Seeds for a Mideast Peace Crop

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, May 31, 2009

Memo to President Obama:

Cling to one thought as you work on your greatly anticipated speech to the Muslim world Thursday in Cairo, Mr. President: There is no American solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that you can heroically deliver from on high. Peace must be built from the bottom up by the warring sides. Cling to that thought but keep it to yourself.

It would be pleasing to your hosts to suggest the opposite -- a made-in-the-USA plan for the Middle East. Some of your aides believe this is a special moment that can end the region's Sixty Years' War if you intervene forcefully enough. But that neglects history and the internal logic of the conflict.

Your own jut-jawed face-off with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office two weeks ago suggested that you hoped to bring a West Bank settlement freeze to the Cairo masses and a global Muslim audience this week. Netanyahu pushed back by ruling out unilateral gestures, insisting that Israel, the Palestinians and moderate Arab states move simultaneously.

You will not, of course, take Netanyahu's no as a final answer on the settlements. You are right when you say they are not only a huge obstacle to regional peace but also a stain on the global reputations of Israel and the United States. But the settlements cannot be treated in isolation or used as trophies with which to win Arab favor. They will eventually have to be for the most part evacuated as part of a give-and-take in which Israel's legitimate security concerns are addressed. For Netanyahu, agreeing to freeze settlements is tantamount to declaring them chips to be bargained away. He will require a good bit more than is on offer now from the Palestinians and other Arabs to make that move.

Yes, new administrations feel compelled to offer overarching initiatives to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and some have been useful -- especially when they have been so poorly thought out that they scared the two sides into bypassing the United States and seriously negotiating with each other.

See Carter, Jimmy, and the Oct. 1, 1977, Soviet-U.S. communique that drove Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem and eventually to the Camp David treaty. Other presidents have cynically put forward peace plans, road maps and demands for settlement freezes to placate the Arabs with process rather than substance. See everybody from Nixon, Richard M., to Bush, George W.

But cynicism is not your long suit, and unwittingly scaring others into acting in their own best interest is not your style. You need instead to start a step-by-step process built on squeezing Israel and the Palestinian Authority to fulfill the implicit bargain struck in Oslo in 1993. You should give glimpses of that approach -- but not present an American blueprint for the final outcome.

In the Oslo accords, Yasser Arafat was offered a Palestinian state in return for that state's eliminating Palestinian terrorism. But Arafat never intended to go through with either part of the bargain. He feared a two-state solution's finality as much as he feared dismantling the terrorist machine he had helped create. Instead, he bobbed and weaved his way through U.S. peace efforts while enriching himself and his cronies and destroying the Palestinian Authority's claim to moral and political legitimacy.

But the bargain's logic remains intact and should be incorporated into a revival of a realistic two-state solution, not the rhetorical fig leaf your predecessor offered. Israel must come back to empowering Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, and his security forces, by dismantling settlements and roadblocks to bring stability to the West Bank and eventually Gaza.

The United States has trained two brigades of Palestinian security forces, which kept order in the West Bank during the January upheaval in Gaza, and wants to train half a dozen more. This is patient, low-visibility U.S. help that builds confidence for Israelis and Palestinians to reach their own settlement. So does Tony Blair's work on economic development.

Today the Arab side lacks a leader as visionary as Sadat to save a failing U.S. effort or a Palestinian leader as skillfully duplicitous as Arafat to keep a homegrown one afloat. It is a moment for what George Shultz, Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, called the "gardening" phase of diplomacy -- pulling weeds and planting seeds -- rather than overly ambitious plans that raise expectations too high.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company