March 23, 2011 1:53 pm ET
Today's bus bombing in Jerusalem produced the usual reactions, and there is no need for me to repeat them here. They are utterly predictable.
The right points to this latest act of Palestinian violence with no reference to Israeli violence. The left speaks of the "cycle of violence" which must be broken, putting blame on both sides.
Not surprisingly, I am in the second camp. Out of respect for the victims of today's attack, I won't enumerate the Palestinians who were killed by the Israelis over the past few days. What's the point? Anyone who does not know what has been going on in Gaza is either uninterested or doesn't care.
One thing is clear. Making reference to acts of violence by one side without reference to those inflicted by the other only perpetuates one side's feelings of victimhood, reinforcing the sense of grief and grievance that leads to more violence.
One can only hope that this latest atrocity captures the Obama administration's attention (acts of violence against Palestinians certainly don't) and that the administration will finally get serious about ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which it could do if it had the will.
President Obama came to office determined to end it. On his first day, he telephoned the prime minister of Israel and the president of the Palestinian Authority and pledged his best efforts to resolve the conflict. He said that he hoped to achieve a breakthrough during his first year in office.
But then he flinched after Binyamin Netanyahu refused to implement a settlement freeze, an obvious precondition for negotiations. (Palestinians, quite reasonably, won't negotiate over land while it is in the process of being gobbled up.)
When Obama flinched, Netanyahu decided that he could be rolled, and began to ignore any and all requests by the president to help him tamp down the conflict. Obama, in turn, stopped trying.
Obama's decision to walk away pleased his political advisers, who fear that any pressure on Israel will result in diminished campaign donations for the 2012 re-election campaign. On top of that, Obama's chief adviser on Middle East issues is Dennis Ross, who is as close to AIPAC as anyone can be without being on its staff. Ross views his role as preventing Obama from offending the Israeli government and its backers here. To put it mildly, he is not an audacious peacemaker.
Until today's bombing, it appeared that the status quo would hold until after the 2012 election at the earliest.
And it is some status quo! The West Bank remains occupied. Gaza is under full Israeli blockade with its people living in third world-like conditions. Israeli settlers keep grabbing up more and more of the West Bank, with Palestinians — especially in East Jerusalem — being driven from their homes to make way for them. Armed militants in Gaza keep firing their rockets into Israel. (It's miraculous that no school or hospital has been hit.) And the IDF keeps striking back, killing primarily innocent bystanders.
At this rate, a new war will break out soon, which is the last thing anyone needs. Forget the Palestinians and Israelis for a minute. The last thing President Obama needs right now is another Middle Eastern war when he already has to deal with Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya. (That is especially true if the United States, as it usually does, unconditionally backs Israel. More than anything else, it is our one-sided backing of Netanyahu and his predecessors that has virtually destroyed U.S. standing in the Muslim world.)
The good news is that the president's deft handling of the Libya situation demonstrates that this administration is more than capable of handling a foreign policy crisis, at least when it does not permit politics to intervene. If Obama just ignores the lobby and begins behaving like the honest broker he promised to be, he can prevent this situation from spiraling out of control.
Here is what he needs to do. He needs to present an American plan to Israelis and Palestinians, a detailed framework for a final status solution, and demand its implementation. (Conditioning U.S. aid on acceptance of the U.S. plan should do the trick.)
There is no need to spell out the details in full. Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans all know what they are.
In exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, Israel would be presented with ironclad security guarantees and full normalization of relations with the entire Arab world (as was offered in the Arab League Initiative). Although both the issues of Palestinian refugees and sovereignty over religious sites in Jerusalem remain problematic, former President Clinton, among others, has offered formulas that would be acceptable to both sides. (The only reason Clinton's plan failed to be accepted at Camp David in 2000 was that neither Palestinian President Arafat nor Israeli Prime Minister Barak had the guts to just say yes.)
And that's it. It is the old land-for-peace formula that was essentially agreed to by Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1993.
Obama could make it happen now, in large part because Israel's position is so much weaker today than in the 1990s. Although Egypt still observes the terms of its treaty with Israel, that could change at any time. The Jordanian regime is shaky. Hezbollah now controls Lebanon. Syria grows ever closer to Iran. And Turkey, once Israel's staunch ally, is so disgusted by Israel's Gaza policy that it is a distant friend, at best. Even the Europeans are turning, with not even France, Germany, or the United Kingdom joining the United States in opposing a Security Council Resolution on West Bank settlements.
Israel's best chance of surviving these dramatic changes is by resolving the conflict with the Palestinians. In fact, it is Israel's only chance.
The Palestinians need an agreement with Israel every bit as much as Israel does. Palestinian youth in both Gaza and the West Bank are not immune to the revolutionary stirrings other Arabs are feeling. In fact, as the only stateless Arabs, they feel more strongly about their predicament than their brethren. Without a state, soon, they too will rise up against the regimes that offer nothing but hopelessness.
The bottom line is that the status quo cannot hold. We are on the brink of an explosion, one that will jeopardize the lives of Israelis and Palestinians and America's interests in the Middle East, starting with our military personnel.
President Obama is the one person who can turn this situation around. History will not forgive him if, in the name of political expediency, he looks away.
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