Doni Remba, a veteran pro-Israel peace advocate and Middle East political analyst, is Executive Director of the Jewish Alliance for Change (JAFC), a nonprofit organization which advocates within the American Jewish community for a progressive domestic and foreign policy agenda. JAFC played a major role in building American Jewish support for Senator Barack Obama's presidential bid through its Israelis for Obama web video and creative pro-Obama TV and internet ad series Ain’t Funny with legendary comedians.

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The results of the Israeli election this week, coming on the heels of the Gaza War, have been confounding for many of us in the pro-Israel, pro-peace camp, as we simultaneously breathe a sigh of collective relief that President Obama's Administration is reality.  In her post-election Town Hall meeting with Brit Tzedek, former member of Knesset Naomi Chazan commented on the parallels between this election and the 2004 re-election of President Bush, when the majority of Americans still supported the Iraq War.  It was a time of deep concern, but also grew into a time of deep possibility. It is clear that strong leadership for Mideast peace by the Obama administration has become even more critical -- as does our role as pro-peace advocates.  We asked veteran policy analyst Doni Remba, Executive Director of the Jewish Alliance for Change (JAFC), to assess the election and its implications for a new peace paradigm.

Brit Tzedek Election Resources:

Barack, Bibi and Tzipi:   A Chance for Peace?

By Gidon D. Remba

While the U.S.has just moved leftward with the election of Barack Obama as President and a more Democratic Congress, Israel's election consummated a long-building rightward tectonic shift.   Both were aftershocks from eight years of Bush-Cheney misrule, which ravaged the U.S. economy while inflaming the political and security environment in which Israel lives. But Israel's main centrist parties and leaders--Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Kadima, Ehud Barak and Labor--share the blame for Israel's predicament, and their own electoral fates.   The failures of Labor and Kadima stem not from tactical error, but rather from banking their future, and that of the Jewish state, on deeply flawed and fundamentally misguided policies towards the Palestinians and the regional security threats the country faces from Iran to Lebanon to Gaza.  

Kadima's paradox is to have won the election, still Israel's largest party (by a hair), while losing its ability to govern in a "centrist" coalition with Labor.   It can now govern only with Netanyahu and the Likud, a constraint which will challenge diplomatic efforts with Israel's Arab neighbors and heighten the importance of the U.S. in pushing them forward.   Labor has now fallen from Israel's second largest party to fourth place, while Bibi Netanyahu's Likud more than doubled its size, growing from 12 to 27 seats. Anti-Arab racist and former Kach member Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party has grown from 11 to 15 seats, now the third largest.  The entire right-wing bloc has grown to a majority of 64 seats, while the center-left bloc has declined to 56, including 12 Israeli Arab Knesset Members who won't be invited into any governing coalition.

Why the Right Won and the Center Failed to Hold

Two Israeli wars of choice—one in the north against Hezbollah in 2006 and the other in the south against Hamas this past month—were products of Kadima and Labor’s earlier philosophy of unilateral withdrawal and their shared myopic approach to Hamas.  This clouded vision could not but have led to confrontation and war, fostering an even more insecure neighborhood for Israelis.  Israel’s Pyrrhic victories in these conflicts strengthened Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran politically and militarily, weakening Israel’s peace partner Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party.  These blunders, coupled with the rise of a nuclearizing Iran and its Shiite allies under Bush’s New Middle East, further reinforced Israeli anxieties, lending added thrust to the Israeli electorate’s rightward momentum. The failure of the centrists’ Bush-endorsed brand of peace diplomacy to bear even the smallest fruit for either the Palestinians or Israel, exacerbated a mounting popular Israeli skepticism in the utility of peace talks.    

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A New Peace Paradigm

By Gidon D. Remba

A new peace paradigm for the Obama administration would break with past practice on several key measures:

  1. It must be based on a holistic, regional approach which will promote a change in Israeli public opinion by anchoring peace with the Palestinians and with Syria on pursuit of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli treaty, providing Israel with recognition from all Arab states, and with the endorsement of most Muslim states.  This would be coupled with a new regional security regime that provides Israel with U.S., NATO and Arab security arrangements and guarantees.  To achieve the painful concessions Israel will be required to make, the peace dividend to Israel must be equally demanding from the Muslim and Arab worlds.  The Arab League peace initiative suggests that such a broad rapprochement may be possible, even if the final framework diverges in some ways from the literal text of that offer.

  2. The U.S., along with its allies, must establish clear principles that lay out the new internationally accepted, U.S.-backed parameters of this new regional peace initiative and the treaty it is designed to achieve.

  3. While past peace efforts placed too many incentives for the Arab states and Israel at the never-reached end of the process, the U.S. must now begin offering political and economic rewards early on, in exchange for reciprocal moves on the part of Arab states towards the US and Israel.    This approach could begin to change regional dynamics in key respects, particularly with regard to Iran and Syria.  

Obama should move forward with renewing relations and dialogue with Syria and laying the basis for exploring, through direct, unconditional -- but initially mid-level talks -- a "grand bargain" with Iran after this summer's presidential elections there.   The US should offer to create a multinational consortium with Iran to produce enriched uranium inside Iran, "thus transferring a purely national program to international ownership, management and supervision."  It would operate under an "enhanced verification system which will ensure that military nuclear activities are not taking place," as has been proposed in a groundbreaking essay by Bill Luers, Tom Pickering and Jim Walsh ("How to Deal with Iran," New York Review of Books, Feb. 12, 2009).    This proposal, they report, has the support of "highly placed Iranians" and possibly the Iranian government.  It would be part of an integrated US negotiations strategy under which, in return for a mutually accepted resolution of the nuclear issue, Iran would end its military support for Hezbollah and Hamas and accept, or refrain from opposing, a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace accord, which will include Lebanon. 

At the same time that the Obama administration pursues this new approach with Iran, it would explore a bargain with Syria:  restoration of relations with the U.S., and end to economic and political sanctions and new international economic aid for Syria in exchange for Syria's realignment from Iran with the US (and later with Israel), and an end to its military support for Hezbollah.   Rather than beginning this process only after Israel signs a treaty committing to return the Golan, Obama should accelerate it as a way to make later Israeli-Syrian direct talks (under a different Israeli government) more likely to succeed, within the framework of the comprehensive Arab-Israeli accord. 

By unleashing a new regional dynamic over time, the U.S. will gradually change the threat perception in Israel from its current extremely high pitch, creating new evidence of the efficacy of diplomacy, and diplomatic opportunities which the Israeli public will want to exploit. This new dynamic will ultimately strengthen the Israeli left and center, leading within a few years to a new and more moderate Israeli governing coalition, and equally importantly, to a public perception of a more secure, less fearful environment around Israel. This is not a sprint, but a marathon. President Obama should start the run now.  Im lo achshav, ei matai? If not now, then when?

Additional Election Resources:

White House: Obama to push peace process, regardless of Israel leader by Natasha Mozgovaya, Haaretz Correspondent, and Reuters. Haaretz. February 12, 2009.

Israeli Uncertainty Buys Obama Time by Nathan Guttman. The Jewish Daily Forward. February 11, 2009.

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