The Obama peace deal

Israelis and Palestinians are at war with themselves, as well as each other. This is Obama's cue
February 28, 2009

President Obama may be surrounded by experts, but no one seems to be telling him what he really needs to know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that both sides are divided peoples.

Most people know, roughly, that Palestine is two entities: a West Bank majority, nominally led by the Palestinian Authority—but really by a secular business and professional class in Ramallah—and an Islamist minority, centred in Gaza, run by an arguably pragmatic but unarguably totalitarian Hamas. What we have yet to learn, however, is that Israel is two entities also.

There is a slim secular majority, a Hebrew-speaking republic centred in Tel Aviv that profits increasingly from links with the outside world. This Israel is hawkish about security, but opposed to annexing occupied territory. It is comparatively highly educated and cosmopolitan, vaguely committed to democratic norms and therefore to a peace process. It can imagine a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one.

But then, set against this, you have Israel's second state. This is not the one-fifth Arab minority who might never accept a Jewish state. Instead, since 1967 Israel's Zionist settlement policies and laws privileging orthodoxy have engendered a huge Judean state-within-a-state: anchored in Jerusalem, largely theocratic, and deeply implicated in the ongoing West Bank settlements. Judea is less educated than its Hebrew cousin and instinctively more tribalist. Judeans are largely wards of the state. Most see peace—that is, a return of two million Palestinian refugees to Greater Jerusalem—as the end of their way of life.

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Only through understanding the fundamental divides on both sides can President Obama break the deadlock. In Palestine, the West Bank elites want to undermine Hamas, but refuse to fight Hamas supporters for fear of benefiting Israel. Secular Israelis, meanwhile, will not fight the Judeans for fear of benefiting the Palestinians. Both groups of moderates fear the loss of social solidarity with their own side, and so moderate leaders are stuck. Years of vendettas make cynicism about peace sound smart and brave. And given that a quarter of children who entered Israeli schools in 2008 are Arabs, and another quarter are ultra-orthodox of various kinds, it is easier to anticipate a future of ethnic cleansing than of quiet.

Make no mistake: poll after poll shows that a majority of Palestinians want peace with Israel. Ramallah's elite wants cooperation on business issues, higher education, construction and tourism. And a majority of Israelis want peace with Palestine, sceptical as they may be of Palestinian political institutions. They know that their own economic growth and cultural vitality depend on peace; their children, many of whom are leaving the country, hate guarding and paying for settlements.

Yet the logical alliance—between Tel Aviv and Ramallah, and against the extremists—seems impossible. Leaders on both sides cannot imagine prompting a near-term fight with their own rejectionists, which could even mean civil war, for a long-term negotiation that would be hostage to the first atrocity. Hamas and Israeli extremists do not oppose a peace deal in the way that Republicans oppose Keynes. They have killed their own leaders to get their way.

This is where America comes in. New negotiations are superfluous; a reasonable deal was already all but laid out by President Clinton in December 2000, and discussed in the Taba negotiations in January 2001* between Ehud Barak's outgoing Labour government and the Fatah leadership now in power in the Palestinian Authority . The "Clinton parameters" included using the 1967 borders, compensation and repatriation for Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem as a dual capital, and a non-militarised Palestinian state, reinforced by an "international force." Secretary of state Hillary Clinton should come to Israel on day one and make her husband's parameters her own. She should start speaking about middle-eastern peace as a global problem as pressing as the rehabilitation of financial markets.

Beyond that, the US needs to warm to President Sarkozy's vision of a Mediterranean union, with Israel and Turkey as anchors. Clinton should offer to help with a deal to bring Turkish water to Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. There should be talk of a common market between Israel, Palestine and Jordan. The new national security adviser, General Jones, should speak about a bilateral defence pact with Israel and an American naval base in Haifa.

Most importantly, however, the Obama administration must make it unequivocally clear that implementing the Clinton parameters is vital to America's national interest. How, without shoring up relations with moderate Arab states and Arabs more generally, can the US hope to bring its occupation of Iraq to a reasonable end? To oppose America's peace plan, in other words, is to oppose America. Israel's leaders must, as CBS's Bob Simon said, be put into a "panic" that American support is now conditional on specific behaviour, like ending settlements.

Yet—and this is crucial—the president should stress that the changes need not be rushed. The Israeli state needs time to repatriate, compensate and house its own people who return. Settlers should have at least five years to find new homes, under Nato monitors. The Palestinians also need time to cobble together a security force, like those in Ramallah and Jenin.

If we have learned anything from this past year it is that things that "cannot go on" eventually can't. The recent carnage in Gaza is a wake-up call: peace is not impossible, but Jerusalem could equally become like Sarajevo in a matter of weeks, with Israeli Arabs joining in the fray. As in Bosnia, tribal demons can only be contained by outside pressure and, if necessary, intervention. Like all crises, the middle eastern one provides a great opportunity for President Obama. He can bring a new era to the region. But, as with his plans for economic recovery, the greatest danger lies in thinking small.

(*This passage corrects a factual error in the printed version of the magazine)