Mideast peace still matters – Politico
By LEE H. HAMILTON | 8/29/13 4:58 AM EDT
All eyes in the Arab world, and many beyond it, are now focused on what seems to be impending U.S. military action in Syria, where a metastasizing civil war has killed more then 100,000 people and displaced millions.
It’s hard to envisage a happy ending to the Syrian story. But only 135 miles from Damascus, in Jerusalem, another chapter in the region’s history is being written.
With formal peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinian now under way — the first direct talks to take place in the Middle East in the last five years — and the United States resuming its familiar role as mediator, I am reminded of a question that has been posed to me by every U.S. president with whom I have spoken about the talks: What are my chances of success?
Over the years, I’ve been mightily intrigued by this question, which spans more than a half century and several presidents from both political parties, all of whom, at least from my vantage point, have demonstrated a willingness to take political risks, just not foolish risks or long shots.
It’s a fair question, but one that I have never answered to a president’s satisfaction, nor, for that matter, to my own. I could never rate our chances of success as being high. Mostly, what I have offered in the past is my own personal position: I firmly believe that the United States should intervene in Middle East talks, despite the difficult challenge of achieving longstanding peace in this tumultuous region.
The reason is as simple as the issues at the center of the talks are complex: The Israelis and Palestinians will not come to any major and meaningful compromise unless we intervene and unless they are encouraged to act on our recommendations for resolving the conflict.
While past presidents have been willing to encourage the parties to negotiate, they have been unwilling to set forth concrete recommendation as to how the key issues should be resolved. Indeed, this challenge continues to reside at the center of American foreign policy — or at least not very far from it.
And now we’re at it again.
Make no mistake, Secretary of State John Kerry deserves to be commended for getting the Israelis and Palestinians together again. This is never an easy feat, considering the dearth of direct talks and the tremendous tension and gaps between the two parties.
But bringing the parties back to the negotiating table necessitates that we address questions that go beyond the straightforward “success” question that presidents have asked me repeatedly.
First among them: Why address the dispute now? There are a number of significant problems in the Middle East, not least of all Syria, to say nothing of the violence and turmoil we’ve witnessed from Egypt to Libya, Iraq to Iran. Examining the Middle East as a whole, one might conclude that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer the region’s central issue. And, yet, Kerry made multiple trips to the region to get these talks started, an effort he would not have undertaken without the president’s approval.
I think the reason we find ourselves back in this familiar position is because we rightfully recognize that resolving the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is among the most important steps we can take toward reducing the overall tension in the region. Arabs continue to view this conflict as a very important dispute, and the plight of Palestinian refugees is both part of their identity and the lens through which they judge Washington and U.S. policies in the region. For their part, the Israelis are deeply uncomfortable at the moment with taking full control of security in the West Bank and extremely fearful of becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. The recent move by the European Union to cut off aid to Israeli groups doing business in the settlements sent a shockwave through Israeli politics.