Paul Pillar

Impose a Peace

One should be hesitant about proposing New Year's resolutions for the president of the United States, especially ones that would involve a lot of effort and commitment on his part. However important the topic of the proposal, there will always be many other matters, some impossible to foresee on December 31st, that will necessarily and properly occupy his time, attention, and political resources. But many others besides myself will be proposing and pushing particular topics, so I will not forbear doing so either. In 2011, President Obama should do what is necessary to push through an Israeli-Palestinian settlement that will create a Palestinian state and end Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Given the prevailing political and diplomatic circumstances, “pushing through” a peace settlement will likely mean imposing a peace settlement.

A good case for doing so is in the excellent lead editorial in this week's Economist, which describes the increased explosiveness of a festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to such things as the arms race between Hizballah and Israel since their war in 2006. A more fundamental reason for acting decisively in 2011 is that the window for a two-state solution continues to close because of the Israelis' continued colonization of the West Bank, which pushes both a settlement and a Palestinian state closer to infeasibility. And not least of all is the continuing, major damage to U.S. interests because of the association of the United States with the unresolved conflict and with the Israeli occupation. It is one of the two biggest causes in the Middle East and beyond of hostility toward the United States (the other major cause in recent years being the Iraq War), with everything that hostility involves in terms of stoking extremist violence against the United States and discouraging Middle Eastern regimes from cooperating with the United States.

The contours of a settlement have been well known for years. The challenge is one of will, not of ingenuity in devising a solution. Both sides are impeded by extremists, but the main problem of will is that a significant number of Israelis and especially Israelis in power seem to be satisfied with an indefinite continuation of the occupation and the apartheid system that goes with it, at least as long as Israel enjoys its current prosperity and most Israelis feel fairly safe behind their security wall. Overcoming this problem will certainly be a huge task, but the tools to do so exist.

One tool is world opinion, as reflected in the positions of the vast majority of countries. The “tough love,” as the Economist puts it, that the United States needs to apply to Israel must combine strong assurances regarding Israel's sovereignty and security with emphasis on how isolated Israel is regarding the occupation. Israeli complaints about “delegitimization” should be dismissed as the nonsensical diversion that they are. Israel is quite legitimate in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of the world's countries; what is illegitimate is the occupation (and the colonization).

Another favorite Israel diversion in recent years—that everyone needs to concentrate on the threat from Iran, not on making peace between Israelis and Palestinians—should also be dismissed as nonsensical. Israelis are insulting themselves in suggesting that they cannot walk and chew gum at the same time (or talk and chew over Iranian threats at the same time), and they are insulting the United States if they are suggesting that Washington cannot do both either. The statement this week by the Israeli deputy prime minister that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is farther off than earlier supposed—whatever may be the impetus for this surprisingly non-alarmist remark by an Israeli leader—ought to help dismiss the notion that all available attention must be focused on Iran. But the most important point to make about the peace process and Iran is that an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, far from being a diversion from efforts to contain any dangers from Iran, would instead give a boost to those efforts. Given how much Iranian hardliners exploit politically and diplomatically the Israeli occupation and festering Palestinian problem, a peace settlement would take wind out of this Iranian sail and reduce Iranian appeal and influence in the region.

The most direct tool available to the president is the enormous material and other support the United States gives to Israel. Historians far in the future will be amazed at how unused this tool has been for so long, and how reluctant U.S. leaders have been to use it for leverage despite the aforementioned high costs of the status quo to U.S. interests. The explanation lies, of course, in domestic U.S. politics. If the president does try to impose a peace, the politics will get ugly, and some will do their utmost to punish him. Republicans are gearing up to out-Israel Obama and thereby try to win over as many Jewish voters as possible. Incoming House majority leader Eric Cantor has proposed shifting the $3 billion in annual military grant aid to Israel to the Defense Department budget as a way of making it harder to cut. In the face of the prospective ugliness and punishment, I would advise President Obama nonetheless to carry out this New Year's resolution for these reasons:

Reason number 1: Yes, it is that important.