May 31, 2009 10:17 pm

Obama must build on Arab peace initiative

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The positive atmosphere surrounding last Thursday’s meeting between President Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, confirms the new US administration has changed the approach to the Middle East. This was already apparent in Mr Obama’s talks the previous week with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, which were far from routine in spite of the long, close relationship between the two countries they lead.

Israel, under Mr Netanyahu, is no longer committed to the two-state solution that has underpinned the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians for the past 18 years. Mr Obama, meanwhile, seems to be moving towards substantive engagement in the peace process on the basis of the “land for peace” formula on which it was conceived. New pressure from Washington for Israel to comply with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty indicates that this engagement is strategic, not merely window-dressing.

The result is a collision waiting to happen. Mr Netanyahu seeks Palestinian “autonomy”, while Mr Obama has reiterated his commitment to a Palestinian state. The US president has also underscored Israel’s obligations under the ­Washington-brokered “road map” to stop building Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Half a million Jews live in more than 100 settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, built since Israel occupied the area in the 1967 war. It is indicative of Mr Netanyahu’s policies that, only one day before the Israel-US summit in Washington, Israel announced bids for the construction of 20 new housing units in an illegal West Bank settlement in the occupied Jordan valley.

Mr Obama’s shift in policy is born out of the recognition that the main factor behind the radicalisation of Palestinian and Arab society is the failed peace process. The Palestinian public considers a peace process that continues the acquisition of Palestinian land through settlement construction to be no peace at all.

“Moderate” Arab leaders and governments allied with the US are losing ground against Islamist political opposition. Among Palestinians, continuing tension between Hamas and Fatah is a prime example. Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, proposes achieving Palestinian aspirations of ending Israel’s occupation by peaceful and negotiated means. Hamas, which wrested control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in June 2007, argues that Israel understands only the language of force. The Islamist group points to Israel’s evacuation of southern Lebanon after armed resistance from Hizbollah and to the unilateral disengagement from Gaza after its own resistance.

By contrast, those who support negotiations lose ground when their opponents raise the issue of Israeli settlements. It is no surprise, then, that Hamas has been able to stand its ground in Gaza, despite a crushing Israeli blockade on the entry and exit of people and goods. Cairo is mediating between Fatah and Hamas to resolve the split but with little success to date.

Israel’s behaviour – specifically its expansion of settlements – alongside its new policy of rejecting the two-state solution, will only give Iran and allies such as Hamas a groundswell of support. A change in direction, on the other hand, meaning real progress in the Palestinian-Israeli political process, would contribute to achieving US objectives in the region, particularly improving its relationship with Iran.

Mr Obama faces an enormous challenge in reversing the trend of radicalisation. The damage caused by the previous US administration is deep and far-reaching. Two things are needed. The first is a focus on Israel’s illegal settlement activity, which is creating the kind of facts on the ground sure to pre-empt the vision of two states. The second is a credible negotiations process that will convince Israelis and Palestinians it is possible to end the occupation and achieve other legitimate objectives by peaceful means.

To do this, Mr Obama should take advantage of the Arab peace initiative, proposed in 2002. The Arab states promised Israel unanimous Arab recognition, security and regional integration if it were to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and negotiate a solution for Palestinian refugees. Mr Obama needs to start work on such an approach when he meets Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak this week. Given the pressure moderate Arabs are under, there is no time to be lost.

The writer is a vice-president at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning

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