If It’s a Vital Interest, Get it Done Mr. President

If the vital national security interests of the U.S. are being harmed by the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict over Palestine, President Obama must be willing to use all his power and resources to force the parties to reach a fair and reasonable agreement.

In her September 3 speech, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton reiterated President Obama’s previous statements that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it is a vital national security interest of the United States. However, in the same sentence she also repeated his caution that the U.S. cannot and will not impose a solution on the parties.

This conflicting statement highlights the confusion in the President’s approach to resolving this critical issue: Declaring an issue to be a vital national security interest of the U.S. is the strongest possible diplomatic language and is only rarely used, usually to warn a potential adversary that the U.S. will act to protect that interest using almost any means including war. The use of this term by the President and Secretary of State indicates that the unsolved problem of the Israeli-Arab conflict over Palestine is causing severe damage to U.S. foreign policy, U.S. strategic interests, and US efforts to fight terror and Islamic extremism, and that it needs to be resolved at almost any cost as soon as possible. It is nonsensical for the President to then say that the U.S. cannot and will not impose a solution on the parties.

If its vital security interests are at stake, the U.S. must be willing to impose a solution on the parties. For the President and his Secretary of State to say that the U.S. cannot and will not impose a solution is to say that the US is no longer willing to defend its vital interests. That is a foolish and dangerous statement that suggests to both our friends and adversaries that the U.S. no longer has the courage and wherewithal to protect its vital national interests even when those interests are being threatened by minor, recalcitrant third tier states such as Israel and the nascent state of Palestine.

There is ample and sobering evidence that the failure to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict over Palestine is harming U.S. vital national security interests. Four years ago, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group Report (page 39) stressed the importance of resolving the conflict if the U.S. was to achieve its goals in the broader Middle East. The report indicated that the U.S. needed to deal directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and make a sustained commitment to achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts including a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

As reported by Mark Perry in Foreign Policy Magazine’s March 13, 2010 issue, General David Patraeus, has become very concerned that Arab leaders feel the U.S. is incapable of standing up to Israel, that Arab leaders are losing faith in U.S. promises, and that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region because senior Arab leaders increasingly view the U.S. as weak. General Patraeus sent a briefing team of senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command, responsible for overseeing U.S. security interests in the Middle East, to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen on the issue. The briefing was reported to have “stunned” Admiral Mullen and hit the White House “like a bombshell”.

According to Perry, Admiral Mullen was then sent to deliver a “…blunt and tough message…” to the chief of the Israeli General Staff “…on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that Israel had to see its conflict with the Palestinians ‘in a larger, regional, context’– as having a direct impact on America’s status in the region”. Also according to Perry, Vice President Biden, in his turbulent March trip to Israel, is reported by Israeli sources to have informed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel’s actions were undermining the security of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, that these actions were endangering the U.S. and regional peace, that many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel’s actions and U.S. policy, and that continued settlement construction by the Israelis could have a negative impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.

General Patraeus’ report to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16, 2010 (page 12), further reinforced the vital importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

“The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the [Middle East]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [Middle East] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.”

If the Obama administration is truly committed to resolving this conflict, because it threatens U.S. vital national security interests, the President will need to use all the tools and power available to him as the leader of the world’s most powerful nation to force a fair and reasonable solution on the parties, particularly Israel. The keystone to such a solution is in recognizing the fundamental illegality of Israel’s 43 year old policies of annexation, settlement and continued occupation of the

West Bank and East Jerusalem, and in insisting that Israel can neither expect to continue those illegal policies nor expect to achieve a permanent settlement with the Palestinians that condones these illegal policies. The tools and powers available to the President include publicity, the bully pulpit, public support from friends and allies, as well as economic and political tools, and could also include the following steps:

1. The President would inform both parties that: it is essential they resolve the conflict over Palestine during the current Direct Negotiations because of the harm the ongoing conflict to doing to U.S. vital national security interests; that if the U.S. sees that no reasonable resolution is forthcoming in the Direct Talks, it must and will act to protect its interests by immediately implementing a new U.S. policy and approach to achieving a fair and reasonable resolution to the conflict; and, that the new U.S. policy and approach will include the following next steps.

2. The President will introduce the new U.S. policy by making a broad public statement summarizing the failure of the Direct Talks and describing the final negotiating position of each side. His statement will also inform and educate the American public about why the failure to resolve the conflict is harming the vital national security interest of the U.S., Israel’s security interests, as well as causing continuing suffering to the Palestinians.

3. The President will explain to the American public why Israel’s policies of annexation, settlement and continued occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal and untenable based on the provisions of 1947 United Nations Partition Plan which divided Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab State, as well as Israel’s continuing breach of the 4th Geneva Convention which prohibits an occupying power, such as Israel, from either annexing occupied lands or settling its own population onto occupied lands after a conflict as did Israel after its victory in the 1967 Six Day War.

4. The President will set forth a U.S. proposal for fair and reasonable resolution to the conflict. This solution will follow the terms of the 1947 UN Partition Plan which created both a Jewish State and an Arab State in Palestine plus the guidelines and terms set forth in either the 2002 Arab Initiative and/or the 2003 Geneva Initiative. Both initiatives allow for minor land swaps of equal size and value which would allow Israel to keep a few of its major settlement blocks in the West Bank. Both initiatives also address Israeli security issues and international control over the major religious sites in Jerusalem. These two Initiatives have broad international support, have been accepted throughout the Muslim world and would result in the immediate recognition and normalization of relations between Israel and about 57 Muslim nations.

5. The President will simultaneously seek to obtain the broad support of past presidents and their national security advisors and secretaries of state, foreign heads of state, past and present U.S. military leaders, and past and present leaders of congress for the new U.S. policy and proposal for a fair and reasonable resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict over Palestine.

6. Finally, the President will consult with his Quartet Power partners, including Russia, the European Union and the United Nations to achieve an international agreement and resolution that Israel’s annexation, settlement and occupation policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem violate international law, and that an Interim Provisional Trustee Power should be appointed to replace Israel as the Controlling Occupying Power in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Interim Provisional Trustee Power would then act to prepare the Palestinians for statehood and full recognition within one year in accord with the original provisions of the 1947 UN Partition Plan as modified by relevant provisions in the Arab and/or Geneva Initiatives.

Obviously, such steps by the President will be controversial and will create strong political opposition and may even threaten his presidency and chances for reelection. Nonetheless, when vital US national security interests are threatened, a president must be willing to protect those interests even if his presidency and reelection are put at risk. If President Obama intends to have a legacy similar to past great presidents, he will need to add decisiveness to his much-admired analytic and oratory skills and take resolute action to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict over Palestine. Conflicting statements that conflate vital national interests and unwillingness to protect those interests serve this nation poorly and suggest the President lacks the stomach for decisive action to protect those interests.

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