Ghaith al-Omari
Israel Policy Forum (Opinion)
May 27, 2009 - 12:00am

Over the course of successive visits by Middle Eastern leaders to the White House, President Obama's policy for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is starting to unfold. King Abdullah of Jordan's visit highlighted the important role the Arab world should play in support of the peace process. Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit reiterated President Obama's commitment to the two-state framework and the centrality of freezing settlement construction. President Abbas' visit will play an important role in clarifying what the Palestinians need to do. What is emerging is a delicate architecture of mutually reinforcing measures, focusing each party on its own obligation, and leaving the job of ensuring compliance by others to American diplomacy.

President Obama's meetings with both the Jordanian King and the Israeli Prime Minister amplified the regional context in which the Administration is approaching the Arab-Israeli conflict. This relates directly to Iran, which is a matter of concern both to Israel and the Arab world. While no policy linkage was articulated, the relation between the two files cannot be escaped. On the one hand, as President Obama said, progress on the peace process will make it easier to build a regional coalition to deal with Iran. This is where Israel can play a constructive role. On the other hand, the Arabs have to do their share. The Arab Peace Initiative (API), which promises full acceptance of Israel by all Arab and Muslim states in exchange for ending Israeli occupation of Arab lands is a significant instrument, but it is still too vague and general to serve immediate political purposes. Operationalizing the API would make it easier for Israel to make progress on the peace process. This would create a virtuous dynamic that serves the interests of all parties.

The President's meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu highlighted the Palestinian-Israeli piece of the puzzle, and the message there was clear: while US-Israeli relations are deep and strategic, the US has a national interest in realizing a two-state solution, and an expectation that settlement construction will stop. This message was strongly reinforced in the Prime Minister's meetings on the Hill, including his meeting with Jewish members. Accepting the two-state solution and freezing settlement expansion would create the context that will enable the Palestinians to start more vigorously implementing their obligations without endangering Israel's security.

President Abbas will walk into a unique meeting on Thursday: his basic demands - accepting the two state solution and opposing settlements - have already been accepted by the US. If he focuses on the traditional Palestinian set of grievances, he will quickly realize that he has misread the recent developments in Washington. Instead, he must come to the meeting with a list of measures that the Palestinian Authority (PA) will take to move the process forward.

First and foremost, the PA must remain committed to the two-state solution. While it is premature to discuss the specifics of a final peace deal, President Abbas must convincingly reiterate his commitment to such a deal and his willingness and ability to make difficult compromises when the time comes. He must also reiterate his longstanding position that he will not allow an internal Palestinian arrangement that does not meet international conditions or which detracts from previous PA obligations. He must also assure the President that he will not allow any individuals or institutions under his authority to question this principle or to engage in incitement. Incitement by officials provides fuel to those who question Palestinian commitment to the two-state solution, and it needs to be stopped.

President Abbas must also signal his clear and concrete commitment to establishing good governance, security and the rule of law under the PA. The recent achievements on the security front, attained by the partnership between General Dayton and the PA, must be built on to create the necessary space for progress.

President Abbas need not abandon his central asks. Indeed, he will need to reiterate the logistical and political importance of a settlement freeze. However, if at the end of the meeting, President Obama leaves with the sense that he has a serious partner and a reasonable chance of realizing a foreign policy achievement, then the interests of Palestinians, Americans and Israelis would have been served.


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