Peace or process?

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I am deeply hesitant to use the oft-unjustified phrase "a moment of truth" when referring to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But I have the nagging sensation that we have finally arrived there nonetheless. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ threat to resign and not seek another term in office, US President Barack Obama’s seemingly complete failure to convince Israel to halt its illegal settlement activity and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s complete yet strangely-honest disregard for anything resembling peace has shed the hated "peace-process" of any and all pretentions. These factors, in addition to other broader issues (such as the European Union’s lethargy, the Taliban’s resurgence and the complete breakdown of intra-Palestinian dialogue) have led us by the nose to the edge of the abyss. It is now time to finally abandon "process" and make a drive for peace.

It is said that great events make great men, but the truth is often less appealing. If Barack Obama is to emerge as a great leader (as opposed to a successful politician), he needs to recognize and confront a few facts. The first is that there are no leaders among the group of politicians currently in power in the Middle East. Abbas has been the caretaker of a non-entity since the death of Yasser Arafat five years ago, destined to pathos from the outset. Paradoxically, his threat of resignation is probably the first decision he has made in half a decade that may have real consequences. By removing the fig leaf that is the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s nakedness also comes into full view. As for Netanyahu, he has never been anything more than a vainglorious wannabe, hell bent on ending any hope of a just resolution. The one thing in his favor is that he has never changed his stripes and Obama would be wise to recognize this.

The second fact is that there will never be Israeli security without Palestinian security: i.e., the end of the Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the June 1967 war. The heralded two-state solution based on international law and legitimacy is more distant today than ever before, buried under the rubble heaped high by Israeli bulldozers. There is simply not enough land left in occupied territory that isn’t pockmarked with Jewish settlements. Ever since the launch of the current peace process 18 years ago, the failure of consecutive American administrations (not to mention the toothless Europeans) to rein in their client state has been breathtaking. President Bill Clinton, after meeting Netanyahu during the latter’s first term as prime minister, is said to have remarked to one of his aides, "Who the hell does this guy think is the superpower here?" It seems that President Obama may be asking the same question today. A large part of the future of the Middle East depends on the answer.

Third is the fact that elections do not make democracy. Voting in a secure environment as part of a state governed by the rule of law, that is democracy. The Palestinians have neither a state nor law, so elections are not only useless but counterproductive, especially so when the liberal western democracies rejected the last election when they didn’t like the outcome. Abbas’ imminent resignation and/or the dissolution of the Palestinian non-Authority will not kill the peace process; that has been dead a long time. What it will do is expose the myth of the process itself. When Israel complains that it has no real partner, it is right. There hasn’t been one in almost 20 years and Israel has done a wonderful job in keeping it that way. By bidding "adios", Abbas is doing his people, Obama and even the Israeli people a favor.

There are only two possible outcomes to this drama: the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestine as enshrined in UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, with Jerusalem as the capital of two states, or the gradual absorption of the Palestinians within the state of Israel itself. Despite the woeful shortcomings of the original Oslo accords, there was a slim chance to make real progress during the Rabin government. After his assassination, however, not one Israeli or American administration was serious about bringing an end to the conflict. Being serious means paying the price in real terms for political boldness. Barack Obama now stands at this crossroads.

He can follow his predecessors’ game plan and waste more years, lives and treasure trying to tiptoe between the raindrops. At some point however (and probably soon), the forces of desperation will take hold and will find a long line of hopeless people waiting to throw restraint (and bombs) to the wind. Or Obama can throw caution to the wind and make an all out push to implement the settlement that everyone knows is the only option. Hold Israel accountable for its actions, demand that it fulfill its obligations, or withdraw US financial and political support for the occupation. It can and should be gradual, but the pressure must be clear. Demand and hold the Arabs accountable for their actions, just the same, or withdraw political and financial support for their regimes.

I know that there is a real struggle going on in the heart of the US administration about how to go forward. But with Abbas’ resignation, it is clear that the game is up. If Barack Obama wants to succeed where every other US president has failed over the past 30 years, he will have to move with the strength, boldness and hope that he so poignantly envisioned during his campaign and his Cairo speech. After 18 years of a fruitless peace process, it is time to take the steps necessary to end this conflict once and for all. The US has the power, methods and means to pull this off. I am sure that Europe will fully support his efforts. I am even sure that the majority of Arabs and Israelis will be thankful and support him in the long run. He would be risking a major backlash from occupation apologizers, but great things never happened because an opinion poll said so. To paraphrase the motto of the NAACP, a chance for peace is a terrible thing to waste.

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