The often-quoted warning by the late Israeli statesman Abba Eban that “Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” in peacemaking tells only part of the story. All parties have missed opportunities to end the epic Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and if the Obama administration does not act quickly and forcefully, we may lose the only viable option for lasting peace: two states for two peoples.
The two-state solution, Israel and Palestine side by side in the Holy Land, has been U.S. policy for 16 years and remains so under President Obama, even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not committed to it and the Palestinian leadership is split. Obama is right to invite Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders to separate talks in Washington this month; without early U.S. engagement and consistent pressure, negotiations won’t go anywhere. Rather, as we saw during the Bush administration, the situation will continue to unravel, ending in violence.
The new Israeli government has set preconditions that create obstacles for negotiations, such as asking Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to declare that Israel is a Jewish state. To Palestinians, that would be tantamount to conceding on the key issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees even before talks begin. Netanyahu also says the U.S. must make progress on nuclear negotiations with Iran before he will negotiate with the Palestinians, although many in the Obama administration and Jordan’s King Abdullah II argue the reverse, saying that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front would help the U.S. press Iran. Abdullah estimates that the parties have about 18 months to make progress or risk another conflagration.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, are immobilized by the enmity between Abbas’ Fatah party, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. Egyptian-led talks have failed to produce a unity government. Seeking a carrot to offer, the Obama administration has asked Congress to permit aid to flow to a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. But that has run into opposition from those who say Hamas must recognize Israel before benefiting from U.S. aid.
The current calm in Gaza belies a simmering anger among Palestinians that makes negotiations as urgent as ever. Israel has opened the borders to more food for the 1.5 million residents, but maintains tight restrictions on reconstruction and other aid -- everything from cement and glass to lightbulbs and hearing-aid batteries. About 50,000 Gazans remain in tents or other temporary housing as a result of the war -- a war for which there is still no negotiated cease-fire. Without the world’s attention, the region threatens to erupt once again in violence.