent Palestinians are caught, is yet another definitive demonstration that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel will not be able to secure its future, normalize its relations with the region and live in peace without an agreement with the Palestinians; Palestinians will not achieve liberation and independence without an agreement with Israel.
The fundamental conundrum is that the Palestinians and Israel cannot completely bridge the gaps that separate them on their own. To achieve an agreement, both parties require an outside intervention, and that can only come from the United States.
Beyond the violence, there is a critical problem that renders the status quo unmanageable: this is the expansion of the settlements, which erodes the physical possibility of a two-state solution. Settlement expansion threatens the meaningfulness of future negotiations about the establishment of a Palestinian state and poisons the political atmosphere. It creates political problems in Israel by empowering a passionate and belligerent constituency opposed to necessary territorial compromises. The responsible leadership in the Palestinian Authority, and the whole Arab world, is largely defenseless against the accusation that they have failed to deliver as long as settlements grow.
Along with securing a lasting cease-fire in Gaza, freezing the settlements will be the main issue the incoming administration must deal with in its early days. There is an urgent need to buy time to prepare the political groundwork for a successful round of negotiations, bolster moderates on both sides, establish an effective framework, and perform the other necessary tasks that would have to precede an agreement, without continuing to lose ground and credibility.
The reality is that no Israeli political leadership has been able to take the bold step of enacting a comprehensive settlement freeze, even during the Oslo period, nor is one likely to be able to do so on its own and survive. Israeli leaders need help, even though doing this is in their country's own interest. Only the American president can give the vital and necessary political cover to an Israeli prime minister and cabinet for this step to be adopted. This cannot take the form of pressure but should instead reflect strategic understandings and interests.
Along with the United States, the Arab states have an important role to play in this equation. While expanding the dialogue and even negotiations at the appropriate level with all parties, we need to work on a strategic partnership with responsible Arab leaders committed to ending the conflict. Israel's freeze of settlement activity needs to be coupled with significant incentives provided by the Arab world. These could take the form of public movement towards operationalizing the Arab Peace Initiative that could serve as a reasonable quid pro quo for Israel's settlement freeze.
Many political issues in the Middle East are interconnected and interdependent. A comprehensive regional strategy is needed in which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is prioritized. Even though dealing seriously with this issue with view to resolving it will not solve all the other problems, it would be uniquely helpful across the board. Acknowledging that no other achievable goal in the Middle East would have as many benefits to the United States, we must abandon any thoughts about managing this conflict and proceed with a serious strategy to resolve it.
Palestine is the ultimate political symbol in the Arab and Muslim world. Whoever is perceived as the authentic champion of that cause gains enormous, possibly unassailable, credibility. Permanently losing the issue to radical religious extremists would very likely pave the way to an unstoppable wave of revolts and even revolutions. …