November 6, 2012 – that’s the date when Barack Obama will stand for election for a second term. By November 2011 he will already be deeply involved in campaigning and most of his attention will be focused on Middle America and not the Middle East. On November 2, midterm elections will be held in the US in which members of Congress (including all 435 in the House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 in the Senate) stand before the electorate.The US political calendar is a map of the window of opportunity which might exist for advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.
There is no chance of an agreement without direct and decisive US presidential engagement. After November 3, Obama will be able to free up time and political space on his agenda for getting directly involved in negotiating a peace agreement. He will have about one year in which he can devote his time and political collateral to that mission. After that, he will be back on the campaign trail and he will either place his Middle East success at the top of his campaign or he will have to bury his failure and explain why it is a hopeless cause, but that “I did everything humanly possible to help them to resolve their conflict.”
But even before we reach November 3, one other date jumps off the calendar with flashing red lights – September 26 – the end of the 10-month moratorium on new settlement building. If the government launches a new settlement building drive, as promised by senior cabinet members, the barely living peace process will die. Obviously the efforts of US mediator George Mitchell are currently focused on providing a life-giving dose of adrenaline in the form of moving to direct negotiations.
The idea is that if direct negotiations begin, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be able to extend the building moratorium for several more months to give the talks a chance of success. Even if he buys into this formula, he will try to reach an understanding with Obama that building within the settlement blocks can resume because they will be annexed to Israel within the framework of an agreement. The Palestinians will most definitely reject any such understanding, stating that the freezing of all settlement building is a requirement for direct negotiations because without it there is no real demonstrated intention to ever withdraw from the West Bank and allow for the creation of a Palestinian state.
The time frame for negotiations is set. There is a window of about one year to reach an agreement. By the end of 2011 the Fayyad plan for creating the institutions of the Palestinian state will have reached its end. The Palestinians will be more anxious than ever to become independent and recognized by the international community as a full-fledged member of the community of nations. They will expect and work toward full membership in the UN and sanctions against Israel if, as a result of continued settlement activity, there is no real peace process in advanced stages of reaching an agreement.
AT THE same time, they will also probably turn to their own electorate. Without progress on the diplomatic front, it is unlikely that the current practical and moderate leadership will sustain itself. President Mahmoud Abbas has already stated his intention not to run for reelection. With the exception of Salam Fayyad, who has no political party or movement of significance backing him, the arena of perspective candidates is far less promising for reaching a possible agreement than the current leaders.
The time factor for reaching peace has never been clearer and more urgent. The clock is ticking and time is running out. In the 32 years I have been involved in advancing peace, I have never spoken about a deadline. But today, it is there and time is not on our side. If it makes anyone feel better, I can also say that time is not on their side either. Time is running out for us both.
There is no solution to the conflict other than “two states for two peoples.” There is a great likelihood that when the window of opportunity closes at the end of 2011, there will no longer be a real possibility to reach a negotiated agreement. There may no longer be a moderate and practical Palestinian leadership with which we can negotiate and there may no longer be a majority of Palestinians who accept this solution.
Right now it is all in the hands of Netanyahu. He is the man who can make it happen. The settlement issue has become the number one factor in determining if there can even be a credible negotiation. Netanyahu is the only Israeli leader who can say that the primary goal of Zionism today is to consolidate the State of Israel within recognized and negotiated borders.
That means that the Zionist enterprise must focus its attention on strengthening what we have, and on transforming Israel into the exemplary state that Theodor Herzl dreamed about. To achieve this, it will even be necessary to say loud and clear that those who wish to continue to build settlements are anti-Zionist, working against the Zionist vision and leading the Zionist movement toward national suicide. A true Zionist today is the one who works for peace and the anti-Zionist is one who seeks to prevent peace by building more settlements. True Zionism is about the sustainability of the State of Israel, and the greatest threat to its sustainability is the continuation of the conflict with the Palestinian people.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.