Political Peace Dividend

CALME Luminary MJ Rosenberg is Director of Policy Analysis at the Israel Policy Forum.  His IPF Friday is a weekly opinion column.

Prime Minister Tony Blair says that he wants to devote his last year as Britain’s leader to advancing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

This is not the first time Blair has made clear his view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major destabilizing influence in a region the United Kingdom has always considered vital to its interests. 

Blair is known to have strong feelings of affection for Israel.  He is also committed to the creation of a Palestinian state which he believes is essential to restoring some semblance of calm in the Middle East. 

Just prior to the onset of the Iraq war, he strongly urged President Bush to push hard for negotiations.  He was disappointed that his entreaties did not accomplish much other than a photo op in Aqaba.

So Blair’s pledge to work on the issue over the next year is not especially surprising.

For some, the surprising part of his announcement will be that one reason that he wants to secure an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is political.  He wants to secure his place in history and help New Labor in the next election.

Blair, whose popularity has declined dramatically over the course of the Iraq war, has seen poll data that shows that Britons wants their government to work for a Middle East solution.  Support for the status quo is not a political plus in Britain.  Blair wants to see his numbers rise and understands that working on this issue can only help.

Of course, the conventional wisdom here points in the opposite direction.

It is said that President Jimmy Carter lost his bid for re-election, in part, because he pushed so hard to achieve the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. 

Not true. Carter’s tireless and skillful work to achieve the Camp David peace treaty, which eliminated the threat to Israel from its most powerful adversary, was a major Carter selling point in the 1980 election. But it was heavily outweighed, not surprisingly, by the Iran hostage crisis and the stagnant economy.

Nevertheless, it is commonly argued that a President cannot pursue Middle East peace without jeopardizing either his own political standing, or in the case of a President not facing a re-election campaign, that of his party’s.

There is little evidence attesting to this.  It is considered a fact simply because it is repeated so often.

Consider the current situation. Israelis came out of the Lebanon war depressed and worried about the turn of events. 

For the first time since 1948, the Israeli heartland was hit from a state across the border. 

Israel seemingly won the war but its people know that the Hezbollah threat remains.  Beyond that is Hezbollah’s ally and supplier Iran, which seems hell-bent to have nuclear weapons.  Most Israelis, in fact, expect that Iran will soon have them and thereby create a new and frightening Middle East reality.

In that context, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems more of a nuisance than a serious threat. The Palestinians are weak and, compared to the Iranians and their clients, cannot today inflict significant damage on Israel.

Paradoxically, solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem can prevent significant damage.  And there seems to be a growing understanding in Israel that cutting a deal with the Palestinians now makes more sense than being forced into negotiations after the Palestinians achieve the ability to hit Israel hard. 

Without a negotiated agreement, it is only a matter of time before radical  Palestinians acquire missiles far deadlier than the Kassams. Once missiles can sail over the security wall, its role as a defensive shield will be finished.

That is why it appears that Israel is taking the establishment of a new Palestinian unity government very seriously. 

If it is established and implements a real ceasefire with Israel (and returns Corporal Gilad Shalit) most Israelis will be ready to negotiate with it.

This is not to say that the three conditions the West wants met are irrelevant (recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous agreements).   It is just that Israelis care considerably more about the facts on the ground than about declarations and rhetoric.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  In Israel, the photograph of Gilad Shalit reunited with his family will be worth a billion, at least.

If, and it’s still an “if,” the government of Israel decides to pursue negotiations with the Palestinians, there can be no question but that Israel’s friends in America will support that decision.

By friends of Israel, I am not referring to particular pro-Israel organizations.  I am referring to the vast majority of Americans who consider themselves pro-Israel and who believe that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would be good for America, good for Israel, good for the Palestinians and, most important of all, good for themselves, their children and their grandchildren.

There is a growing awareness in this country that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could very well blow back on us here; in terrible ways which do not need describing.   Reducing the terrorist threat is the number one concern of most Americans and they understand that defusing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help do just that.

The bottom line is that there is simply no way that pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would politically harm any President, and certainly not George W. Bush, who is widely considered to be a strong friend of Israel. 

Yes, a few people out there believe that the risks of an agreement – any agreement with Palestinians — outweigh the risks of the status quo.  But not many, and their numbers are far outnumbered by those who would applaud Bush for exerting strong leadership to achieve an agreement.

Presidents and Members of Congress need to understand that Americans of all stripes – including the pro-Israel community – want their President to seize opportunities for peace when they arise.  They don’t necessarily expect that he will succeed but neither he nor his party will be punished for trying.

Yes, conventional wisdom says otherwise.  But in this case, as in so many others, the conventional wisdom is wrong.  Dead wrong.
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The views expressed in IPF Friday are those of MJ Rosenberg and not necessarily of Israel Policy Forum.

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