Ron Pundak
July 29, 2008 - 5:15pm

On January 20, 1993 we departed--Yair Hirschfeld and myself--for our first meeting in Norway with the PLO delegation headed by Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei). This meeting would eventually lead to the Oslo accord, signed nine months later on the White House lawn under the auspices of the president of the United States. That same evening, we watched the inauguration ceremony of President Bill Clinton. A new president, a wave of hope: we asked ourselves how involved the new administration would become in the Middle East peace process. Little did we know that to a great extent, it was the process we had launched that day that would dictate policy to the Americans and not the reverse.

The reality that will confront you, the next American president, whether Republican or Democrat, exactly 17 years later, on January 20, 2009, is completely different. The key to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still held by the two sides, but American interests in the Middle East have changed dramatically: the US can and must advance the peace process.

The Israel-Palestine file is ostensibly not a major strategic issue in terms of American global policy. Yet history shows that without a hard and fast resolution of that file the conflict will continue to affect American strategic interests. The cornerstone of a solution to the Israel-Arab conflict is a stable permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Such a move will significantly strengthen the US both in the Middle East arena and with regard to the troubled relationship between the West and radical Islam. At a time when the US is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab and Muslim worlds will look differently upon America and upon an American president who is advancing Middle East peace processes.

In this respect, timing is an important factor. The new president will not have the luxury of beginning his term while doing nothing to advance a Middle East peace process. The many regional challenges demand a move that embraces the broadest possible context, beginning with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but expanding toward Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Hamas, Shi'ites, Hizballah and additional threats to the moderate states in the Middle East. It is easier to withdraw from Iraq and to fight bin Laden's terror when America is taking the lead in a strategic peace process.

Time is running out. Hence a dual process, initiated by America, must be advanced as quickly as possible and must lead to two political settlements--between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Syria. We are not referring to detailed peace agreements but rather to detailed declarations of principles, including maps, that place the entire region on a new road--one that rests on the foundation of the Arab peace initiative of March 2002 that was ratified in full in 2007.

The Arab peace initiative is revolutionary compared to earlier and similar documents. The innovation lies not only in the initiative's political content but in its wrapping as well. Indeed, its language and cultural references strengthen its message. A double agreement, with Syria and the Palestinians, in effect realizes the historic Israeli aspiration, anchored in the Arab peace initiative, to end the Arab-Israel conflict and establish "normal relations" with all 22 members of the Arab League. Such a Middle East is decidedly an American interest.

Some will advise you, Mister President, to wait with the Syrians; that their interests are not clear and that they won't give up their dangerous link with Iran. Yet realistically speaking, there is no regional peace without Syria; in fact, the formula for Syrian-Israeli peace has been awaiting signature since 2000.

Syria can be either a spoiler or a builder. Its interests lie in its natural environment: in the domestic Syrian tension between Alawites and Sunnis, in Lebanon, and in confronting Israel, but not in Iran or in an alliance with extremist Shi'ism. Syria must not be left alone and feeling threatened. Its inclusion in the circle of peace is precisely what could weaken Iran's capacity to stir up trouble in distant arenas like Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

The dangerous tension between Iran and Israel can also be dispelled by energizing a peace process in the Arab-Israel sector. The day Israel establishes diplomatic relations with a Palestinian state--when Jerusalem is no longer an Israel-Arab or Jewish-Islamic cassus belli--the regime in Tehran will have no rationale for threatening to destroy Israel.

Apropos destruction, we conclude with a few words about Israeli fears. Bear in mind, Mr. President, that we are truly a paranoid people. Israeli fears have historical underpinnings, some real and some exaggerated. Dealt with properly, these fears can be overcome, but he who ignores Israeli paranoia will never succeed in facilitating a solution. Most of the Israeli public wants peace and is prepared to pay a price we are all aware of. The problem is lack of trust and a strong sense of constant threat at both the individual and collective levels. Israel's readiness to make concessions to the Palestinians and Syrians will not be forthcoming unless it senses that the world, and particularly America, will continue to stand by its side and neutralize threats to its existence.

This, then, is an issue of public opinion. But who better than you knows that without supportive public opinion it is extremely difficult to lead toward change.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017