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Navigating Political Currents to Achieve Middle East Peace

American Leadership Is Vital

SOURCE: AP/Alex Brandon

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, as Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas looks on. Israelis and Palestinians launched direct negotiations on September 1 after more than a year of U.S. efforts to bring them to the negotiating table.

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The fate of the direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians will be significantly determined by the extent to which the leaders on each side are able and willing to navigate the constraints of their respective domestic politics. It is also clear that the renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will require sustained and determined U.S. involvement from the onset even though the United States is in the thick of its own mid-term elections.

Israelis and Palestinians launched direct negotiations on September 1 after more than a year of U.S. efforts to bring them to the negotiating table, including four months of indirect talks facilitated through U.S. mediation.

The long awaited re-launch of negotiations has effectively raised the stakes for Israelis and Palestinians, demanding that officials in Jerusalem and Ramallah make the politically difficult decisions that they have successfully avoided until now. It also raises the stakes for President Barack Obama, who has made it clear since taking office that he considers reaching a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be a key U.S. interest.

We traveled to the region this summer while the United States worked to move the parties from indirect to direct talks. We met with dozens of Israeli and Palestinian officials and analysts from across the political spectrum during the trip, as well as U.S. officials in the region. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians reported at the time to have a clear understanding of the U.S. strategy for ultimately achieving a sustainable resolution to the two-state conflict. Each appeared to use the stalemate preceding the launch of direct talks to strengthen their political standings with their respective publics. One former Israeli official told us at the time, “Israelis and Palestinians are working hard to position themselves for the failure of direct talks. They want to show that the other side is to blame for the failure of the peace process.”

Now that the Obama administration has launched direct talks, it will need to work with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in order to help them overcome their respective political constraints to advance the newly launched talks and build what will hopefully be a new and robust strategy for achieving a lasting resolution to the conflict. Both leaders must avoid establishing a position aimed at shedding blame for the talks’ potential failure and must demonstrate political courage by articulating a vision that promotes the establishment of two states as a realization of their respective national aspirations and ideals, rather than as a compromise of them. Netanyahu and Abbas will at the same time be challenged to rise above the influence of rejectionists who will undoubtedly intensify their efforts to thwart progress, as the recent attacks in the West Bank indicate. This could be their last chance to do so given growing questions about the viability of the two-state solution.

Their success will require intensive U.S. support and leadership to ensure that the dispute over settlements does not disrupt the talks at the start, to engage the Arab states in contributing to the political process, to encourage the leaders to frame a two-state solution as integral to their national ideals, and to consistently communicate America’s strategic and vested interest in the success of this effort.

David A. Halperin is Assistant Director of the Israel Policy Forum and Matthew Duss is a National Security Researcher and Blogger at the Center for American Progress.

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