At the United Nations on Thursday, President Obama took a risk by speaking so optimistically about the fragile Middle East peace talks. He told his international audience that “this time will be different.”
The president offered that outcome as a choice, but even so, he went out on a limb by pronouncing that one short year from now, the UN could have a new member: a sovereign Palestine living in peace with Israel. In 2003, President Bush held out that possibility for 2005.
But isn’t risk what’s needed now? The outlines of a peace deal are well known. All that’s really missing is the political courage of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders – and all those who back them – to not let antipeace extremists derail a deal.
Which is why President Obama called on the world to “rally” behind this effort. Direct negotiations between Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that began Sept. 2 could easily buckle under years of mistrust between both camps, and internal divisions on each side.
Rally? Well, here’s a cheer. Both men deserve credit for making it this far. That perhaps sounds hollow, considering they’ve been meeting face-to-face for less than a month. But during this time, violence has threatened to derail the talks, and the two leaders haven’t let that happen.
Indeed, the Palestinians quickly dispatched police in the West Bank to find and arrest Palestinian militants who killed Israeli settlers at the start of the first round of leadership negotiations.
During follow-up talks in Jerusalem, Israel was targeted by incoming mortars from the Gaza Strip, which is governed by the militant Palestinian group Hamas. Israel limited its response to bombing a smuggling tunnel along the Gaza-Egyptian border. In addition, this week’s riots in East Jerusalem have not scuttled the peace process.
Everyone is holding their breath about this weekend, however. On Sept. 26, a 10-month moratorium on Israeli settlement building that Obama won from Israel is set to expire. Mr. Abbas insists he will walk if the ban is not extended. Mr. Netanyahu says his coalition government will collapse from right-wing defections if he lifts the moratorium.
And yet reports today say he is willing to compromise, and that the United States is deeply involved in working out a solution. So far, both leaders have shown the political will to continue. If that will is real, they’ll get past this weekend, with America’s help.
And speaking of help, it’s not just up to America. As the president rightly pointed out, now is when these negotiators need shoring up.
States that have signed the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative must follow through by “taking tangible steps towards the normalization that it promises Israel,” as Obama said. And those who support Palestinian self-government must now step up politically and financially.
It’s critical to keep Abbas and Netanyahu talking. The longer they talk, the greater chance they have at success. And despite the intense pessimism, there is reason to believe that this time really can be different.
First, violence is down substantially from years past, and that works to build confidence. Second, settlement building is also down, despite the constant tension on this subject. Third, the public on both sides supports a two-state solution. And fourth, the big push is coming from the US.
Obama’s predecessor ran out of steam on the peace process, distracted by Iraq and the war on terrorism. Bill Clinton dove in, but too late in his presidency. When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shrank from his leadership role and turned down a deal he really should have accepted, Mr. Clinton didn’t have time to salvage an agreement.
Obama is at the midpoint of his term. This is the right time to apply his audacity of hope to the Middle East. May it bolster the two leaders and give them courage to move forward.