Israeli and Palestinian leaders are locked in a politically expedient embrace that is causing real harm to Israeli security, Palestinian aspirations and American interests in the Middle East. These leaders have failed to understand the moment before them and to seize the opportunities for peace provided by the Arab Spring.
On the Israeli side, Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently said that Israel will face a “diplomatic tsunami” at the United Nations in September when the Palestinians seek statehood, understanding that Israel will become more isolated politically, with challenges to its legitimacy exacerbated. Add to this the recent remarks of just-retired and highly respected Mossad Chief Meir Dagan that when it comes to Israeli security, both Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are not to be trusted, and friends of Israel should tremble.
On the Palestinian side, President Mahmoud Abbas has brought Hamas in to a unity government that has not yet found the will to renounce terrorism against Israel, accept past agreements made between Israel and the Palestinians and recognize the existence of the State of Israel. Ominously, Hamas has rejected the re-appointment of Salam Fayyad as Palestinian Prime Minister, who is just about the only person that Israelis, Americans and the international community trust to effectively manage Palestinian affairs and international aid.
This is very frustrating for me personally, as I know, from years of visits to Israel, how important peace is to the Israeli people. Both Israelis and the Palestinians deeply desire peace, yet unfortunately, their political leaders appear unable to realize these aspirations, hamstrung by political systems that prevent bold action.
While the rest of the Middle East sprints forward to remake its politics — sometimes violently and with an unclear outcome — Israeli and Palestinian politics remain stuck in the past. New ideas are being debated in Cairo and Tunis, even in Manama and Damascus, and certainly in Benghazi. Why aren’t similar debates about how to remake the future taking place in Jerusalem or Ramallah?
It is because Israelis and Palestinians are plagued by unforgiving political systems that appear to be frozen in time.
Israel is led by a minority Likud party that controls only 22.5 percent of the Knesset and isn’t even that body’s largest party. Its power is built on the backs of the anguished Israeli voters of February 2009, who voted in an election less than a month after the conclusion of the traumatic 2008-2009 Gaza war. The Palestinians, too, are trapped by failed politics, led by a unity government that lacks popular legitimacy, with the last Palestinian election held in 2006 that produced a violent Hamas and a Fatah movement without a popular mandate.
The status quo cannot hold.
Not only does the current impasse threaten Israel’s well-being, but it also harms America’s security needs.
It’s important to remember that Americans depend on the region for oil; it is the source of terrorist threats against our country; it is the location of several major American wars; and it is a region where nuclear ambitions run high. Meanwhile, regimes long allied with the United States are collapsing and an intense competition for power is under way.
It is clear that during this competition for power, snuffing out the longest running conflict in the region is directly aligned with American, Israeli and Palestinian security interests.
Take Gen. David Petraeus’s words for example, when he testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2010: “Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples … and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaida and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.”
The moment has therefore come for the representatives of these two peoples to step back from the brink and to move toward making, as Ariel Sharon once put it, “painful compromises.” It is time to be sensible, in the manner that President Obama has laid out, which asks the parties only to do what their populations have been calling for since the peace treaty with Egypt: gain peace by swapping land.
Sadly, Israelis and Palestinians, whose majorities, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s David Pollock, want a peaceful two-state resolution to the conflict, are stuck with the electoral results of a bygone era, incapable of meeting the crushing challenges of the day.
So while the rest of the Middle East lurches forward toward greater political freedom and democracy, let’s see if Israeli and Palestinian leaders will remain stuck in the past, or will instead meet the challenges of the day.
It’s clearly time for Israel and the Palestinians to have their own political renewal.
(Joel Rubin, the outgoing 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.)