Rami Khouri
The Daily Star
April 14, 2010 - 12:00am

The Obama administration is indicating that it may offer its own version of a reasonable Palestinian-Israeli peace plan, if the parties themselves cannot agree to start the US-mediated “proximity talks.” This may be useful, but it must be carefully thought out – much more carefully than all other American-organized Mideast peace moves in the past generation.

One of the ironies in seeking a negotiated Arab-Israeli peace agreement is that only the Americans seem capable of playing the mediator’s role, but also that the Americans are woefully unqualified to do so, to judge by their own legacy. Other than the Jimmy Carter-mediated Camp David agreements in 1978 and the disengagement accords negotiated by Henry Kissinger in the mid-1970s, major American-mediated peace efforts have been a recurring failure (consequently, many people question why someone like Dennis Ross continues to hold important positions related to Middle East policy, when his track record has been defined by colossal failure).

My advice to the US government if it offers a blueprint for Arab-Israeli peace: Review all the failed mediating efforts of the past 30 years, and chart a new strategy that avoids repeating all the mistakes of the past. This could include the following principles:

Do not offer an “American plan” for Arab-Israeli peace, but instead use the vast American experience and inside knowledge of recent mediation efforts to forge a united international position that might have a much better chance of being accepted and negotiated. An unambiguous major lesson of this generation is that Arabs and Israelis alike (along with Turks, Iranians and others) routinely defy and actively resist the United States when it operates unilaterally.

Now is the time to bury the derelict “Quartet” and come up with a new mechanism that brings together the key international parties who will be needed to push all the parties towards agreement on a comprehensive peace. Russia, the European Union, China, Turkey, Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Japan, and India strike me as parties that should be involved in this process from the start.

The UN must be the neutral setting within which multinational diplomacy takes place, not a subordinate to Israeli-dictated American foreign policy, as it has been in the Quartet. UN resolutions remain the only common reference points for a legitimate peace agreement. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and NATO also can be used to provide wider frameworks within which the parties might feel comfortable negotiating seriously.

All recent American-mediated negotiations have failed for two main reasons, I believe: The US has not been an impartial mediator; instead, it has usually tilted wildly toward the Israeli position on key issues. And, a permanent peace was sought through incremental advances via “confidence-building measures.” Any chance of success today, therefore, requires a more even-handed American position (we may be seeing some novel signs of this with the Obama position), and peace-making proposals that directly, substantively and quickly address the core demands of both sides.

These core demands are: The Palestinians need recognition of the role of Israel and its pre-state Zionist groups in creating their exile and refugee status in 1947-48. This problem must be resolved by implementing international law and UN resolutions on refugee compensation, restitution, return, resettlement and other options, in a negotiated manner acceptable to and respecting the bottom line needs of both sides. And, the occupation of 1967 must be ended and a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state established.

In turn, the Israelis need to receive formal, unambiguous recognition of their existence as a Jewish-majority state in the region that is fully accepted by all other states. There must also be a formal affirmation of the end of conflict and the end of all Arab claims against Israel. Israel must also receive security guarantees, as all other states must, and develop normal, open relations with all states in the region.

Most American-mediated peace efforts have sought to achieve these goals as the final point of a negotiating process, without success. It is time to place these issues as the starting point of a diplomatic process, making it clear what an agreement will offer.

Finally, any plan proposed by the US and the international community that hopes to have a chance of success must be anchored firmly in the dictates of international law and legitimacy, not in the current power balance or the domestic political pressures of Israel or an Israeli-manipulated American Congress.

These are tough conditions. But successful peace-making is a tough business that requires serious men and women who operate according to a combination of political realism, even-handed persistence, independence of action, and moral and legal legitimacy. American mediators have largely lacked those qualities for over a generation. They should try to regain them before they venture out again on the treacherous stage of Arab-Israeli diplomacy that more often discredits rather than validates the work of American diplomats.


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