More than one American president has tried to bring peace to the Middle East, and more than one has failed. So as the Obama administration outlines its own prospectus for a comprehensive settlement to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world, it would do well to take note of some potential pitfalls.
Rule No. 1: Respect the sovereignty of democratic allies. When free people in a democracy express their preferences, the United States should respect their opinions. The current administration should not try to impose ideas on allies like Israel.
The administration would also do well to take heed of the Palestinian Authority’s continued refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This is not a trivial matter. A long-term settlement can only be forged on the basis of mutual recognition and respect. To deny the essence of the Zionist project—to rebuild the Jewish people’s ancient homeland—is to call into question the seriousness of one’s commitment to peace.
It is a sad statement of the Palestinians’ approach to peace-making that denial of the Jewish homeland is not simply contained in the openly anti-Semitic leadership of Hamas. It is a widespread belief across the spectrum of Palestinian opinion. This reality must be confronted.
Today’s leadership must never forget that the core historic reason for the conflict is the Arab world’s longstanding rejection of Israel’s existence. The two-state solution was accepted by Israel’s pre-state leadership led by David Ben-Gurion in 1947 when it agreed to the partition plan contained in United Nation’s General Assembly Resolution 181. The Arabs flatly rejected it. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knows all too well, President Bill Clinton’s peace plans in 2000 foundered due to Palestinian rejection of the Jewish state, even as Israel, once again, accepted their right to statehood.
More recent experience in Europe also offers lessons about the dangers of negotiating with terrorists. Over the past year, officials from Britain, France and the European Union all held talks with officials from the “political wing” of Hezbollah in a bid to get the terrorist group to moderate its behavior. Hezbollah is undoubtedly grateful for the legitimacy that these meetings have conferred, but it is not laying down its arms. Indeed, according to a recent report from the Times of London, the group has now stockpiled 40,000 rockets close to the Israeli border.
To be sure, we must have hope. Peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan are useful models. Nonetheless, the recent rebuffs by Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia of efforts by the Obama administration to promote a more conciliatory attitude to Israel offer a salient reminder that those who started this conflict may not yet be in a mood to end it, whatever their rhetoric to the contrary.
And then there are the settlements. Undoubtedly, this is a complex matter. Yet the administration must beware of overemphasizing it. Compromises between people of goodwill can be made on the settlements, as Israel has demonstrated in the recent past. But no compromise can be made on Israel’s right to exist inside secure borders unmolested by terrorist groups or threatened by belligerent states.
That’s why an unambiguous strategy explaining precisely how Hamas and Hezbollah can be disarmed and how Iran can be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons is of central importance to any peace plan.
The administration must also be wary of letting Israel’s opponents use the settlement issue as a convenient excuse for failing to make moves of their own. The settlements matter, but they do not go to the core of this decades-old conflict.
Making peace in the Middle East is an unenviable task. It is also a noble calling. To be successful, it will require patience and fortitude. It will also require an ability to stand above the fray, to see the problems for what they are, and the courage to confront them at their source.
* Mr. Lauder is president of the World Jewish Congress.