When President Obama visits Israel this week, he will attempt neither to unmoor the old peace process nor outfit a new one. But with new leverage in hand, a determined Secretary of State John Kerry at the helm, and riding a wave of domestic and worldwide popularity, the president may never have stronger winds at his back in the search for Israeli-Palestinian peace. To take advantage of them, he will soon need to open his sails. If the president hopes to ever make any real headway, however, he should first rid his outlook of an old trope that has become an excuse for inaction: the idea that "The U.S. cannot want peace more than the parties themselves."
In recent years, this idea has been parroted so often that it's become known as the "Washington consensus." In Israel and the occupied territories, this perception has helped lead to the status quo: periods of relative (and illusory) calm sandwiched between spasms of violence, with continued settlement construction creating facts on the ground ever more hazardous to the prospect of a two-state solution. The truth is that the United States can indeed want peace more than Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, to be successful, we have to.
We have to want peace more because Israeli and Palestinian leaders have made their preference for the status quo abundantly clear. None appear ready to make tough decisions, take responsibility for painful sacrifices, or deal with the inevitable backlash from extremists in their midst. Only the U.S. has sufficient credibility with both sides to capably deploy pain, prodding, and promises of a better future to push both sides over the hump. But if we don't want peace more than they do, the U.S. will be neither credible nor effective--much as we've been over the past four years. We have to want peace more because achieving it will require an exceptional level of dedication. This commitment would likely consume a significant portion of Obama's foreign policy agenda. But make no mistake: Israeli-Palestinian peace is worth it.
Besides being necessary for Israel's security, peace is worth it because the U.S. is not free from the consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Don't take it from me--take the words of General James Mattis, Commander of CENTCOM. In 2011, Mattis emphatically articulated the concept of linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S. interests. He described how the conflict is exploited by our adversaries and used as a recruiting tool by extremist groups while alienating U.S. allies and marginalizing moderates. In doing so, he was echoing the views of his successor, David Petraeus, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Israeli-Palestinian peace would be far from a regional panacea. But confronting the myriad problems that plague the region could be made demonstrably less difficult. A peace deal could radically redefine the Middle East in ways that can only benefit the U.S. and Israel. Polls have shown that Arabs in the Middle East consider the occupation to be the greatest threat to regional peace and stability. In a 2011 Brookings Institution poll of Arab public opinion, 55% said that that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would improve their views of the U.S. more than anything else. Another Brookings study found that "the Arab-Israeli issue remains the prism through which most Arabs view the world." Moreover, the Wikileaks release of classified U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010 found Arab leaders routinely asserting the primary importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And even Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu himself said that "it would help, obviously, unite a broad front against Iran if we had peace between Israel and the Palestinians." The Gulf States, now tacitly aligned with Israel against Iran, could make this alliance official and openly coordinated. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad and Khamenei may lose the rhetorical weapon of Palestinian suffering that they now wield so capably and consistently. Indeed, the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers full diplomatic relations with Israel on the part of most of the Arab and Muslim world, would achieve both of these ends (but it won't be on the table forever).
As Israel's staunchest and most important ally, the U.S. could reap many a reward from Israeli-Palestinian peace. Our alliances in the Muslim and Arab worlds could be immensely strengthened and our global image thoroughly enhanced. We would be unburdened by the crises, distractions, and political impediments perpetually unearthed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In its absence, we could support Israel in a more focused way, our efforts undiluted by tensions over settlement building and other points of contention arising from the conflict. In the interest of the United States, Israel, and the Middle East in general, President Obama will have to want peace more than his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. Only this kind of intense desire for resolution can lead to the dedicated effort that any realistic shot at success will require. If he can effectively generate and implement a policy driven by such a desire, Obama will have a chance at making history. Otherwise, his legacy in the Middle East will have been--to put it gently--found wanting.
This article first appeared March 19, 2013 on the Open Zion blog