The clichéd phrase "decision time" comes to mind more than ever when it comes to that other cliché, the Middle East Peace Process. Ever since 1948, the Middle East War Process has necessitated its peace-making counterpart. American Presidents from Truman to Obama have had to deal with Arab-Israeli wars or endemic violence. Some take the job more seriously than others. President Obama appears to have put it high on the list of his foreign policy priorities.
Yesterday I took part in a discussion sponsored by GRIP (Groupe de Recherche et d'Information sur la Paix et la Sécurité, a Brussels think tank on the moderate left), inspired by the publication of their new book, "Who Arms Israel and Hamas?" (image, left). Answer: the US arms Israel, of course, but certain EU countries (notably France) remain important suppliers. As to "who arms Hamas?" the book makes a weak stab (one slim chapter) at describing the homemade nature of their armaments, but it is clear that the authors have paid much more attention to documenting Israel's overwhelming arsenal. More on this later.
My part of the discussion was a look at the possibilities for change in US Mideast policy under President Obama (my remarks, in French, are here). Basically I only had to point to the clear engagement of the President from Day One: his first phone call to a foreign leader was to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas; his early appointment of world-class negotiator George Mitchell to restart stalled talks; and his "tough love" talk with Benyamin Netanyahu on Israeli settlements, reinforced with gusto by Secretary of State Clinton two days ago. As the discussion was taking place yesterday in Brussels, further proof of intensified engagement was going on in Washington, with the visit of Mahmoud Abbas to the White House.
Compare this to the "engagement" of George W. Bush in the Middle East (see Iraq). As far as the MEPP was concerned, it was a matter of going through the motions. A lackadaisical eight years, where Bush and Condoleezza Rice temporized on ceasefire calls ("premature") during Israel's 2006 attack on Lebanon, and where Bush ended his Presidency by washing his hands, Pilate-like, while Israel pounded densely-populated Gaza prior to Inauguration Day 2009.
Okay, but now we have a new, engaged President at the helm. He's made his decision. But it's now decision time for Israelis. And also for Palestinians.
Israel must decide whether peace with the Palestinians, and the chance for a long term relationship with all its neighbors, is more important than settlements on cheap (because taken by force) land that rightfully belongs to a future state of Palestine.
Palestinians must decide if having a state of their own in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem is more important than perpetual pining for Haifa and Jaffa, which are Israeli now and will remain so. And the PA must come to terms with the winners of the 2006 elections - Hamas.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which came about after much investment of time and effort by another American President, Jimmy Carter, and the Camp David Accords. One of the confidence-building measures, assuring Israelis and Egyptians that there would be no more surprise attacks across their borders, was the creation of the MFO - Multinational Force & Observers - which still carry out their peace enforcement role. The precedent is crucial, and the mechanisms are there, to be applied at the appropriate time along the Green Line.
In the negotiations that the Obama Administration will broker, this kind of security-conscious confidence-building will be absolutely essential. It matters, of course, that Israel has a preponderance of weaponry, as the GRIP publication amply documents. But armament hasn't procured Israel either peace or real security, and the continued occupation/siege of Palestinians makes Israel the equivalent of a garrison state.
It matters too that Israel feels threatened by the Hamas rockets, whether homemade or not. In that sense, comparisons between sophisticated Israeli arsenals and subterranean Hamas caches are of limited utility. To cede land, Israel must feel secure. And if occupation of a hostile population and having the Middle East's most powerful military do not procure that security, then there is an opening for the concerted, rejuvenated MEPP that appears to be in the offing.
But Israelis and Palestinians have to want a peace/statehood settlement as least as much as does President Obama. If they don't, then it will be more "process" than "peace."