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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Obama must get involved in peace talks before they atrophy


November 18, 2008

By Paul Katz

The election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States has brought a level of excitement and energy to millions of American college students, unprecedented in our young lifetimes.

Engaged in the American political process like never before, students across the country already committed to Israel's security must now unite around a single message: We simply can't wait for constructive U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process.

Although he wface many pressing issues upon taking office, President-elect Obama must make deep, consistent, and even-handed involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations a top priority right from the start.

Obama's election proves that Americans are ready to show a new face to an international community eager for renewed American leadership.

Nowhere is this need more pressing than in the Middle East, where a disastrous war in Iraq, a dead-end Iran policy, and inconsistent support for Arab-Israeli peace have destabilized the region, weakening America's allies and strengthening our enemies.

A peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, brokered by the United States, would do more to serve our interests in the region -and to emphasize our commitment to universal human dignity - than any other single action could.

Yet the two-state solution that nearly everyone acknowledges as the greatest hope for peace, is becoming increasingly less viable with each passing day.

The failure of the disengagement from Gaza has left many Israelis and American Jews alike leery of further territorial concessions, while the continued expansion of West Bank settlements has discredited Mahmoud Abbas and has led some Palestinians to consider abandoning the two-state solution altogether.

The consequences of American inaction could be disastrous for Israel.

If Palestinians turn away from an independent Palestinian state, they will likely push instead for full citizenship in a bi-national Israel.

Excepting a demographic shift of truly miraculous proportions, Jews would soon cease to represent a majority of the population, and Israel would cease to be either Jewish or democratic.

If Israeli moderates are unable to curtail settlement expansion and achieve consensus over territorial exchange and the status of Jerusalem in the coming term, the peace process is likely to atrophy, and the Zionist dream of a vibrant Jewish democracy may wither with it.

Obama could make a tremendous contribution to Arab-Israeli peace.

Just as the promise of U.S. foreign aid brought Egypt to the bargaining table, the prospect of access to Washington and its resources could sweeten a deal with Syria. And the U.S. alone has the clout to outweigh intransigent domestic groups in both Israel and the Arab world.

History has repeatedly shown that the most dramatic achievements of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have transpired only when America has been actively and impartially engaged. These developments - such as peace with Egypt and Jordan - came about as a result of sustained strategic initiatives and a willingness to deal honestly with both sides.

President Bush failed utterly to further the peace process. After six years spent ignoring the Arab Israeli conflict, the collapse of Bush's major foreign policy initiatives led him to scramble for a last-minute consensus.

Yet the Arab world's lack of trust in U.S. impartiality and Bush's refusal to support negotiations with Syria imploded his half-hearted push for peace.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, Dan Kurtzer, argues a well-noted point in his much-celebrated book Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace:

Israel and the Arab world will be able to resolve their differences only when the U.S. is consistently engaged at the highest levels and when it displays the sort of even-handedness needed to gain the trust and partnership of Israel's Arab neighbors.

Fortunately, Obama has openly declared his intention to take just this sort of approach to the Arab-Israeli peace process, announcing on June 4, 2008 that he will "make a personal commitment to do all I can to advance the cause of peace from the start of my administration."

Yet, despite such occasional affirmations, neither the presidential candidates nor the press paid the peace process much heed during the campaign.

Now, as Obama and his transition team pave the way for what is sure to be a historic presidency, we must work to ensure that Obama's rhetoric for change becomes a concrete agenda for change.

American college students - the group whose exceptional participation revitalized the American political process in the last two years - must take the initiative.

To that end, the Union of Progressive Zionists (UPZ), a network of pro-peace, pro-Israel student activists, organized a nationwide day of action on November 12.

From Harvard to the University of Texas-Austin, hundreds of students at twenty campuses across the country educated their peers about the necessity for renewed negotiations and flooding Obama's mailbox with thousands of postcards to remind him that we can't wait for real and responsible U.S. engagement.

Dramatic as we have made this day of action out to be, it was simply the start of a much longer campaign to bolster the peace process.

UPZ activists, along with organizations like J Street and Brit Tzedek v?Shalom, speak for a growing movement of American Jews who believe that Israel can be secure only through peace, and that smart and effective US involvement will be required to achieve it.

We must push President-elect Obama to make Middle East diplomacy a top priority and give him the much-needed political support to follow the path of peace.

President-elect Obama has the power to transform the Arab-Israeli peace process, but if he is to succeed he will need to begin immediately. We - America, Israel, and the entire Jewish people - don't have another four years to spare.

Paul Katz is Co-Chair of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, a member of the Union of Progressive Zionists.



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