Sunday, November 23, 2008

Obama's Mideast peace platform is coming into focus

Amir Oren, Haaretz Correspondent

Eight weeks before Barack Obama is sworn into office, signs have emerged over the weekend that point to what is turning out to be the new administration's plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is the conclusion that one reaches when considering the upcoming appointment of Hillary Clinton to the position of secretary of state; the reports that Obama could name retired general James Jones to the position of national security adviser; and the president-elect's reliance on the advice of Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser in the administrations of Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Obama and Scowcroft are said to have spoken at least twice since the election.

Despite the attention being paid to Clinton, no less important is the move made two days ago by Scowcroft and the man who succeeded him in office as national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski. In an op-ed piece penned for the Washington Post, Scowcroft (whom John McCain considered naming as a special envoy to the Middle East) and Brzezinski (who was close to Obama during the initial stages of his candidacy for president) offered a kind of first draft of "The Obama Plan."

The former NSA chiefs - who represent a wide, bipartisan consensus by dint of their service to Democratic and Republican presidents - praise President Bush's peace efforts over the last year and call upon Obama to lend "priority attention" to the Israeli-Arab peace process. Even though they do not name names, one can clearly notice an effort to influence on the election results in Israel so as to favor moderate candidates - Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak - over Benjamin Netanyahu.

The crux of their plan to solve the conflict centers on four principles which they believe Obama ought to adopt and publicly declare as policy:
# An Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, with slight alterations that are to be mutually agreed upon.
# Compensation for Palestinian refugees in lieu of exercising the right of return to pre-1948 Israel.
# Jerusalem as a "real home" to two capitals.
# A demilitarized Palestinian state.

In order to allay Israel's security concerns over handing over territory to a Palestinian government that is incapable of combating terrorism, the two former national security advisers recommend stationing an international force, perhaps that of NATO, for peacekeeping purposes, securing Israel, and training Palestinian forces.

Scowcroft and Brzezinski believe it is of urgent necessity for Obama to publicly declare his support of these principles. Doing so would go a long way towards Hamas moderating its positions and taking part in the process before the elections for the Knesset - "a complicating factor" - in February. In addition, the ex-NSA chiefs believe that such a declaration would create diplomatic momentum which "would provide the Israeli people a unique chance to register their views on the future of their country."

Only after a presidential statement of support for such an initiative - and not the preparation for it - should Obama name a high-ranking envoy who would have a sweeping mandate to advance a settlement. In practice, Brzezinski and Scowcroft are calling on Obama to establish a diplomatic fact on the ground so as not to waste precious time (during the honeymoon period of Obama's first days in office) on learning the nuances, dipping his toes into the water, and attempting to bridge the gaps between both sides.

The NSA chiefs' four-point plan overlap to a great extent though with some changes that have come over time (a Palestinian state in the territories rather than Jordan and Egypt) with some of the main diplomatic initiatives that have been proposed in the four decades since the Six-Day War: UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338; the Reagan Plan from September 1982; the Clinton outlines of December 2000; and the Bush initiative presented at Annapolis.

They also resemble Arab proposals (the Fez Summit peace proposal and the King Fahd Plan of 1981 and the 2002 Saudi initiative as offered up by King Abdullah) though with one important exception: a solution to the refugee issue in line with Israel's demands.

Earlier this year, Brzezinski published a similar four-point proposal which appeared on the pages of the Financial Times: 1) No return of refugees, which would be tantamount to "national suicide" for Israel. Instead, the international community would mobilize to provide compensation to the Palestinians; 2) "A real partnership" in Jerusalem, which would include a Palestinian capital in the Old City as well as the Al-Aqsa Mosque, with a special regime in place to oversee the holy sites and an arrangement that would leave the city undivided; 3) Agreed-upon moderations to the 1967 lines which would be based on proportional territorial swaps and would allow Israel to retain large settlement blocs while Israel agrees to a gradual evacuation of settlers. Palestinian refugees would be resettled in areas now inhabited by Israelis on the West Bank; 4) A demilitarized Palestinian state that would host an international security force, perhaps an American one which would be stationed along the length of the Jordan River and which would secure Israel's defense needs. American forces would relieve the need for IDF troops whose presence would represent the continuation of the occupation.

In a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this past June, Obama pledged to immediately act towards achieving Israeli-Arab peace if elected. He stressed a number of points: safeguarding Israel's security, which includes following through on an American commitment of military aid to the tune of $30 billion over the next decade; a "contiguous and cohesive" Palestinian state; defensible, secure, and recognized borders; and preserving Israel's "Jewish identity" (which hints at his ruling out a return of refugees); and Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.

Obama later qualified his statements on Jerusalem. He also called on Israel to ease the day-to-day lives of the Palestinians, allow for greater freedom of movement in the territories, and halt settlement construction. Obama noted that he opposed Hamas participation in the Palestinian elections in 2006 but he did not reveal his position on the group's participation in future elections.

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