How to Break the Mideast Deadlock

The Arab-Israeli peace process is frozen solid. A breakthrough would require something far bolder and more imaginative than the president articulating another set of sterile American policy positions.

But a bolder proposal — outlined below — has a high risk of failure and may be well beyond the will or capacity of the United States to achieve. Given the current turbulence in the Arab world, the smart money on such a risky venture — or on any peace initiative — would be to wait at least until after U.S. elections in November 2012.

America’s best-known curmudgeon, H.L. Mencken once observed that in the American democratic system, accepting the insoluble was unfashionable, if not infamous. Unless you had a remedy, you’re not even entitled to discuss the disease.

After believing for many years in the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace, my own analysis in recent years has turned annoyingly negative. Understanding the reasons why Israelis and Palestinians are stuck isn’t that hard; but it does make the problem seem, well, insoluble.

First, the gaps on the core issues in which progress has been made are really still quite large, particularly on the two identity issues — Jerusalem and refugees. No amount of wishful thinking could convince any honest person that what Benjamin Netanyahu and the current Israeli government can give is even remotely compatible with what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, presiding over a divided Palestinian national movement, can accept.

Second, we aren’t dealing with strong, willful leaders able to master their domestic houses. Israel is divided, and so is the Palestinian national movement, split between Fatah and Hamas and their respective constitutions, prime ministers, security services and visions of Palestine.

In the face of this, many have proposed America as savior, with the president giving a speech laying out bridging proposals in the spirit of 2002 Arab League initiative. Somehow this is supposed to lead to negotiations and an agreement.

Aside from the question of whether the United States could make proposals that could satisfy both parties, the approach is more words than deeds, with no means to shape the environment on the ground positively. Why would any mediator want to lay out formal bridging proposals well in advance of a negotiation, only to have them inevitably picked apart and devalued? No, if you want to make a serious run at the problem, you need to change the realities on the ground by injecting deliverables up front.

Here’s my proposal: Put an American president in the middle of the mix, Arab leaders in the Knesset, and millions of dollars into the new Palestinian state. Specifically:

First, the U.S. president must decide and declare that nothing is more important to him and U.S. national interests than an Israeli-Palestinian peace. If he’s not prepared to say this and mean it, forget the rest.

Second, the president should identify key American principles on core issues — not bridging proposals. Nobody gets 100 percent on the big issues, but they each must be get close enough on all the issues. On refugees and security, the president would have to be especially sensitive to Israeli needs; on Jerusalem and borders, to the Palestinians.

Third, the president, accompanied by as many Arab foreign ministers as he could muster (heads of state would be better; but we’re missing a few now), would travel to Israel and Palestine where he would address the Israeli and Palestinian Parliaments. Flanked by the Arab leaders he would lay out the principles on which an agreement should be based, and declare that the agreement would lead to recognition of Israel by the Arab world and recognition of Palestine with substantial financial and technological support for the new Palestinian state.

The message to both sides: We’re serious — are you?

The immediate result would be political chaos in Israeli and Palestinian politics. Out of such an initiative, however, the will and the capacity to actually negotiate an agreement might emerge. Even if it didn’t, we’d finally have clarity and an end to the empty promises of words and process.

The odds that an American president would ever summon the will to risk such an approach are probably slim to none. But at least the remedy might begin to approach the magnitude of the ailment.

On March 30, the Israeli writer Bernard Avishai argued that having acted strongly against Arab tyranny President Obama must now lead the Quartet in presenting a new blueprint for Arab-Israeli peace. Aaron David Miller, author of The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, joins the debate.

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