Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Obama in Israel -- timing wrong for peace push

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On his first visit to Israel as president this week, Barack Obama is being lobbied, not least by his secretary of state, John Kerry, to commit the United States to a fresh campaign of peacemaking between the Israelis and Palestinians. He should resist the coaxing.

Conditions aren't ripe for a new agreement, so investing all-out U.S. diplomacy in one runs the risk of squandering resources better devoted elsewhere. It also sends the dangerous message to the Palestinians that they can rely on others to want peace more than they do.

For starters, there is a broad consensus in Israel that the Palestinians today cannot agree or adhere to a peace accord. That's why the recent Israeli election campaign featured almost no discussion of the peace process, and why the governing coalition Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just formed includes parties with contradictory views on the subject.

This is not to say Israelis are overly cynical about prospects for peace. In December, pollsters asked Israelis and Palestinians about the widely anticipated terms of a final settlement: a two-state solution, with Jerusalem shared, in which some West Bank Jewish settlements are annexed by Israel and the Palestinians are compensated with equal parcels of Israeli land. Two-thirds of Israelis supported such a deal while just 43 per cent of Palestinians did.

A strong, united Palestinian leadership devoted to peacemaking might be able to bring the people around. Unfortunately, no such leadership exists. Instead, the Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas, the Islamist group dedicated to Israel's destruction. The West Bank is controlled by the moderate organization Fatah whose chief, Mahmoud Abbas, supports a two-state solution and the compromises that could make it happen. If Abbas were to negotiate a peace agreement with Netanyahu, he would have no way of imposing it on Hamas, whose armed men ejected Fatah from Gaza in 2007.

Palestinians have long counted on others to bring the conflict to an end. They expected the Arab states to defeat Israel militarily and were repeatedly disappointed. They hoped the non-aligned movement would snub Israel and the European Union would shame Israel into concessions, and that didn't work. Last year, they turned to the United Nations to give them a state, but it exists on paper only.

In his visit to the West Bank, Obama should remind Palestinians only they have the power to win their independence. It's not complicated. They have to live up to their half of the accepted formula of territory for peace, instead of aligning themselves with a party that supports Israel's annihilation and proves its point with rocket attacks.

Obama should remind Israelis, too, of their territory for peace obligations. Israeli leaders, on the left and right, have offered to cede land to a Palestinian state. Yet Israel has a history of unilaterally altering the shape of such an entity by expanding Jewish settlements. Obama would be wise to argue continued settlement-building is against Israel's long-term interest because it aggravates Palestinian hostility and will make it harder to draw final borders, if that day ever comes.

The U.S. must remain a steadfast supporter of Israel. But the reasons for shuttle diplomacy are not apparent at this moment. Israel is doing pretty well. Its technologically advanced economy is robust, walls blocking off Palestinian areas have minimized terrorist infiltrations, and a missile shield has provided effective protection against rocket attacks.

What's more, the U.S. has learned solving this conflict won't stop Arab leaders from cynically deploying anti-American sentiment. Increasing energy independence means appraising Arab alliances with open eyes.

Make no mistake. The U.S. should continue to promote peace in the region. Responding to the pressure to do something, however, is not the same as getting something done.

See also Jeffrey Goldberg at wfp.to/comment

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2013 A11

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