There are a thousand and one ways to suppress violence by means of violence, but not one of them has ever succeeded in annihilating it,” wrote Nomika Zion, an Israeli woman who lives near the Gaza border, in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last November.
Ms. Zion speaks for Other Voice, a grass-roots Israeli peace group that has been in dialogue with Palestinians in Gaza. Ms. Zion’s organization is not the only group that has grown weary of the seemingly interminable conflict: Even Hamas has signaled that it might accept a two-state solution to the longtime standoff, which would be a major about-face. And a leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization has expressed his support for President Obama’s upcoming visit to Palestine and Israel, “if it signals an American promise to become an honest and impartial peace broker...rather than repeating the same policy of negotiations for their own sake.”
Recent U.S. presidents, preoccupied with mainly domestic and international security matters, have given little meaningful attention to the Mideast conflict until late in their presidencies. As a result, progress has been halting. The influence of a lame duck U.S. president in international affairs, as in domestic affairs, is greatly diminished. It is encouraging, then, to see that Mr. Obama has decided to make a lasting peace settlement a top near-term priority. The changing political situation in the area also creates an opportunity to act. Until now Mr. Netanyahu has consolidated his power by emphasizing the threat to Israel from its external enemies, by catering to the demands of Israeli settlers and by following through on a popular though unlawful expansion of Israeli territory in East Jerusalem.
Recent events, however, have altered the government’s political position: First, the unexpectedly strong second-place showing of Yahir Lapid, the former television talk show host, in last month’s Israeli elections, revealed that Israeli support for hardline policies may be softening. Mr. Lapid campaigned primarily on economic issues and was not afraid to take on some powerful political constituencies. While Mr. Lapid supports the settlements and has made some troubling statements about maintaining a permanent Jewish majority in Israel, he also believes that talking to the Palestinians is a good idea. Roger Cohen writes in The New York Times that Mr. Lapid, who as leader of the second most numerous party in the Knesset, is potentially the second most powerful person in Israeli politics, “must insist that the continuing undermining of the Palestinian Authority—through soldier or settler violence, military intrusions into Palestinian-run areas and scattered settlement expansion—helps only Hamas.” Mr. Obama also should take advantage of conditions created by Mr. Lapid’s success to persuade the government to adopt more moderate, conciliatory policies.
The Israeli government is being pressured in other ways. Egypt and Qatar are pressing Hamas to support Palestinian reconciliation so as to present a united front before both Israel and the United States. Israel’s liberal party, Meretz, ran in last month’s elections on a platform that called for a peace plan that affirms that the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip belong rightfully to the Palestinians. The Israeli Peace Now movement recently issued a report alleging that Mr. Netanyahu’s support of Israeli settlements seriously undermines the possibility of a two-state solution. One-third of the 6,867 new units Mr. Netanyahu has promoted are in areas that would almost certainly be within the boundaries of a future Palestinian state.
Mr. Obama must make it clear that the settlements constitute a clear and present danger to the viability of a two-state solution and to the future of the U.S./Israeli relationship. The vacillation in Mr. Obama’s first term strengthened Mr. Netanyahu’s belief that he had carte blanche from the United States. Mr. Obama must remain faithful to his 2009 declaration in Cairo: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”
We join our voice with the group of 30 Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders who signed a statement on Jan. 25 urging the Obama administration to work for a “viable two-state peace agreement” in the conflict. “We believe a bold new initiative for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement should be an immediate priority of the new Administration in 2013,” read the statement of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East, whose signatories included Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, the chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Peace and Justice.
Nomika Zion concluded her letter to Mr. Netanyahu with the lament that hope has become an illusion. Mr. Obama, in his speeches, sometimes leaves the impression that hope is his middle name. It is time to make it so.