Daoud Kuttab
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
April 1, 2010 - 12:00am

The US is the only world power that can help Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace. Few dispute the unique American standing. For the US to be able to help shepherd a serious peace process, the trust of both parties to the conflict is critical. The absence of trust, more than settlement announcements, seems to be the real reason behind the current anger of the Obama administration toward its most important Middle East ally.

Lessons from failed previous attempts to produce a breakthrough in the peace process often focus on trust. The gap between what is agreed to behind the walls of the White House or the State Department and what happens on the ground in Israel and Palestine has done more to poison the relationships between the parties, and between them and the US, than any other factor.

Diplomats and observers have repeatedly called on the US and other members of the Quartet (Europe, Russia and the UN) to publicly identify whichever party is in violation of agreed-upon steps toward peace. Only when the understandings behind closed doors and the reality on the ground are in sync can this elusive trust be restored.

Former US ambassador Dan Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky of the US Institute of Peace have given exactly this advice to the previous and current US administrations, based on thorough research of what is needed for American leadership to be effective. Their book, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East, outlines 10 lessons learned from failed US attempts to broker peace.

Lesson five states: “Commitments made by the parties and agreements entered into must be respected and implemented. The United States must ensure compliance through monitoring, setting standards of accountability, reporting violations fairly to the parties, and exacting consequences when commitments are broken or agreements not implemented.”

This was what President Barack Obama insisted on when he met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas last September. He reminded both of their obligations according to the road map, and agreed with both leaders on a new path.

Since then, the Palestinians have continued to fulfill their commitments, especially on the security front. Palestinian security forces in the West Bank have worked extremely well to thwart violent acts against Israel, even during its war in Gaza. US officials and even Israeli generals have praised the efforts, including the success of Palestinians newly trained in consultation with US General Keith Dayton.

FURTHERMORE, THE strategy of Salam Fayyad, the PA prime minister, of implementing a blueprint for a de facto state rather than focusing on Israel has won worldwide support, including positive words from pro-Israeli senators such as Joe Lieberman.

The idea of holding leaders to their commitments by monitoring the situation on the ground didn’t start with the Obama administration. In January 2008, president George W. Bush named Lt.-Gen. William Fraser III, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to monitor progress on the road map. In a talk at Princeton University in April 2008, Kurtzer was pleased that his book’s idea was picked up by the Bush administration. However, he complained that Washington was not following through. He explained that it is not enough to send the general for two days a month and expect that to count as monitoring.

Kurtzer was not the only person who felt that Bush wasn’t serious in wanting to hold the parties accountable. Successive Israeli governments clearly don’t seem to have taken their responsibilities seriously.

On May 1, 2008, Fraser was confronted with the reality. Israel Radio reported that a Jewish settler had driven his jeep into the convoy accompanying Fraser. One of the vehicles in the convoy collided with the jeep. A fracas ensued between the guards and Jewish settlers before the Americans decided to cut the visit short. The upshot? Settlers were left free to engage in illicit activities in the occupied Palestinian territories.

While this story was widely reported in the Israeli media, the American people are clearly not aware of it, or of the many Israeli acts of humiliation toward American officials. Nearly two years later, it remains remarkable that Americans are regularly forbidden to travel freely or to carry out their monitoring work or any other humanitarian work.

AS AN honest broker to the Middle East peace process, America needs to restore trust with the parties before a serious process can really begin.

As president Reagan said, you need to trust, but verify. Current tension has emerged because of very real failings that the Americans have witnessed on the ground. One of the most important tests is whether the parties to the conflict truly want peace. Once this is established, the US and the world will be able to help them translate it on the ground.


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