I realized that I was a little light on actual policy suggestions in my post yesterday (what you didn’t create peace in the Middle East in 500 words?), so I thought I would follow up today with some constructive criticisms.
First, Obama needs to do a better job of selling this to Israelis and Arabs, because so far he has failed miserably at convincing anyone that progress is occurring. Fortunately, it looks like Obama has taken this to heart and is going to launch a PR campaign with Israeli and Arab media to drum up support for his vision for peace.
Second, expand the focus from just settlements, which are crucial, to a broad range of incremental steps, including some amount of normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The drawback of focusing so heavily in public on settlements is that six months into the process nothing has happened so it looks like Obama is stymied. Further, while it was crucial for Obama to be tough about getting something from Israel, especially after the invasion of Gaza and the election of a right wing government, the whole point of the excercise to gain peace for Israel. Showing Israelis that Arab governments are willing to start normalization, even something as minor as allowing El-Al to fly through their airspace, will go a long way towards demonstrating that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. George Mitchell has apparently done exactly this behind the scenes, but some public discussion is necessary.
That said, Israel needs to freeze settlement growth. The settlements are illegal, expensive and they cost Israel the moral high ground by giving the enemies of peace an issue to rally around. Many of the settlements will eventually be part of the final status agreement, but until that agreement is worked out is it crucial to a good faith effort to stop expansion. Supposedly, Netanyahu and George Mitchell are close to figuring out a deal on the subject, with the hangup being existing contracts for expansion.
Finally, some effort to reconcile the governments of Gaza and the West Bank must occur. Marc Lynch has advocated for new elections, though obviously the last time there were Palestinian elections Hamas won control of Gaza, so there is some considerable risk to new elections. Egypt has been holding Palestinian Unity talks, but so far they have been unsuccessful. If necessary, both Israel and the U.S. will have to be willing to talk to Hamas, who for better or, almost certainly, worse, are the elected government in Gaza.
Finally, and most importantly, laying all the groundwork is crucial, but a comprehensive plan forward needs to be presented by the end of the year. Set the stage, but then you gotta actually perform. George Mitchell has experience ending a centuries old conflict in Northern Ireland, but this will be even tougher. Just getting everyone to the table would be a feat, actually accomplishing something would be a miracle, but it is still in everyone’s interests to try.