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Ambassador Edward S. Walker, Jr. the US Ambassador to Israel under Bill Clinton (photographed) and Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis, who was appointed US Ambassador to Israel by Jimmy Carter, drafted the IPF proposal.
News and Opinion

Barack Obama embraces Middle East roadmap of the Israel Policy Forum

-- Lori Lowenthal Marcus

Shortly before President Barrack Obama took office, the Israel Policy Forum issued a proposal urging the incoming-president to conduct an “activist” Middle East diplomacy during his first 100 days in office, with an immediate and regional approach to the violence in the Middle East. The IPF is critical of US Middle East policy which it sees as favoring Israel, and instead advocates for the US to employ a more even-handed approach to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The IPF proposal was unveiled at a press conference on Jan. 9 given by Ambassador Edward S. Walker, Jr., the US Ambassador to Israel under Bill Clinton, and Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis, who was appointed US Ambassador to Israel by Jimmy Carter. Both ambassadors assisted in drafting the proposal.

The IPF’s roadmap names several fronts on which Mr. Obama should immediately move to kick start the stalled “peace process.” The Forum blames the languishing process on what it calls the Bush administration’s failure to vigorously pursue peace because of its “indifference to the worsening conditions in Israel and the territories throughout his term.”

In his first public speech as President, the IPF urged, Mr. Obama should announce he will help achieve a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors, and that he should follow up that announcement by laying out his vision for an overall peace between Arabs and Israelis in a speech within the next two months.

The blueprint laid out in the IPF’s Middle East policy proposal is the Saudi Initiative, chosen because of its unique goal to achieve an Arab region-wide peace agreement with Israel. The Arab League has endorsed the Saudi Initiative. That plan includes virtually all of the conditions required by the Arab Palestinians which Israel has repeatedly rejected, such as Israel’s retreat to the 1967 armistice lines, inviting back Arabs who left Israel in 1948, and ceding East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. There is no acknowledgement or provision in that plan regarding the more than 800,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries in 1948.

Direct diplomatic engagement with Syria should play a key role in Mr. Obama’s peace plan according to the IPF, and the US should signal its readiness to do “whatever is needed” to enhance prospects for peace both between Israel and the Arab Palestinians and Israel and Syria. In addition, a regional envoy should be named who will visit with Israeli and all Arab leaders. President Bush largely relied on his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for diplomatic relations with Middle East countries, in addition to the other demands of her office.

On his third day in office President Obama named former Senator George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy. Mitchell headed up the five member Mitchell Commission that issued the 2001 Mitchell Report, the predecessor to the Middle East roadmap developed during President Bill Clinton’s administration. The report laid out an “even-handed” approach to dealing with the Arabs and the Israelis in what the Commission believed would move forward the peace process. That “even-handed” approach is also the self-described sine qua non of the IPF.

Engaging all of the Arab nations in the region and immediate activist diplomacy in the hope of thereby achieving a lasting peace are the essential elements of the IPF proposal. The IPF recommends that relations between Israel and its neighboring nations such as Syria, Iraq and Iran, should be part of the same Israel-Arab Palestinian peace process.

Only Egypt and Jordan have diplomatic relations with Israel, while the other neighboring Arab states remain in an active state of war and refuse to recognize Israel’s existence as a legitimate state. In addition, the presence of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Hamas leadership-in-exile in Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as well as the increasing regional influence of Iran would suggest that such an effort will seriously impede rather than improve the accomplishment of any peace agreement should it be required that all Arab countries reach a peace with Israel at the same time as the Arab Palestinians.

In addition to working with its Arab neighbors towards a regional peace agreement with Israel, Ambassador Walker deviated from the IPF paper and described his “fantasy” that an Obama administration would talk to Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, whom Walker described as having a “more moderate approach” than the Hamas party’s “radical elements.” The Hamas Charter, which Haniya has sworn to uphold, forbids Muslims from negotiating peaceful solutions with Jews and Christians. Total Islamic control of the Middle East is the fundamental religious imperative according to the Hamas Charter.

President Obama consistently pledged throughout his campaign that he would “only talk with Hamas if it renounces terrorism, recognizes Israel’s right to exist, and agrees to abide by past agreements.” Being a non-state actor was also a reason Mr. Obama rejected the idea of working with Hamas.

The IPF press conference took place during the height of the Israel-Gaza war, and much of the focus was on possible resolutions of that confrontation. Both ambassadors responded to skepticism about an immediate and effective Gaza ceasefire, let alone a long-term one, by acknowledging that Israel should at all costs avoid a perceived victory for Hamas. In order to avoid repeating the disastrous consequences of the 2006 Lebanon War ceasefire, under which Hezbollah has significantly increased its pre-war weaponry, the ambassadors emphasized the need to eliminate the means of smuggling sophisticated weaponry across the Egypt-Gaza border.

Ridiculing the impotence of the United Nations border guards between Hezbollah and Israel, Ambassador Walker referred to them as a “thin little line of peacekeepers, so-called, or observers who couldn’t possibly confront anybody.” In contrast, Egyptian or international border forces should have a mandate to effectively eliminate smuggling efforts along the 9-mile Egyptian-Gaza border which would then be “eminently controllable.”

On Jan. 21, 2009, President Obama told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan that he is determined to stop Hamas from smuggling arms into Gaza. That same day Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared that Israel had completed its troop withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government had predicated that withdrawal on the end to arms smuggling through the tunnels. The EU and Britain have pledged firm support for, and substantive assistance in, the effort to end the smuggling.

President Obama, western government leaders and the IPF ambassadors all agree unequivocally with Israel that the smuggling between Egypt and Gaza must stop. But sometimes reality in the Middle East defeats the strongest, most sincere, rhetoric. The day after President Obama took office the media already had video coverage of the rebuilding and use of those smuggling tunnels.

Lori Lowenthal Marcus is a writer and a recovered lawyer.

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