New administration, new chance for peace

By Lee Hamilton
Oct 6 2008

 In the United States, we are less than one month from electing a new president. In Israel, Tzipi Livni is trying to build a coalition government she hopes to lead as prime minister. The arrival of two new leaders presents an opportunity to leave lame–duck politics behind and reinvigorate the Israeli–Palestinian peace process.

For the past six decades, every U.S. president has recognized that achieving peace in the Middle East is a vital national security issue. This is the case now more than ever. A two–state solution would not solve all of America's problems in the Middle East. Sunni–Shiite strife would continue, al–Qaida's hostility to the United States would persist, and Iran would remain a headache.

But the peace dividend would be substantial. Palestinian statehood would eliminate a source of much anti–Americanism. Al–Qaida would lose one of its major recruitment tools. Iran's claims to regional leadership would diminish.

There is a consensus in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Riyadh, Cairo, Brussels and elsewhere that American leadership on this issue is essential — and the effort must start early in the next administration.

The task's difficulty matches its importance. Israelis and Palestinians deeply distrust each other, and the wounds of more than 60 years of fighting will not heal quickly. Additionally, American influence has withered in the past eight years, with only sporadic and unsustained leadership in the quest for peace.

But there have been some favorable developments. Polls of Israelis and Palestinians back a “fair” settlement by large margins. Arab countries are willing to accept Israel's permanent place in the Middle East. And outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's own political journey — from uncompromising hawk to flawed, but committed, negotiator — reflects the growing Israeli recognition that its long–term security depends on peaceful relations with a viable Palestinian state.

The next president must make Arab–Israeli peace a top priority. He should appoint a special envoy with full White House support. The president must be determined and engaged, providing his negotiating team with the necessary backing to reach and implement accords.

Despite recent developments, the core issues remain the most vexing and crucial.

Territory. The settlement should be based on the 1967 armistice lines, with mutually agreed upon adjustments, including the transfer of Israeli land to the Palestinians in exchange for some large Israeli settlement blocs. Olmert said as much in an interview last week. Additionally, a corridor connecting the Gaza Strip and West Bank is necessary. The expansion of Jewish settlements, construction in existing settlements, and further Jewish construction in East Jerusalem must stop if talks are to succeed.

Security. The borders of each state must be secure with each government exercising total sovereignty over its respective territory.

Jerusalem. The city should remain physically undivided, with the Palestinian state governing Arab neighborhoods and the Israeli government ruling Jewish neighborhoods. Palestine would administer Muslim and Christian holy places in the Old City, while Israel would administer Jewish holy places.

Refugees. Israel cannot absorb 4 million Palestinian refugees. Israel should, along with the international community, commit to assisting them in building decent lives through economic assistance and investment in the nascent Palestinian state. Substantial outside resources will be necessary.

The United States cannot force peace upon the Israelis and Palestinians. But it must exercise leadership to create conditions conducive to a just peace and the advancement America's strategic interests.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)