DENVER – U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech on the ongoing popular uprisings in the Middle East, followed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington, was intended to kick off a renewed effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Things are not turning out as planned.
Instead, Netanyahu took the opportunity of Obama’s address to emphasize his own well-documented opposition to a two-state solution based on a return to the pre-1967 borders. He chose not to address either the issue of using those borders as a starting point for negotiations, or Obama’s idea of land swaps (a very common element of international peace negotiations) as the means to get from that starting point to the end game.
Netanyahu’s response to Obama’s initiative signaled what has been apparent for some time: the complex regional process known as the Arab Spring, and the eve of a U.S. presidential election year, are difficult circumstances in which to try to re-start the peace process. As Netanyahu’s statements suggested, the Israelis have some serious concerns: if the basic equation remains after all “land for peace,” just who will their interlocutors be after the dust has settled in the Arab world?
This troubled moment is an appropriate occasion to ask some fundamental questions about the peace effort itself, a process whose length in years is beginning to span the lifetimes of some of the people engaged in it. The elements of an eventual settlement have been known for years: the creation of a viable Palestinian state — a goal endorsed by the last two U.S. presidents — together with secure borders for Israel, some arrangement on Jerusalem, and an economic package. If these components were boxed and sold as a parlor game, those playing it would not find creating Middle East peace especially challenging. Yet, for decades, neither the parties nor any of the many peace mediators have been able to claim the prize. Now that a raucous regional situation is being joined to a raucous American election season (where no issue is excluded from the political arena), the task of assembling these components will be even more difficult.
It is too early to assess the historical effect of the Arab Spring, but if there is one conclusion that can be drawn today, it is that Israel and its Palestinian neighbors had little to do with it. For Americans (and others) who believe that the Arab world thinks about nothing but the Palestinian cause, events this spring in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and even the Levant should have convinced them otherwise.
In the months ahead, we can expect the region’s countries to remain focused on issues of governance and capacity building, human rights and how to create economies that respond to their restive citizens’ demands for a better life. New Arab leaders will struggle mightily with the public’s rising expectations, and their willingness to get behind a peace process will take a backseat to that struggle.
Thus, an argument could be made that during this delicate time of transition, and in the complete absence of any indication of progress, the peace process might well benefit — at least for the time being — from stalemate, if not benign neglect.
When nothing is moving in the right direction, the most appropriate step might be to press the pause button. Here, everyone needs to tread with care. There has been considerable discussion about how regional developments could eventually affect the peace process. For example, any leadership in Egypt must deal with more democratic internal structures (such as parliamentary committees) in the future. But the absence of a peace process could also eventually influence internal developments in Middle East countries undergoing reform. We should not ignore how the absence of a peace process could ultimately erode the fragile (and by no means universal) gains in the rest of the Arab world. If the peace process does not exist, the resulting vacuum might tempt some in the Arab world to deal with the problem of rising economic expectations — and, alas, dashed political expectations — through old-fashioned anti-Israel demagoguery.
One of the most hopeful and refreshing aspects of the Arab Spring has been the retreat of Arab radicalism in the face of real people anxious to address real problems. But the absence of a peace process could encourage its return. So policymakers are facing difficult challenges.
It is critical to respond to the Arab Spring with assistance that is commensurate to the movement’s historical possibilities. The Obama administration’s efforts in Egypt, as well as the G8’s proposals for what needs to be done for the region as a whole, signals that international leaders understand that this is a defining moment.
But this recognition won’t be enough. World leaders must help the battered peace process pick itself up from the canvas, clear its head, and fight on.
Christopher R. Hill is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. © 2011 Project Syndicate
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