Jeremy Ben-Ami is president of J Street, a Washington-based organization that advocates a diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
A mere 24 hours after it takes office this month, President Obama’s new national security team will come face to face with a fundamentally different political reality in Israel and the Palestinian territory than their predecessors dealt with.
The real story of the Israeli election scheduled for Jan. 22 is the meteoric rise of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) Party and its new leader, Naftali Bennett. Likely to head the second- or third-largest party in the next Knesset, Bennett advocates immediate annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank.
Gone from Israel’s next government will be any semblance of a moderate voice favoring a two-state solution. Instead, the ruling coalition will feature leaders such as Moshe Feiglin, a firebrand who wants to rebuild a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount, denigrates Muslims and democracy and suggests paying Palestinian families to emigrate.
Cabinet members are still likely to include Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein, who says Israel should move toward gradual or total annexation of the West Bank, and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who assures his supporters that “two states for two peoples was never part of Likud’s election platform.”
This is the Israeli reality of 2013, enabled in part by American politicians and staunch supporters in this country who refuse to question Israel’s policies as the two-state solution slips through our fingers.
Also awaiting Obama’s new team will be a clear message from the Palestinian leaders who still believe in two states: President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Without immediate, meaningful diplomatic action to bring about two states, they will say, talking about a two-state solution while Israel settles the land where Palestinians look to build their state is no longer a viable option.
Unless Obama acts meaningfully, the Palestinians’ next move is likely to be to either dismantle the Palestinian Authority or to pursue relief in an international legal forum.
The Obama team’s understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what needs to be done to solve it, has to catch up with these new realities.
Sadly, many in the nation’s capital remain convinced that Israel is simply building on land that “everyone knows” it will ultimately keep. In their view, the present settlement-building frenzy should not be a problem for Palestinians.
Contrary to The Post’s assertion in its Jan. 2 editorial, “Rash rhetoric,” that there is no concerted Israeli campaign to block creation of a Palestinian state, the words and deeds of Israeli leaders today say otherwise.
Construction and planning are taking place in areas far outside the “consensus” blocs that President Bill Clinton envisioned remaining with Israel in 2000. From construction in Shiloh and Beit El, to accrediting a national university in the outlying settlement of Ariel, to planning to develop the E-1 area east of Jerusalem, the government of Israel is unrelentingly establishing that it has no interest in the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
If Obama believes that achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a fundamental American national security interest, he will need to chart a far different course than has been tried before — and quickly.
No, he cannot impose a settlement. But these parties — with their lack of trust and wildly conflicting narratives and interests — cannot and will not work this out on their own. We need to stop fixating on “direct talks” as the only option and move the focus away from simply getting the parties “to the table.”
Obama must go to the region early in his second term and, backed by the entire international community, lay out the parameters for resolving the conflict, a credible timeline and a process for mediated discussions that assures both sides their concerns will be heard.
He and the world need to exert meaningful pressure on both sides to decide whether they will accept the well-known terms of a viable two-state solution.
If the majority of the people on both sides believes the package offered is reasonable — and polling consistently shows these majorities would support a reasonable two-state deal — then the leaders will be pressed by their own constituencies to say yes.
Israelis will have to decide between leaders such as Feiglin and Bennett, who say no to compromise and peace, and those who — like all six of Israel’s living internal security chiefs — are willing to lead the way to a two-state solution. Palestinians will have to decide between leaders such as Abbas and Fayyad, who believe in nonviolence and diplomacy, and Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s existence.
Inaction on the part of the United States is a recipe for a continued spiral toward extremism on both sides. Allowing this conflict to fester will be disastrous for the region and U.S. interests.
And throwing one’s hands up in despair or saying there’s nothing to be done until the parties themselves solve the conflict is not a policy.