Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Mideast Peace Deal You Haven't Heard About

Benjamin Netanyahu is much more serious about Middle East peace than most Americans realize. With U.S. diplomacy on the brink of a surprising success, it's time for the Palestinians to step up.

For a year or two at an early stage in his career, I commuted to and from our adjacent offices each morning and evening with Martin Indyk, later a top peace-process official of the Clinton administration atthe Camp David negotiations and now vice president for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

I had just left the Rand Corporation to work at AIPAC,the main pro-Israel lobbying organization in Washington.

Even in those pre-Oslo days of 1982 to 1983,Martin was a True Believer in the idea of a grand land-for-peace bargain between Israel and moderate Palestinians. Reviewing each day the latest installments in the Middle East epic as we rolled down Rock Creek Parkway, weargued all the way.

I heaped scorn on any solution that required Israel totrust Palestinian intentions, and I held that Israel's security could only bebased on a qualitative military edge and the balance of power. I told Martinthat he and our mutual friends Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller, and Dan Kurtzer,though with the noblest of intentions, were pursuing an illusion.

Martin emphatically thought I was wrongabout the Middle East, and he also thought I was blind to an enduring reality in Washington. He said that Democratic and Republican administrations of the left and right may come and go, and some presidents will have less confidence in Middle East peacemaking than others, but no U.S. president will be able to sustain a policy of benign neglect of the peace process for long.

The American people, the United States' European allies, and U.S. friends in the Arab world allneed to have a ray of hope. They need to believe that active diplomacy under U.S.leadership is bringing closer a resolution of the conflict between Israelis andPalestinians, because it is a conflict that roils other American interests anddestabilizes U.S. relations in the region and throughout the world. Martin often cited our friend, the late Peter Rodman, who taught us that U.S. policyin the Middle East is a bicycle. You can keep your balance if you roll forwardeven at a snail's pace, but if you try to stand still you will fall off.

Martin never did succeed in convertingme to the peace camp, but over time I saw the undeniable evidence that he wasright about the imperatives of U.S. foreign policy. Sooner or later, every presidentturns to the peace process, and the Mideast advisors who move to the president'sinner circle are the ones he thinks have the best ideas about how to moveforward toward a contractual peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

I think Benjamin Netanyahu has gone through a personal evolution a little like my own. He continues to be profoundly skeptical that signing a piece of paper can put an end to this conflict. He is a fierce advocate of defensible borders and military strength as the true guarantors of Israel's security.

Nevertheless, he has come back to a second term as prime minister with a deeper appreciation of the reality thathis relations with the United States, Europe, and moderate Arab neighbors dependon the perception that he can be a partner in the search for diplomaticprogress with the Palestinians. And he certainly knows that many harbor doubtsabout him.

That is why Bibi agreed to do somethingunprecedented, something that six previous Israeli prime ministers since the1993 Oslo Accords (Rabin, Peres, Barak, Sharon, Olmert, and Netanyahu himselfin his previous term) refused to do. Very much against the will of his partyand coalition, Netanyahu consented to putting a freeze on "natural growth"of settlements. He has drastically curtailed the volume of construction starts,even in the "consensus" settlement blocs that he believes wereconceded to Ariel Sharon by George W. Bush.

Now, below the radar, Netanyahu is making a series of additional concessions to Barack Obama and his Mideast peaceenvoy, George Mitchell. Their current priority is negotiating "terms of reference"to permit the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (TORs in negotiators' vernacular).

Dismissed by some as mere "talking about talking," TORs are in fact vital elements to create the parameters for serious negotiations.For example, then-Secretary of State James Baker shuttled around the region for eight months to negotiate the TORs that made the 1991 Madrid conference possible.

All that was done just to phrase a letter of invitation that allsides could accept. The result was far from trivial; it was a framework thatopened the way to all the direct negotiations that followed over the ensuingtwo decades.

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