Peace for Palestine in 2011?

The peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians may fail, but they are far from doomed. Can President Obama pull it off?

The start of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations this week is easily dismissed by many as an effort doomed to fail. It may fail but it is not doomed to do so. President Obama has much working for him in this effort, most importantly his own determination as president to succeed, which history shows is critical to any successful Arab-Israeli peace negotiation. Nothing is more vital to our effort to defeat al-Qaeda, contain Iran and isolate jihadist extremism, so the effort is well worth the risk of failure.

Obama has four things going for him in these talks. First, we know where we are going. Ever since President Clinton summoned Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak to Camp David ten years ago the outline of a final agreement between Palestinians and Israelis has been clear. Clinton enunciated the key elements in December 2000: a two-state solution based largely on the June 1967 line, territorial swaps to allow some Jewish settlements to be annexed (the rest to be evacuated), Jerusalem to be the capital of both states and Palestinian refugee compensation instead of return. Then a final renunciation of all claims to territory, an end to belligerency and a demilitarized Palestinian state. Today such a deal will have to be limited to the West Bank and Jerusalem since Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. But Israel has already left Gaza, so there is no outstanding Israeli claim and in time a formal deal might include Gaza as well.

Second, we know such a deal will be very expensive but well worth it. Barak recently said he thinks it will cost close to $70 billion which is a bit higher than what we negotiated at Camp David but it’s in the ballpark. I negotiated the financial package with Barak’s aides then. We will need about $30 billion in compensation and resettlement for refugees, $20 billion to build desalinization plants and other infrastructure in the West Bank and $20 billion in security assistance for Israel. The U.S. will provide some but not all; the rest of the world has an interest in peace too. We will also need an international peace-monitoring force in the Jordan Valley, preferably from NATO with a UN seal of legitimacy. If a deal can be expanded to include Gaza and the Golan Heights the price will go up further. But it is far cheaper than another war, and cheaper than letting the Palestinian issue continue to fester, breeding hatred and terror.

Third, the Israeli opposition supports such a deal. In 2000 Barak knew Likud would fight to stop him. Now the opposition Kadima party tried to get this same deal in 2008, so it can hardly oppose it now. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers Likud and Barak delivers Labor, the Knesset will approve it.

Fourth, the Arab and Muslim world supports it. At Camp David Arafat was alone, now Mahmoud Abbas has the support of all the key Arab players including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. No Arab state opposes the plan. Key Muslim states like Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan will back a deal. Only Iran will oppose. Abbas has cover.

Of course, Obama also faces great obstacles. Ten years after Camp David there is little or no trust between the parties, indeed no enthusiasm for peace. Netanyahu, once called a serial blunderer by the Economist in 1997, is a reluctant convert to the two-state solution. Abbas is a reluctant negotiator who has been dragged to the table. Neither appears to be a man of destiny but we will soon find out.

This is where Obama is so critical. He must become the ultimate deal maker. He must expend time and political capital to get an agreement. Fortunately, unlike his predecessor, he understands how vital a peace agreement is to American national security. So does his team including Secretary Clinton and the Pentagon.

Then there are the spoilers, those who do not want peace at all. Al-Qaeda, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria all will try to derail peace by terror and assassination. Fortunately they are not united and they can be split apart further. An initiative with Damascus is the most promising way to do so. Again we know what a Syrian-Israeli deal requires and what it costs. All of the Golan in return for peace and security. At Shepherdstown in January 2000 we estimated it would cost around $20 billion.

Hamas may be the most difficult obstacle since it can undermine from within the Palestinian family and has the most to lose if there is a deal. There is no good solution to the Hamas and Gaza problem. Turkey may have some influence now after the flotilla fiasco. A senior Hamas official has just named his grandson after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a public recognition of Turkish help for lifting the siege of Gaza. The Saudis and Egyptians also have some influence but not a great deal. This part of the Palestinian problem is much worse today than a decade ago. For the first time there is a Sunni jihadist emirate in Palestine backed by jihadists from Morocco to Indonesia. It won’t go away.

If the challenge is daunting so is the opportunity appealing. Nothing would do more to isolate al-Qaeda and Iran than a just and fair Palestinian settlement. It won’t end violence and extremism in the Middle East and South Asia but it will steal the legitimacy of the jihadists away from them. That is precisely why Osama bin Laden will fight it so hard. He knows the stakes. So should we.

Bruce Riedel is a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution. In 2000 he was a negotiator at the Camp David and Shepherdstown peace summits.