Towards a Second Middle East Chance for Obama

From an objective point of view, President Obama made the logical decision to focus on settlements as a first step in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the table. Settlements are not popular among Israelis. There is no issue on which Israel and the United States have disagreed for so long.

However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only an objective conflict about borders and economic development. At the deepest level, this conflict, like so many others, has a bedrock of subjectivity. Our diplomacy will fail unless we recognize that the subjective element cannot be ignored in protracted conflicts in which national identity is so profoundly involved. These conflicts cannot be resolved by a single focus on the problems between the warring parties. It is essential to understand and develop methods to handle the intense internal divisions that emerge in long-standing conflicts that have become part of the earliest socialization of generations of the children of both sides.

The large majority of Israelis do not consider settlements a strategic national interest, but their majority view does not prevail. The land-obsessed settler minority has a veto over decisions about territory, which they define as any part of their patrimony of biblical Israel. They sustain this veto not only through their intractable rejection of any abandonment of settlement and land, but by the trump card of the strong fear within Jewish consciousness of the outbreak of civil war.

A determined Israeli leader can carry his majority in the government to make these settlement and territorial decisions and implement them by invoking vital national interest. Certainly for Israel the relationship with the United States is more important than building new settlements. This is especially true when the United States is carrying out a policy urged upon it by Israel for years. This policy, of course, is to assure the Middle East and the world as a whole that Iran, with its theocratic regime, will not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. Yet Obama's diplomacy on Israeli-Palestinian peace has been completely stalemated by his promise, not backed by Israel, of a full settlement freeze, which then became the Palestinian sine qua non for entering negotiations.

Some people have argued that Obama has to make a major speech in Israel, to Israelis themselves, which would parallel his Cairo speech to the world of Islam, and upgrade his relationship with the Israeli people. This is certainly a good idea for the right moment, but it will not overcome the fundamental need to deal with the subjective dimensions of this conflict.

The President and his foreign policy team must recognize that to move this conflict toward resolution there has to be a focus on the conflicts within each party as much as the conflict between the parties. On the Palestinian side, the primary internal division is Fateh versus Hamas. On the Israeli side, the conflict has long been center-left versus center-right and far-right. Now it has become only the far-right, especially the radical settler-right, which does not recognize the essential need for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and thus encourage the creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side, in peace, with Israel.

We need to develop a policy that would remove the settler's veto.

Dr. Stephen P. Cohen is the President of The Institute for Middle East Peace & Development and the author of Beyond America's Grasp - A Century of Failed Diplomacy in The Middle East.

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