Amjad Atallah
The Los Angeles Times (Opinion)
March 12, 2010 - 1:00am,0,3747061.story

It took a year of trying for President Obama to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to enter into "proximity talks" to resolve issues standing in the way of a final peace plan. But as we learned from the stunning announcement this week -- during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to the region -- that Israel had approved 112 new settlement units in the West Bank and 1,600 new settlement units in East Jerusalem, there is a lot that can go wrong.

Assuming the Israeli announcement doesn't derail the process before it gets underway, the Obama administration will need to move decisively. And in doing so, it should keep in mind three valuable lessons from the fight for healthcare reform.

The first is the importance of maintaining ownership. The administration made clear that getting affordable healthcare to all Americans was a top priority. But it then farmed out the details to legislators, who spent a year making a hash of things.

Similarly, James L. Jones, Obama's national security advisor, has made it clear that the Israeli-Arab conflict is a top priority for U.S. national security interests in the Middle East. And it should be. Nothing would help us more in every theater of operations than a U.S.-engineered resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In contrast to that assessment, however, other U.S. officials -- including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- have said that although the United States wants an agreement, "we can't want this more than the parties." But, in fact, the U.S. may want an agreement more than this particular Israeli government.

Israel's Likud leadership may have agreed to resume talks, but their actions seem designed to ensure failure. In addition to approving new settlements, Israeli officials have signaled that they want to reopen issues that have already been resolved in previous talks -- such as where borders should be drawn -- rather than taking up where things last broke off, as called for by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Tzipi Livni, leader of Israel's Kadima party.

This is oddly similar to the Republican demand that Congress go back to the beginning on healthcare in the wake of Scott Brown's election to the Senate. Revisiting issues that have already been settled is not part of an honest attempt to reach an agreement, but rather an effort to run out the clock on this president.

The administration must lay down the parameters for talks and then drive the parties to discuss areas of greatest agreement. If the parties can't ultimately agree on all issues, the United States should marshal international support for proposals that can be endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.

A second pertinent lesson from the healthcare process is the need to act quickly. Healthcare reform efforts have dragged on so long that opponents have had time to mount one hyperbolic attack after another. Similarly, a long negotiation process on Middle East peace would allow spoilers to mount attacks that could doom an agreement.

The Arab League, which provided Abbas the cover he needed to agree to the peace talks, has threatened to pull its support for the process in the wake of Israel's settlement announcement. Assuming the league does stay engaged, it has called for a four-month deadline for concluding the talks, which would mean they would end shortly before Israel terminates its self-proclaimed moratorium on settlement construction. Although the moratorium is rife with exceptions -- as this week's announcement showed -- Palestinians assume Israel will launch into an even greater frenzy of construction on Palestinian land in September.

This gives the United States precious little time to get to an agreement. But the good news is that many difficult issues have already been negotiated. The indispensable ingredient now is American political will to see the process concluded with a measure of real justice for Palestinians and security for Israelis.

The Bosnian-Croatian-Yugoslavian talks lasted years while the international community playacted at being an "honest broker." When the United States finally took charge, ramming through an agreement -- even an imperfect one -- peace was achieved.

A final lesson of healthcare is the need to sell the public on the process. Obama has finally taken to the "bully pulpit" to explain to Americans why the healthcare reform bill needs to be passed now -- even if it is imperfect.

Israeli-Arab peace is an over-riding American national security objective, but it is also a hot-button issue domestically. Those who think Israel's borders are set by divine fiat probably can't be won over. But they are not the majority, and those who are worried about Israel's security can be convinced of the need to move forward. The majority of American Jews (including the 78% who voted for Obama), and the majority of American Muslims, American Christians and American Arabs all agree with the president's reading of this conflict. But the president needs to energize them to be his support network as he presses for an agreement.

This conflict remains an impediment to America's interests in the Middle East. We have no choice but to engage fully in ending it.

Amjad Atallah is director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and served as a legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team from 2000-03.


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