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The Middle East’s Childish Games

By Andrew Wilson

Gaza rains rockets down on Israel, and Israel bombs Gaza. Abbas succeeds in gaining membership for Palestine in UNESCO, and Israel announces it is fast-tracking new settlements. The familiar, desultory rhythm of tit-for-tat continues in the Middle East.

With Israelis and the Palestinians acting like boys in a schoolyard engaged in a game of one-upmanship, where is the grown-up in the room? Right now, it looks like it’s Egypt, which a few weeks ago deftly mediated the prisoner exchange with Hamas that freed Gilad Shalit and now has arranged for a stand-down of the missile strikes from Gaza.

Here is a surprising benefit of the Arab Spring—that Egypt should suddenly become the most responsible party in the Middle East. More than Israel or the Palestinians, Egypt appears to be the country that sees peace as a compelling national interest.

It is clear that continued unilateral actions by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, whether at construction sites in the settlements or in the halls of the UN, are nothing but steps to strengthen their positions within the paradigm of conflict. Palestinian efforts at the UN are looking more and more unseemly, and international support for is diminishing. President Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the UN on September 23 that brought the Palestinian narrative to the attention of the world was a laudable act of statesmanship. But his actions since then, turning the UN and its agencies into battlefields for mobilizing international opprobrium on Israel, only serve to continue, and even escalate, a conflict that can only be solved by negotiations between the parties.

It is widely agreed that the long-term interests of Israel and Palestine are best served by a two-state solution. The two sides need to sit down together and arrive at an agreement that will give Palestine a workable state. The paradigm of genuine negotiations is to offer meaningful concessions . It is nothing like the current paradigm of unilateral action and reaction, which only creates greater obstacles.

Recent revelations by Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her new memoir, No Higher Honor, indicate how close to an agreement the two sides had come in 2008. Ehud Olmert’s so-called “napkin map” as published recently by Al-Jazeera, while by no means ideal, was at least a reasonable first offer by one side. Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister from 2006 to 2009, attempted to lower the barriers to an agreement by making a reasonable offer to Abbas, one that included concessions.

The goal of two states living side-by-side in peace is worth the risk of momentary vulnerability that negotiations entail. By Rice’s account, Olmert took such a risk at the end of his tenure as Prime Minister. It is time for Abbas to take that risk as well. While he may believe he needs to win political points by grandstanding at the UN, he should at the same time be signaling that he is ready to sit down for sober talks under the aegis of the Quartet, which is made up of the U.S., the UN, the EU, and Russia.

By the same token, the U.S. by threatening to penalize the Palestinians for their efforts at the UN is only buying into the tit-for-tat paradigm. Rather, it should be employing all available tools to pressure Israel and the Palestinians to work with the Quartet and begin to negotiate. This was the sense of former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s proposal from a September 30 interview on Bloomberg TV, where he suggested that the U.S. could introduce its own UNSC resolution that would be supportive of Israel but also call for a homeland for the Palestinians, linked to the resumption of negotiations:

If instead of [vetoing the Palestinian resolution in the UNSC] we introduce a resolution welcoming the existence of a democratic Jewish state in Israel – explicitly – at the same time saying the Palestinians are entitled to something similar, negotiations should be resumed on the basis of et cetera, et cetera, as Obama said, ’67 frontiers, and the United States and the Quartet propose that, then quietly the Israelis at the last moment could even vote for it."

Getting the two sides to negotiate should be the focus of U.S. policy, not reacting to the show at the UN.

Peace negotiations can begin even in spite of continued conflict. Even if Gaza launches more missiles and Israel undertakes more retaliatory airstrikes, negotiations can begin. Even as Abbas pushes for more recognition by the UN, negotiations can begin. Even as Israel continues building settlements, negotiations can begin.

When the paradigm changes from fighting to negotiating, those insults from the other side—vestiges of the old paradigm—are no longer as significant. They can be safely ignored in the interests of moving on towards the common goal.

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Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Rusty Stewart]

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