American presidents are not generally given to declaring that they have failed in carrying out their policies, but it's clear this is the case for Barack Obama's efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The failure is made even more apparent by the fact that not only was no agreement reached, nor were the direct talks renewed, but that even on the issue of construction in the settlements - an important, but secondary, issue - the president failed to reach a formula that both parties could accept. One could, of course, blame Benjamin Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas, or both, but in the final analysis it is clear that Obama failed.
Before Obama was elected, the conventional wisdom pinned the lack of a peace agreement in the region on the unwillingness of President George W. Bush to step into the breach - or, to put it more crudely, to apply pressure on Israel. But now we see that even an activist president like Obama, with firm views on the nature of such an agreement and without excessive fondness for the Israeli prime minister, cannot even get the negotiations to the starting block.
As in the past, after the failure of the Camp David talks of 2000, we are at a dead end. Today, as then, there is no Plan B. Bill Clinton was apparently certain that he could charm Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat into signing an agreement, while Obama believed that his determination and his international standing would lead Israel and the Palestinians to soften their stances.
It is still not clear what the Americans intend to do now: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech was an insipid rehash of accepted truths. The question, obviously, is what the United States will do: It has been hinted that it will ask both parties to set out their positions on the core issues, but that will not save the day and indirect talks will go nowhere.
Washington needs a Plan B, a paradigm shift. For 17 years Israel and the Palestinians have been trying to reach a final agreement, either directly or with U.S. mediation. Israeli prime ministers, American presidents and even Palestinian leaders have come and gone, and still no peace agreement. The gaps, it turns out, are too great. And so, the United States must abandon its fruitless efforts to obtain a final agreement in favor of examining the option of interim agreements or partial, perhaps even unilateral, measures.
But this is also the time to put forth an Israeli initiative. It is clear that a government headed by Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will not offer the Palestinians a proposal based on the platform of the left, but even it can recognize that the status quo is not working in Israel's favor. Such a government is capable of taking interim measures such as lifting the siege of the Gaza Strip, which is not achieving its aims and only hurts Israel's international standing; transfering part or all of Area C in the West Bank from exclusive Israeli control, to the Palestinians; reducing certain strictures at the checkpoints, in accordance with security needs; and allowing the export of West Bank goods from Israeli ports.
Successive Israeli governments have steered clear of presenting an Israeli peace plan. The only one to take a bold step in that direction was Ariel Sharon, in the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, which both liberated 1.5 million Palestinians from Israeli occupation and showed Israel in a different light to the world.
A majority of Israelis could be brought around to supporting such moves. The absence of an Israeli initiative would once again paint Israel as being the reluctant party with no genuine interest in reaching an arrangement, and as a result the delegitimization campaign will grow stronger. Those who welcomed the failure of Obama's efforts must submit their own proposals, if not for a final arrangement, then at least for interim measures.
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