Word on the Street: Obama’s Opportunity

Jeremy Ben-Ami Image
Jeremy Ben-Ami
on May 15, 2016

President Obama has eight months remaining in office and one last meaningful opportunity to take concrete action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Of course, we’re under no illusion about what’s possible. There’s little chance of renewed negotiations, let alone an agreement during the Obama Presidency.

But the President and his team, as they consider their overall legacy, are well aware that, in the absence of diplomacy, the situation on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians is going from bad to worse.

The choice for the President in his remaining time in office is clear: Take meaningful action that charts a course for Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution or do nothing and walk away.

J Street is calling on the President to act.

We urge the President to lay out a suggested framework for resolving the conflict that refocuses both peoples and their leaders on the compromises needed for peace. Such a framework would light a torch of hope that the President can hand to his successor.

Of course, the conflict will only end in an agreement between the two parties.

But history teaches that efforts to resolve complex and long-running conflicts can benefit from serious help from outside actors. The US can play a key role as a mediator, bridging difficult gaps and providing reality checks to both sides so that future negotiations are meaningful and productive.

Leading experts agree. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, the former American ambassador to Israel and a major authority on the American role in peacemaking, recently wrote that American leadership can serve to “point the two sides forward, toward negotiations that start from a reasonable and fair starting point.”

Without a framework, Kurtzer wrote, “Each side prefers to retreat to starting positions that have been shown time and again to be non-starters; each prefers to lay down preconditions that make it impossible for the other side even to contemplate negotiations.”

And three leading Israeli voices for a two-state solution, including former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon, argued in Foreign Affairs that an American framework would “make a strong impression on the Israeli and Palestinian publics, presenting them with a clear discussion of the core issues at stake, even if their leaders refuse to engage in it. The Obama Parameters could prompt honest discourse about the realistic — if not painful — concessions both sides will need to make.”

Strong American leadership could help ensure that growing international frustration over the conflict is channeled in the right direction. The President could unite key allies behind a positive vision — reaffirming Israel’s absolute right to secure borders and equal standing in the community of nations, while marginalizing proposals that show bias against it.

Meanwhile, powerful voices in Washington are pushing the President to do nothing — as is the Israeli government. They fall back on the argument that the only way to make any progress whatsoever is through direct negotiations. Anything else they say is interference and constitutes unhelpful pressure.

Yet a hands-off approach — counting on the parties themselves to talk and figure it out without a suggested framework to guide the discussion and help bridge differences — is a sure-fire recipe for failure. We’ve been down this road over and over again.

Doing nothing means accepting the ever-deteriorating status quo and a future of spiraling violence and conflict management.

In the absence of diplomatic leadership, chaos and violence are filling the vacuum.

A new House resolution (H.Res 686) would put Congress on record supporting a US vision for peace.

J Street will do everything we can in the weeks ahead to let Members of Congress know why this is so important to us and why we want them to sign on for the sake of both peoples and the long-term interests of both Israel and the United States.

Help us show President Obama that Congress will support action in his final year: Tell your representative to cosponsor H.Res 686

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There are no silver bullets, and a Presidential framework certainly won’t end the conflict the day after it’s put forward.

But it will be a powerful tool in the hands of those in both Israeli and Palestinian society who continue to look for a peaceful solution.

And for the President it would be a powerful legacy to — amid growing darkness — leave behind a light that points the way forward.

We appreciate your support as we work toward this goal in the coming months.