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Barack Obama’s Gaza Test

Obama’s Gaza Test

By Ziad Asali and Tom Dine

Common Ground News Service

Washington, DC - Former senator Joe Biden predicted that President Barack Obama would be tested by a foreign policy crisis early in his term. The recent surge of violence in Gaza came even sooner than that.

How he responds will be critical not only for the immediate security of Israelis and Palestinians, but also for the resolution of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US relations with the world's 1.4 billion Muslims.

The new ceasefire is unlikely to resolve the underlying issues in the conflict. Nor will it be sustainable unless the United States invests substantial political capital in achieving a two-state solution in the next four years.

Doubting voices caution that the new administration and its allies are unlikely to achieve this solution. They point to divided Palestinian leadership, deep political fractures within Israel, strong support from Iran and Syria for Hamas and Hizbullah, and the limited ability of American leaders to motivate Israelis or Palestinians to make the compromises necessary for peace.

The challenges are significant. Nonetheless, we believe that for the Obama administration, the cost of inaction will be much greater than the cost of trying and not succeeding.

If the United States fails to make a major political investment in reaching the goal, it will undermine moderate Israeli and Palestinian leaders and embolden hard-liners.

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Even more serious from the perspective of American security, a large majority of the world's Muslims see the United States not as a neutral mediator but as Israel's key supporter.

Right or wrong, they hold it responsible for the continuing conflict.

The longer the United States is perceived as one-sided or inactive in ending the conflict, the more it undercuts its allies across the region and spurs recruitment to Al Qaeda and other extremist groups.

Conversely, even-handed and sustained efforts by the Obama administration to achieve a two-state solution will help not only to de-escalate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also to address the injured dignity of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, and to transform (or "reboot" in Obama's words) US relations with Muslim countries and people.

The administration must begin by brokering a firm agreement that builds on and goes beyond the current fragile cease-fire in Gaza, and the nearly-stalled peace process with the Palestinian Authority, and lays the ground for a full resolution. Palestinian security forces must commit to doing everything in their power (including cooperating with Israeli security and intelligence services) to prevent attacks on Israel. Israeli leaders must make an equally clear commitment to cease settlement construction in the West Bank, to support humanitarian relief and enable economic development for all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The United States has a critical role to play in defining the terms of this agreement, monitoring its implementation and providing incentives for both sides to stick to it.

To reach any agreements, the Obama administration will need to address the split in Palestinian leadership. It would be preferable to work with a Palestinian Authority (PA) government that includes Hamas, recognises Israel and is committed to a non-violent resolution of the conflict. On the other hand, if Hamas remains unwilling to join on those terms, the United States and its peacemaking partners should work with the PA while using informal and indirect channels (for example, via Egypt) to engage with Hamas on a limited agenda of humanitarian and security issues.

The United States and its Quartet partners – the United Nations, European Union and Russia, as well as moderate leaders in the region, will also need to deal with the key potential spoilers, Iran and Syria. The United States and others will need to create incentives for these states to accept, and even support, a two-state solution.

Over the next two years, details surrounding the difficult issues of borders, the right of return and Jerusalem will have to be worked out.

Agreement is possible if each side honours the interim security-settlements agreement, and complementary measures are taken to improve Palestinians' quality of life and to link the final resolution of the conflict to a wider regional peace agreement.

With firm presidential commitment from day one and sustained, skilful diplomacy by all parties on the immediate and final status issues, a two-state solution may be within reach. Without them, we will likely see grim repetitions of the news from Gaza.


Ziad Asali is president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine and co-chair of the US-Palestinian Public Private Partnership. Tom Dine is director of the Syria Project at Search for Common Ground, senior political advisor to the Israel Policy Forum and former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Both are members of the Leadership Group on US-Muslim Engagement, convened by Search for Common Ground and the Consensus Building Institute. This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).


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