Globe Editorial

Obama should use UN threat to revive Mideast peace talks

January 30, 2011

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A DRAFT Security Council resolution circulating at the United Nations would condemn Israeli settlement expansion as contrary to international law and an obstacle to peace. It would call on Israel to cease settlement building on occupied land. Since this resolution, which was brought to the UN by the Palestinian Authority, mirrors America’s longtime stance and the views of the current administration, President Obama would place himself in the uncomfortable position of rejecting his own policy if he were to approve an American veto of the resolution.

In deciding what to do, Obama should be guided by one overriding goal: to corral Israelis and Palestinians into negotiations that produce a two-state resolution of their conflict. If US officials believe that a threat to let the resolution pass without an American veto could nudge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into making some confidence-building gesture on settlements and reviving serious peace talks, Obama should make that threat. If Israel were to respond with clear, positive steps, Obama would be justified in exercising the veto.

Passing a Security Council resolution without peace talks would do nobody any good, least of all the Palestinians. They are bringing the resolution to the council out of desperation. The moderate leaders of the Palestinian Authority are under threat from Hamas and its Iranian backers; they are being stonewalled by Netanyahu; they are receiving scant help from Washington; and the recent release to Al Jazeera of leaked notes from earlier negotiations has made the Palestinian Authority appear to some backers to be overly submissive to Israeli demands.

Obama should use the threat of a Security Council resolution on settlements to push Netanyahu to do what he has said Israel must do: preserve the democratic and Jewish character of the country by bringing into being a Palestinian state alongside Israel. To move the parties from endless haggling to a conclusive peace accord, Obama must be prepared to come forth with fair but firm US solutions for the key issues dividing the two sides. Israeli and Palestinian leaders will have an easier time justifying crucial concessions if they are made to an American mediator rather than to each other.

Because there is a rich record of official and unofficial Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, US bridging proposals would not be starting from scratch. The first compromise should be on territory. It should reflect the established principle that the border between the two states will be based on the June 4, 1967 lines, while allowing for small parcels of land east of that line to be annexed by Israel. And an equivalent amount of land should be transferred from Israel to the new state of Palestine.

The United States can and should offer to help meet Israel’s security needs, at least for the early years of a two-state peace accord. To meet Israeli concerns about security along the Jordan River, Washington could support a presence there of NATO forces. Israel’s bad experience with ineffective UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon justifies such a role for NATO.

When it comes to Jerusalem, any American difference-splitting ought to be as restrained as possible. An ideal solution would resemble what Bill Clinton outlined a decade ago: Jewish neighborhoods should be assigned to Israel and Arab ones to the Palestinian state. Sites sacred to Christians, Jews, and Muslims must be accessible to believers, there should be no restriction on movement for anyone within the Old City, and each state should have its capital in Jerusalem.

On the issue of a Palestinian right for refugees to return to Israel, the Arab League has said it will accept whatever the parties agree to, and the US position should be the same. But if the parties cannot reach agreement, the American mediator should ask Israel to express regret for what Palestinians lost in 1948 and accept the return of a symbolic number of Palestinians. The US should, however, back Israel’s insistence that the new Palestinian state be the homeland for all other refugees.

The compromises needed for a just peace are not unknown or unattainable. Thanks to the unfinished work of past negotiators, the bridges to be built need not span great distances. What is missing — what has always been missing — is the political will of Israeli, Palestinian, and American leaders to end a deadlock that threatens them all.