Tough Talk Will Break the Middle East Impasse – November 10, 2009

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Tough talk will break the Middle East impasse A checkpoint in the West Bank. Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan is a former career diplomat and a former Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in New York. He currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at Seton Hall University. He is a contributing blogger for Worldfocus. In the past decades the United States has taken the lead in initiating a number of diplomatic moves to cut the Gordian knot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are two UN Security Council Resolutions agreed to by the protagonists: the Madrid Peace Process and the Road Map to a two-state solution. These initiatives have largely foundered on the twin shoals of Israeli intransigence and Palestinian disunity. Enter President Obama with his vow to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world. His speeches in Egypt and Turkey calling for new beginning were warmly welcomed by Muslims and indeed the wider international community. Obama called for a total freeze on Israeli settlements as a necessary first step to starting comprehensive negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians aimed at ending their conflict. No doubt his motives were sincere. However, his efforts have yielded no concrete results so far. The Israeli government, led by Netanyahu and his hawkish Foreign Minister Lieberman, have spurned Obama’s entreaties to freeze all settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The U.S. then changed course and is now trying to get the two sides to talk while new settlement blocks continue to be built. No Palestinian leadership can be expected to negotiate in this scenario. The impasse has deepened. US credibility is at a low point in the Muslim world. The opinion in the street is that Obama lacks the clout with Netanyahu to bring him around to halt all settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories. Not doing so means that a two state solution will not happen. The ability of the U.S. to act as an honest broker is thus being questioned again. Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seems to have thrown up his hands in despair. He says he will not be standing for reelection next January. The U.S. is the main supporter and aid-giver to Israel. U.S. interests in the Middle East apparently dictate that it continues to support Israel — come what may. I disagree with this post-1967 assessment because the Middle East has evolved. Clinging to old shibboleths in foreign policy never helps. But the real question is how long will the Arab countries continue to put up with the abominable status quo of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands? Meanwhile, the Palestinian political leadership is split with the extremist Hamas faction ruling in Gaza while an increasing weak and ineffectual Abbas has a tenuous hold in the West Bank, and Palestinians continue to suffer the daily humiliations of an onerous Israeli occupation. I think the Obama administration needs to get tough with both the Israelis and Palestinians. Both should be told that they have to get their act together. The Israelis should be told in no uncertain terms that they cannot expect to hold on to the West Bank and East Jerusalem indefinitely. The US should not be squeamish. It must treat Israel as any other country in the Middle East and not as a special case. The Fatah and Hamas factions need to be told to bury their differences, form a unity government and engage with the Israelis. Sometimes tough love produces fruitful results compared to continuing meaningless talks to nowhere. Whether Obama and his team can summon the political resolve, commitment and impartiality in moving the two parties toward a final settlement of this long standing conflict remains to be seen. One can only hope that Obama will succeed where his predecessors have failed. Otherwise we should brace ourselves for another eruption of bloody fighting with incalculable consequences for peace and stability in the Middle East.

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