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Playing From Strength in the Middle East

The peace plans proliferated shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In these “land for peace” deals, Israel would evacuate the territory it had occupied in exchange for peace with the Arabs and in line with the United Nations Security Council resolution 242.

Israel concluded such deals with both Egypt and Jordan. But as it continued to colonize the occupied Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights, Arabs began to worry about a “peace for peace” scenario: Israel keeps the land while Arabs get the peace.

Today the Obama Administration appears stuck in a “freeze for peace” moment: an Israeli freeze on settlements in exchange for further Arab normalization. This might have been a good idea when first mooted. Not any more. It has been undermined by reports of an American-Israeli thaw to continue construction of some 2,500 housing units in the illegal settlements.

And it has hit up against an Arab position. As Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister put it starkly this week, unless Israel is clearly committed to withdrawing from Arab lands, there is no interest in incremental “confidence-building measures.” This is hardly surprising — given that Israel has expanded settlements for 42 years.

The problem with “freeze for peace” is that the Obama administration is playing from weakness. It is like a poker player with a large pile of chips facing a belligerent player with only a few chips left — most of which the administration has given or lent him — just shelling out hard-earned cash to keep the old game going.

America, instead, should play from strength. Here are five suggestions, none too politically costly to Obama:

First, up the ante. The administration can neatly step out of the trap it has unwittingly set for itself by shifting the discourse from a settlement freeze to an evacuation.

Here’s what Obama could say: “Let me be clear. I have already stated that my administration does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. There is no point having ‘natural growth’ in structures which must be evacuated, as required by international law. Peace with the Palestinians — based on two sovereign states along the 1967 borders with minor, mutually agreed modifications — is the best guarantee of Israel’s survival and security. We call on the world to act: Not against Israel, but against Israel’s occupation.”

Second, the administration should heed the growing mainstream demands to stop those American Jewish organizations that are funding the illegal settlements. The Washington Post has carried two solidly researched pieces questioning these organizations’ tax-free status — one by David Ignatius in March, and one by Ronit Avni in June. You don’t get more mainstream than the Post, and these columns reflect a fast-growing shift in American public opinion, including among American Jews, in support of tougher action for peace.

Third, just as Israel is stalling on what America has described as one of its national security interests — peace in the Middle East — the administration should similarly stall on issues important to Israel. For instance, sharing military technology, providing military aid or loan guarantees, and conducting joint military exercises. Bureaucracies can find ways to slow things down without a policy shift, and the administration should use them all.

Indeed, Obama should recall that the Bush administration slapped tough sanctions against Israel in 2005, when it violated restrictions on sharing American technology by selling Harpy killer drones to China. Israel got the message and toed the line.

Fourth, engage Hamas so as to rescue Gaza and enable reunification of Palestinian ranks. This is easily done. Hamas has upheld a ceasefire with Israel. Its leader, Khaled Meshal, supported a two-state solution in a May interview with The New York Times. The Quartet (Russia, America, European Union, and United Nations) could interpret this as constituting acceptance of its conditions that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel’s existence, and accept past agreements

Fifth, encourage Europe to deflect some of the heat from the United States. The European Union has shelved an upgrade of relations with Israel. Some member states are taking action against Israeli imports made in the illegal settlements. But Europe could do much more, given that it is Israel’s largest trading partner.

European leaders are ready for such measures. For example, in late July several British members of parliament forcefully challenged a government minister for not doing more to end Israel’s occupation. As one parliamentarian put it, “Our Government’s response has been to protest to the Israeli ambassador, but [this] is like shouting at a fish. All the evidence is that, when we protest, the Israelis build the settlements even faster.”

There is much more the Obama administration can do. The five steps outlined above are just a few of the chips it has to hand — powerful diplomatic ways to bring about peace.

NADIA HIJAB is an independent analyst and a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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