Boston, Massachusetts - As echoes of the ouster of Israel’s “cold peace” partner, Hosni Mubarak, reverberate throughout the Middle East and beyond, the people of Israel are now faced with various permutations of what are effectively two choices: they can hunker down, assume the worst and hope to maintain some semblance of the status-quo for the indefinite future. Or, with American encouragement, they can meet the new Egypt – the people of Egypt – with an outstretched hand, offering them support as they march toward freedom and democracy, seeking the warm peace of neighbours determined to share cooperatively their corner of the globe.
Needless to say, an essential way station on Israel’s road to a warm peace with Egypt – and the entire Arab world – is the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For while the cause of Palestinian self-determination was not their rallying cry, the pro-democracy activists who flooded Tahrir Square these past weeks, as well as their counterparts elsewhere on the Arab “street”, won’t countenance for long the condition of the Palestinian people living under occupation.
The movement towards Palestinian statehood, already gaining steam in the international community, has now picked up an additional engine of undeniable force. Israel’s coalition government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to look long and hard at whether it will stand in the way, or help this movement reach its destination. As Israel’s primary ally, the same can be said for the United States.
We’ve learned in recent weeks that Israel and the Palestinian people came remarkably close to reaching that long-elusive peace. First the Palestine Papers, leaked to Al Jazeera, revealed that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was prepared to make significant concessions for a negotiated peace. And now we learn, from interviews conducted by author and business professor Bernard Avishai and reported in The New York Times, that then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas came within feet of the goal-line during their talks in 2008.
Avishai reports that “the issues that were supposed to be intractable – demilitarization of the Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees – proved susceptible to creative thinking.” Indeed on security issues, according to Abbas, the Palestinian state would be non-militarised.
On borders, the pre-1967 war Green Line formed the predicate, with small land exchanges, and negotiations ultimately centred on whether a few settlements would be ceded to the Palestinian state. Most problematic of these was Ariel, a large settlement that juts far into the West Bank; its retention as part of Israel would seriously compromise the Palestinian state’s territorial contiguity.
On Jerusalem, the Jewish neighborhoods would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and the Arab neighborhoods would revert to Palestinian sovereignty. The “Holy Basin” – the Old City and holy places – would be administered by an international force, with guaranteed access for all religions. The only stumbling block was a few neighbourhoods that Abbas claimed as part of the Palestinian state and that Olmert sought to characterise as part of the Basin.
On the “right of return”, both leaders agreed that a certain number of Palestinians should return, but with the as yet undetermined number limited so as to preserve “Israel’s distinction as a state with a Jewish majority.”
Bottom line: the deal was not sealed and, facing corruption charges, Olmert stepped down. But the two sides were undeniably very close and were counting on the United States to bridge the gaps that Avishai said “appear so pitifully small.”
Which brings us, finally, back home. Last week, the United States vetoed a draft UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement building, an activity which the United States openly decries. Explaining the controversial vote, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice asserted that every action in this arena must be judged on whether it moves the parties closer to an agreement.
Applying this test, the United States must step up. Having applauded the Egyptian protesters for bending the arc of history towards justice, the mantle now falls upon US President Barack Obama.
Using the Olmert-Abbas points of agreement as a foundation – and such other well-known frameworks for resolving the conflict as the Clinton parameters and the Geneva Accords – the President needs firmly to propose the Obama blueprint. The world is waiting for reconciliation in that troubled region. Getting close just isn’t good enough. It’s time for Obama to bridge the gaps – and take on the obligation to bend the arc of history towards Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Michael Felsen is an attorney and President of the Boston Workmen’s Circle, a 110-year old communal organisation dedicated to secular Jewish education and culture and social justice. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).