Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell’s departure from the scene last week was one of the more dis- appointing moments in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking of the past several decades. Mitchell had been President Obama’s personal representative for resolving the conflict, and his leaving only serves to highlight how difficult achieving this objective really is.
Yet while the opponents of territorial compromise and active American diplomacy to resolve this conflict may feel triumphant, they are playing a dangerous game with American, Israeli and Palestinian security, as the Middle East is changing dramatically right before our eyes.
What goes without debate is that the United States has real strategic interests in the region — from terrorism to oil to nuclear nonproliferation. This means that we cannot afford to pull back from peacemaking, especially as there is deep uncertainty about the future of the region. Paradoxically, Israel has even more at stake, as it is highly tethered to the United States for its security needs. A failing peace process that weakens America’s standing in the region should deeply concern Israel, as it harms Israel’s American security blanket. Therefore, there are several core realities that we must accept if the United States is going to continue to remain the region’s leading power. First, American interests in the Middle East are being put to the test like never before and these challenges will only become more demanding over time if we are to remain a leader in the region.
Therefore, it’s essential to recognize that while the United States can’t solve the region’s entire set of problems on our own, we have to remain fully engaged and actively work to shape events and outcomes there to our advantage. If we are not committed to shaping these events — including resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — then we will not be taken seriously in the region and our overall influence there will wane.
Second, the treatment of Palestinian interests is central to how the Arab world views the United States and Israel, making a peace treaty all the more important for America as we compete with countries such as China and Iran for powerful new regional allies.
This means that we need to rebuild our country’s relationship with the Arab people at this time of change, which we cannot do if we give up on peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians.
Third, while there are legitimate concerns about the Palestinian unity government and the Palestinian drive for statehood at the United Nations, the best way to handle these challenges is to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict now, lest more problems arise later.
It’s clear that the Palestinians have chosen to take matters into their own hands by creating a unity government, rather than wait for the promise of some diplomatic progress at an unforeseen time. While Hamas is a terrorist organization, these unilateral Palestinian moves are being made because Palestinian leaders have little to show from the current peace process and feel real domestic political pressure to take action and create results. We need to recognize this for what it is, hold back our worst emotional responses — which would play into Hamas’ goal of undermining the peace process — and instead work to ensure that all the parties begin to make real diplomatic compromises now.
Therefore, while the departure of Mitchell is a setback, we are in the midst of a very fluid moment that holds great promise… but one that may also pass very quickly. The people of the region are beginning to take matters into their own hands, just as Israelis have for decades, and we must seize this moment, not turn our backs on it.
So let’s raise a glass to George Mitchell for his sincere efforts at peacemaking. And while the parties will only have themselves to blame if there’s no deal in the future, let’s also pray that the United States finds the wherewithal to learn from its mistakes of the past several years and continues to press forward. For all of our sakes, there’s no time to waste.
(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)