In Wake of Gaza Truce, Washington Pundits Return to Debating Israel-Palestine Peace

Contributors to a new book on the peace process weigh in on prospects for the region following recent escalation in the Gaza Strip, and a reelected President Obama.

The cease-fire in Gaza seems to be holding so far, and Washington pundits have returned to debating the question of whether the Palestinian-Israeli peace is more or less likely to follow in the footsteps of the Arab spring - and what role the second Obama administration should play in pursuing it.

One of these discussions took place on Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, during at event dedicated to a new book on the subject edited by former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer. Some 12 authors contributed to the book "Pathways to Peace," and as Kurtzer observed: "Not surprisingly, all authors agreed that this is a considerable national security interest of the U.S."

Last week, he reminded the audience, the U.S. president had to call regional leaders to take out yet another fire in the Middle East - the Gaza conflict – while on a visit to Asia.

"There is no alternative to this conflict than the partition of the land, and the longer we delay it, trying to circumvent the idea, the harder it will become," Kurtzer told the audience.

"The president needs to insist that the physical template of Israel and Palestine be created - Israel was created 65 years ago, yet we don't know its borders. President Obama got it right in May 2011 when he suggested starting negotiations with borders based on 1967 borders with land swaps. Until we know where the State of Israel is and isn't and where the Palestinian state is and isn't - the rest is commentary. Anyone who argues that status quo is sustainable while bad behaviors continue (including the settlers violence) - it will bring not small fires but major conflagrations."

Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, announced that both the two-state solution and the Arab Peace Initiative are "dying."

"With settlement expansion it (the two-state solution) will be almost impossible to implement even if the agreement is reached," Dr. Muasher said, explaining that the Arab Peace Initiative today is dying because "Syria in not in a position to pay any attention to it, the Saudi monarch is old and in hospital as we speak. Today we have the parameters for solution, but the political will is lacking. The alternative is no solution for a decade, two or three - and then the Palestinians will be the majority."

Muasher suggested that President Obama should first approach four major players discreetly, in order to set up conditions for peace talks. He should ask Israel and the Palestinians for "end game deposits" on refugees and security requirements of Israel. He should ask the Saudis to supervise the process in the Arab world on the Arab Peace Initiative, and he should approach the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Jewish community on the acceptable parameters of negotiations.

"He needs to be able to present a credible package to both societies. If he leaves the process hostage to Netanyahu and Abbas - there will be no agreement," Muasher said.

Former negotiator Aaron David Miller, currently vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,spoke of the "twilight zone - neither peace nor confrontation," where both sides don't seem eager to engage in negotiations. "If you do not control all of the guns, you control nothing, referring to the different Palestinian factions.

Israel, he said, now has different priorities. "I see an implicit alignment of interests between Hamas, Morsi and Netanyahu, which has been building for some time. It's probably the single biggest threat for those who want to pursue an alternative - the two-state solution. Morsi can barely bring himself to use the word two-state solution. Hamas wants to enhance its own legitimacy, and to open Gaza economically. Anytime there has been a breakthrough in this conflict - when parties changed their calculations and owned the process, and there is no exception in this process in two or three breakthroughs that we facilitated. And we cannot create this kind of ownership."

Robert Malley, program director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C., on the other hand, warned that the Gaza model points to a long-term truce, not a solution - and that shifts in the region should force the players, including the American administration, to revise some assumption about the future peace agreement - say, Jerusalem, given the rise of Islamism in the region.

"If we don't make these adjustments, we'll be pursuing yesterday's peace," he said. "The war in Gaza is the microcosm of the tectonic shifts in the region President Obama is going to face. Egypt is no longer the country the U.S. is used to dealing with. The priority today is not confronting Israel, but consolidating domestic rule. There is a shift in the Palestinian political landscape - a growing difficulty for President Mahmoud Abbas to prove efficiency of his approach to his own people - they are being seen more and more as subcontractor of the Israeli occupation. The ones who are most mobilized today are not those who favor the two state solution, you need to find a way to bring them in. My belief is that President Obama wants to do it. I believe he will try it again."

On the President Abbas' plan to apply later this week for non-member observer status at the UN, Malley said: "All these speeches at the UN and resolutions, that's not who Abbas is - but he is being pushed to it because of the lack of alternatives."

William Quandt, chair at the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia,criticized Congress for its biased approach toward the conflict: "They are politicians, they do not think too deeply in terms of national security on this case. It was embarrassing when Netanyahu came here and shook his finger in the face of President Obama. When they applauded (during Netanyahu's speech at the Congress), it wasn't about issues, it was about making their constituents know they were pro-Israeli. Yes, Congress makes the life of the president more difficult on this issue. He has to govern, but the constraint of being reelected again is lifted."

Quandt also said that keeping Hamas and Fatah in power, which was part of the U.S. strategy, might be wrong. "The Palestinians will not be able to make peace with Israelis when they are divided. If Hamas won't undermine the process led by Abbas if it will be put to referendum - it's something to work with."

Meanwhile, both sides brace for the next diplomatic struggle at the UN. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland clarified on Monday that the Obama Administration does not support punishment such as withdrawing funds for the Palestinians' pursuing non-observer status at the UN, but Congress might freeze them again.

"We have made clear that we think the money should go forward in the interest of the Palestinian people, regardless of whether their leaders make bad decisions. That said, there are folks in Congress who are watching this extremely closely, and we have said to the Palestinians that they should not count on favorable response from the Congress if they go forward."