Activists: Now, yes now, is the time for US to push for MidEast peace

Israeli-Palestinian group OneVoice is bucking conventional wisdom and trying to drum up support in America for another presidential push toward a final agreement.

By , Staff writer

A major Israeli-Palestinian activist group is bucking conventional wisdom by arguing that now is the right time to engage Americans in the moribund Middle East peace process.

The presidential campaign season is traditionally a terrible time to make any progress on foreign policy, especially during elections focused on pocketbook issues.

But when the presidential candidates and their parties brought Israeli and Palestinian issues into the spotlight this fall, the group OneVoice decided to seize the opportunity to insert itself into the debate.

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Representatives of the group are touring the US this fall, urging American voters to sign a petition asking the presidential candidates to make rebooting the stalled peace process a top priority after Election Day. Their reasoning: The two-state solution cannot be achieved without US help – a solution that they say is running out of time.

"Regional stability lies in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, we are witnessing the rapidly growing distance between the present and peace," reads the petition.

The group's sense of urgency is shared by analysts and former architects of the peace process, even if they don't all share in the optimism that the US can be moved to act soon. 

"Everyone recognizes that you cannot assume the two-state solution will always be a viable option," says David Makovsky, director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Project on the Middle East Peace Process. "If you ignore it, you ignore it at your own peril. If it festers, it will breed radicalization."

Ron Pundak, an Israeli architect of the Oslo accords and chairman of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGOs Forum, argues that current trends like settlement expansion are closing the door on the possibility of Israel and Palestine as two separate states. 

"What is happening now, as a result of the policies of the last 19 years, is this option of two states… is becoming a less and less realistic option because of realities on the ground, because of a change of the atmosphere," he says.

OneVoice's hope is that their petition will prove to whomever wins the Oval Office on Nov. 7 that tackling this political land mine will have payoff with voters, and that he will make it a top priority from the outset of his term. No matter how many signatures they get on their petition – it had 482 yesterday and they are aiming for thousands – they will be presenting it to the winner that Wednesday.

But any such petition and publicity effort will be up against tremendous inertia in Washington, where past presidents have devoted much energy to the project only to see hopes dashed.

Presidential interest?

Mr. Pundak says that the perception in Israel is that Mr. Romney has already written off the peace process, seeing no chance of success, while President Barack Obama is likely to make another attempt if re-elected. He believes that President Obama really wants to be one of the architects of a two-state solution.

"The question is whether his aides will tell him, 'Why bother? It's too difficult. Why should you enter into something where everyone has failed?'" he says.

But, he quips, "Maybe he should be the signateur for at least one peace agreement. After all, he is a Nobel peace laureate."

Mr. Makovsy is less sure that either Romney or Obama will be raring to jump-start the peace process.

"The people in the Middle East tend to think a second-term president is king of the US because he's untethered to re-election. I think the laws of political physics still apply," he says. "No president wants to bleed political capital if he thinks this issue is going to be a loser, and therefore the leaders of the Middle East have got to entice even a second-term president if they want him to take this issue on."

What could entice a president, particularly a first-term Romney, to take on the loaded portfolio? Signs that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are willing to deal with interim steps, such as borders and security issues and a new level of honesty with their populations about the necessity of peace, to name a few, Makovsky says.

But such moves require popular pressure to reassure risk-averse leaders, he says. And, even then, the chances of this being the first major foreign policy priority tackled are low because Iran's nuclear program continues to suck up all the air in the room. Just yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to completely overshadow Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's speech at the United Nations General Assembly with a rudimentary diagram illustrating the Iranian nuclear threat.

Peace as self-interest, security

OneVoice would like the national security debate in Israel to include the unresolved peace process. 

"We need to convince Israel that the status quo is the most dangerous thing for national identity and security," says Adva Vilchinski, the Israeli representative on the OneVoice delegation touring the US. "We cannot move on with the future we want."

Appealing to concern for the other has had minimal effect in the past, so the organization has instead focused on appealing to each population's "enlightened self-interest," as they refer to it – framing the importance of a two-state solution purely in terms of national interest. 

In the case of Israel, that means things like highlighting the resources poured into security in the West Bank, particularly for the settlements, and reminding Israelis that the demographics are not in their favor. The Palestinian population is growing much faster than Israel's.

For OneVoice Palestine, it's about proving to Palestinians that only the two-state solution can give them the kind of national identity and control over their destiny that they desire, says Ahmad Omeir, the Palestinian representative on the OneVoice tour.

"The level of skepticism is really scary," says Mr. Omeir, speaking about Palestinians' opinion about the viability of a peace process. Much of the organization's work is about "diffusing fear" that there is no partner on the other side, he says.

The majority of Israelis and Palestinians want a two-state-solution – according to Vilchinski, more than 70 percent of Israelis and Palestinians said in 2009 that were willing to live with two states – but don't believe it will happen because they see no partner on the other side.

Makovsky blames the leaders for that.

"A majority of Israelis and Palestinians want a two-state solution, but then you ask them the next question, 'Does the other guy want peace? Does the other guy want a two-state solution?' The answer is no. Why is there this disconnect?" he says.

"The publics have been only fed that the other side is not interested and that the leaders are not trying to shape the societal landscape. It's a lack of leadership," he says. "Leadership is sometimes saying tough things to your own people and good things about the other side."

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