Swing away, Barry

September 9th, 2010

So President Barry H. Obama wants to do the impossible and bring peace to the Middle East. But if he expects to have any chance at success, he better borrow a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy handbook and speak softly but carry a big stick. And perhaps a fat checkbook.

Everyone – from the Arabs and Israelis to the U.S., U.N. and EU – agree that the two-state solution, or the creation of a separate Palestinian state made up of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is the only viable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But it’s those sticky “final status” issues – settlements, Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees – that have killed virtually every peace process since 1979.

And that’s exactly what Obama has to realize: this isn’t just a peace process. It’s a political game. And more than 60 years of violence have taken a psychological toll on the people of the Holy Land. So Obama’s going to have to crack some skulls and bust some balls – diplomatically speaking, of course – in order to knock some sense into the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. And he’s going to have to start with the issue of Israeli settlements.

On Sept. 26, Israel’s moratorium on settlement construction will expire, and Israel has shown no interest in extending it. Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have warned that if construction continues, peace talks will end. But Israel has always argued that [most] of its settlements in the West Bank would eventually be swapped for an equal amount of land to Palestine.

So before that deadline expires, Obama needs to force the leaders to figure out exactly which settlements will be swapped, presumably those closest to the border with Israel. As for the rest of the settlements, especially those deep inside the West Bank and around East Jerusalem, they are going to have to be dismantled just as the settlements in Gaza were in 2005. It’s not going to be pretty, but it has to be done. After all, the settlements are a violation of international law.

Linked to the settlement issue is the status of Jerusalem. Many Israeli conservatives – including Prime Minister Netanyahu – insist that the city has to remain the “eternal and undivided” capital of Israel. But Palestinians want to make the predominately Arab east Jerusalem the capital of their Palestinian state, and their request should be honored.

Next on the list should be the issue of Israeli security. This is Israel’s primary concern. The more secure Israel feels, the more likely it will accept a peace deal. Therefore, Israel’s demands that it station Israeli troops on the borders of Jordan and Egypt to prevent weapons smuggling into Palestine should be honored, as should its demand that Palestine not have a national army.

With the issues of settlements, Jerusalem and security settled, the issue of borders would fall into place. The only issue remaining, therefore, would be the status of Palestinian refugees. Since 1948, violence has driven some three to four million Arabs from Israel. Arab leaders want Israel to recognize the refugees’ right of return – but that’s not going to happen. Such a decision would defeat the entire purpose of a two-state solution. Instead, financial compensation and citizenship to Palestine or another Arab country will have to suffice.

Speaking of financial compensation, recent articles in Time magazine and The New York Times have suggested that the one thing most Israelis and Palestinians may value more than peace is prosperity. When Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979 and Jordan with Israel in 1994, all three states received billions of dollars in economic aid from the United States. So it should be in this case.

While six decades of violence may have made Israelis and Palestinians a little loony, it’s also made them stubbornly strong. So if peace talks fail and they have to endure another 60 years of intermittent violence, they can. And they will.

However, in the partially paraphrased words of Bill Clinton, if Obama is serious about peace, all he has to do is one thing: remind the Israeli and Palestinian leaders who the [expletive that rhymes with “sucking”] superpower is here.

So grab that big stick and swing away, Barry. Swing away.