Connect Gaza and the West Bank now

So finally there are no more reasons to wait. The US president has been sworn in. A special envoy has been chosen and is already setting up office and finally the new Israeli government has been formed.

President Obama and his aides have repeated over and over his support for the two state solution while the new Israeli government has refused to publicly support the Annapolis process and can’t bring themselves to use the three letter word: two state solution.

So what are the options awaiting Senator Mitchell as he sets up his new office in Jerusalem with Keith Dayton as his security deputy and David Halle as his deputy for the peace talks?

The traditional US diplomatic approach has been to impress on the process part of the "peace process." On the other hand, the often repeated Arab position is that the US can press Israel to amend its policies. Such calls include either through cutting off aid or cutting off political protection (in other words abstaining rather than vetoing in the security council) or both.

President Obama’s impressive signals since day one in office (calling Arab leaders before European allies, appointing Mitchell and speaking on Al Arabiyeh TV) reflect a different approach than what has traditionally come out of Washington. In the last thirty years US administrations have usually become deeply interested in the Arab Israeli conflict in the last year of a two term administration. So the process-only approach doesn’t appear to be the thinking of the Obama administration.

On the other hand, it is not clear whether Washington has the stomach for a major confrontation with the new Israeli government. While leaks coming out of the White House say that the administration is preparing for such a possibility, few observers believe that this will be how things will in fact turn out.

Although the main issue of difference at present is over the shape of any final outcome (two state or not), the more likely point of friction will most likely be issues that are taking place on the ground. A study of the Mitchell report (which was produced during the greatly pro-Israel Bush administration) points to settlements as the next point of confrontations. On this issue Mitchell and the US administration have been very clear even though they have not been effective. A freeze of all settlement activity which includes expansion and natural growth will certainly be the center of the focus of the new robust presidential envoy Mitchell and his team on the ground.

The Jerusalem issue is also another on the ground issue that will be the litmus test of the seriousness of the Obama administration. The repeated house demolitions and provocations in East Jerusalem point to the need to confront this issue very early on.

While clarity on the two state solution would be welcomed by Palestinians, and while a true settlement freeze will send a powerful signal, the one major need for Palestinians today is somewhere else.

The separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank is possibly the single biggest danger confronting the long term Palestinian aspiration. Irrespective of the outcome of the internal Palestinian dialogue taking place in Cairo, there is a need to reconnect Gaza and the West Bank. There is no excuse why Palestinians living in either part of Palestine should be barred from traveling to the other part of the occupied Palestinian territories. Despite claims by Israelis that barring the movement of people and goods from both parts of the occupied Palestinian territories is done for security reasons, the facts are clear that this is done for political and strategic reasons. Under the leadership of General Dayton, the most robust security checks can be made, but there is absolutely no excuse to bar Palestinians from moving from the West Bank to Gaza and the other way around.

Palestinians have high expectations from President Obama and his envoy Senator Mitchell. Connecting Gaza and the West Bank is doable and doesn’t require Netanyahu or Leiberman to declare their support or rejection of the two state solution. Such connection could be the single most powerful message of hope that can be delivered in the next weeks or months. If this is not carried out it is highly doubtful that a lasting peace agreement can be reached in the near or distant future.