Finding a Way Back Toward a Two-State Peace

In his trip, President Obama must put Israel and Palestine on the track to peace.

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The Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. They are tired of the restrictions of occupation, and tired of being ruled by leaders who have diverted energy and goodwill in ceaseless invective rather than constructive diplomacy. A clear majority of Israelis, too, support the creation of a Palestinian state—that is, one dedicated to the well-being of its citizens and not to the extermination of its neighbor, whose enterprise and stability are so essential for the region. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has committed himself. Israel needs a Palestinian state to come into existence just as much as the Palestinians do.

So with President Obama gears on his first visit to Israel as president, the question he might ask of all he meets is why has it proved so difficult to achieve what the ordinary people of both sides want? So many attempts, so many dashed hopes, so many compromises, so much water on the desert. All of the efforts that seemed to put progress within reach, from the Oslo process and talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat at Camp David to Ehud Olmert's offer to Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 to withdraw from most of the West Bank, have only resulted in intifada and terror, all on the grounds that Israel has been intransigent.

It was "intransigent" Israel that pulled out of Gaza, dismantled every settlement there, withdrew every soldier, gave the land to the Gazans—and got no peace. It was "intransigent" Israel that pulled out of Lebanon, only to see Hezbollah, a puppet of Iran, gain power with the help of the murderous Syrian occupiers. Hezbollah is still recognized by the European Union, though identified as a terrorist organization in whole or part by the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Bahrain and Canada. That's a fair categorization, considering that it is officially committed to destroying Israel and organizes the murder of Israelis traveling abroad whenever it can, and that four of its fighters await trial in the 2005 bomb blast that killed Lebanon's constructive prime minister.

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But aren't Israel's settlements on the West Bank the real obstacle to a two-state resolution of the conflict? Much has been made of them, not least by Obama himself in his first naive ventures into the Middle East bear pit. But the presence of several hundreds of thousands of Israelis amid a Palestinian population of 2.5 million doesn't prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Even the Palestinians acknowledge that the settlements take up just 2 percent of the pre-1967 West Bank territory. And the Israelis are living within the understanding they had with the Clinton administration, limiting new construction under the Clinton parameters almost exclusively to old Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and to certain settlement blocks that were eventually to end up as a part of Israel in any agreement. The Israelis have been operating within a renewed understanding that the Sharon government reached with the Bush administration to restrict the growth of existing settlements but not the right to add capacity inside the settlement limits.

That is what has defined virtually all of the construction that the Netanyahu administration has allowed. It is notable that Israel's soldiers' clashes on the West Bank are not necessarily with Palestinian objectors, but sometimes with Jewish settlers who attempt to build beyond the agreed parameters. Recently, there were reports that some Israeli soldiers were on the verge of mutiny when ordered to pull down illegal houses to the fury of the settler movement.

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The key international power, of course, remains the United States. It has just released $190 million in aid to Egypt, and Obama has affirmed Israel's right to defend itself. Israel's relationship with America is its greatest security barrier.

But the two countries need to come to an agreement that Israel won't take unilateral military action until diplomacy has failed, and on what kind of compromise the Israelis can live with. If military action is ultimately necessary, particularly in the context of Iran's unyielding march towards acquiring nuclear weapons, how much support is the United States willing to give?