Thursday, 8 April 2010

An American peace plan?

There has been a suspicion in Israeli government circles for some time that the Obama administration is laying the ground for an imposed settlement of the Israel-Palestine issue, with the establishment and recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state as a basic objective. This, it was perceived, is what lies behind the much tougher line that Washington has been taking with Israel while the proximity talks were being negotiated.

Is this a likely scenario?

President Obama came to power determined to regain credibility for the USA in the Muslim world. His speech In June 2009 in Cairo was seminal. He said the "cycle of suspicion and discord" between the United States and the Muslim world must end, and he called for a "new beginning." Already, in the previous month, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, speaking in the new President's name, had called for an end of all Israeli settlement building in the West Bank: "We think it is in the best interest of the effort that we are engaged in, that settlement expansion cease." Significantly, perhaps, construction in Jerusalem was not mentioned.

It has taken some time for it to sink in that Obama is dead serious on both issues. His determination to strengthen his credentials as a sympathetic third party in Muslim eyes has become obvious as he has sought, wherever possible, to avoid actions that would undermine them.

We learnt some time ago that political and defence circles in the US have been arguing that the continuing Israeli-Palestinian dispute in general, and the unresolved position of the West Bank settlements in particular, undermine the strategic interests of the United States, and, they maintain, of Israel as well. The latest set of demands made of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – not yet answered – reflect Obama's determination to stick to the two strands of his policy: retain credibility in the Muslim world and bring the Israel-Palestine dispute to an end. It seems he may have concluded that the only way to advance matters is to formulate an American peace plan.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? If the US can put a well-considered and credible peace plan on the table, and then try to persuade both the Palestinian Authority and Israel to accept it, the whole Middle East dispute will have been put on a new footing. Could the US impose such a settlement if the two sides could not agree? Unlikely – and it is certainly preferable for the two sides themselves to come to a mutually acceptable agreement. But it is possible to see something of the logic behind this sort of thinking on the part of the US, given Obama's self-declared priorities.

On the Arab side, the bare bones of a settlement have already been tabled – the 2002 Arab League peace plan, which the new US administration has already embraced. According to the plan, the Arab world would formally recognise Israel and enter into normal relations with her, in exchange for Israel's withdrawing from territories captured in the 1967 war.

If the US is indeed thinking along the lines of developing its own version of a peace plan, then it behoves the Israeli government to get its thinking cap on, and also come up with one which would bear scrutiny at a negotiating table. Of course such plans already exist – those sponsored in 2000 by Ehud Barak at Camp David, for exampale, and those advanced by Ehud Olmert in 2008. Olmert wanted to annex 6.3 per cent of the West Bank to Israel – areas that are home to 75 per cent of the Jewish population of the territories. In return, he proposed the transfer of territory to the Palestinians equivalent to 5.8 per cent of the area of the West Bank as well as a safe-passage route from Hebron to the Gaza Strip via a highway on which there would be no Israeli presence. This plan, presented to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, was overtaken by events and Abbas never responded to it.

So is this talk of an American peace plan all pie in the sky?

Well, according to today's edition of the Washington Post, senior US officials have indeed discussed whether President Obama should propose his own solution to the intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and they cite a meeting on 24 March between the president and seven former and current national security advisers.

What is more, a US official confirmed to the Post that a report about that session by columnist David Ignatius was correct. In it Ignatius said he had been informed that the American peace plan would be linked with the issue of confronting Iran, which is Israel's top priority. The official he spoke to described the issues as two halves of a single strategic problem: "We want to get the debate away from settlements and East Jerusalem and take it to a 30,000-feet level that can involve Jordan, Syria and other countries in the region," as well as the Israelis and Palestinians.

A second official explained to Ignatius that the United States cannot allow the Palestinian problem to keep festering – providing fodder for Iran and other extremists. "As a global power with global responsibilities, we have to do something." He said the plan would "take on the absolute requirements of Israeli security and the requirements of Palestinian sovereignty in a way that makes sense."
Commenting on the Ignatius piece, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said that the US is willing to play an active role once the parties reach the negotiation stage, but did not want to force any of the parties into an agreement.

So an imposed settlement, no. But a peace plan, possibly. And there the matter rests for the moment. A flurry in the media dovecotes, work possibly in hand in the depths of some Washington office, and the take-off of the proximity talks still in the balance.

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