There has been a lot of talk about the need for the Obama administration to engage on Israeli-Palestinian issues early and often, unlike the Bush administration. This can be a productive approach, particularly in light of the split in the Palestinian camp, as long as expectations are not raised too high. The primary purpose of such engagement should be to stabilize the situation and set the stage for an ultimate resolution of the conflict via a two-state solution.
Two pitfalls, however, must be avoided.
The first is the temptation to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the key to solving all of America’s problems in the Middle East. Adopting such a view would create unnecessary tensions between America and Israel. It would put too much weight on this specific issue and inevitably lead to demands that Israel be the party to make the greatest concessions. And it would not yield progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue or on any of the other major challenges America faces in the region.
Second, the administration must avoid taking what some refer to as an “evenhanded” approach. It is self-evident that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will require concessions on both sides, and America’s role should be to give incentives to the parties to move in that direction. “Evenhandedness,” however, fails to take into account the vast differences in the historic relationships the two sides have had with America, in the institutional characters of the two societies, in the meaning of democratic values in each and in their respective approaches to peace.
Israel is an American ally in every sense of the word — strategically, morally and in terms of public attitudes. As President Obama said in his recent Al Arabiya TV interview: “Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel’s security is paramount.”
Like America, Israel is a vibrant democracy, with a robust civil society, an independent judiciary and a free press. While the United States should help find a solution that serves the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians, there is no moral equivalence between the two sides. “Evenhandedness” can only lead to a distortion of what American-Israeli relations are about; and ultimately, by ignoring the differences between the parties, this approach would fail to achieve the goal we all share of bringing peace to Israelis and Palestinians alike.
What, then, should American engagement focus on?
It should, above all, provide an answer to what has increasingly become the accepted Israeli view that concessions to the Palestinians produce not moderation but greater extremism. This is what took place after Camp David, when then prime minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat a state. And this is what took place after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. How can Israel consider tangible concessions when all the evidence seems to be that concessions make Israel more vulnerable and lead to more Palestinian violence?
The new administration, together with Israel, should respond to this challenge — the primary one standing in the way of real progress — by taking steps for the Palestinians as well as asking for steps by the Palestinians.
Confidence-building measures such as economic assistance, freeing prisoners and lowering obstacles to Palestinian freedom of movement are all steps that need to be continued and, when possible, expanded. But they must be accompanied by American insistence on getting the Palestinian Authority to stop the teaching of hatred of Israel on television and in schools, to deal with terrorists in a more serious and consistent way, and to continue to develop responsible security forces.
It is also vital that the administration, in tandem with Egypt and the European Union, make sure that arms smuggling to Hamas does not restart. This is a vital priority not only to avoid further conflict but to assure Israel that there are ways of protecting its citizens short of going to war. Eventually some international presence and coordination could play a role in the West Bank as Israel considers concessions there.
It is often said that the outlines of a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians are fairly clear, but that the challenge is getting there. Final-status issues that are controversial among Israelis, such as settlements and Jerusalem, are resolvable, but only in the context of a process that fundamentally changes the dynamic with respect to the impact of Israeli withdrawals and concessions.
The challenge for the Obama administration is to create new realities that will give Israelis incentives to consider making hard decisions. Insisting that Palestinian leaders behave differently, providing mechanisms to reduce the ability of Hamas to make trouble, and creating some confidence that the international community can play a constructive role in preventing violence are the best things engagement by the Obama administration can produce. If there is success in these areas, then the stage can be set for the tough negotiations down the road that can ultimately produce a two-state solution, with both Israelis and Palestinians living in peace and security.
Abraham Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author of “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).