Obama Must Seize Opportunity From Crisis

Tuesday, 13 January 2009 06:53 By Jeremy BenAmi, The Jewish Week | name.

Obama Must Seize Opportunity From Crisis
An Israeli soldier on the border with Gaza. JStreet Director Jeremy Ben-Ami argues that Obama should present a "bold initiative" for Middle East peace. (Photo: Reuters)

    Whatever faint hope President-elect Barack Obama's national security team may have held of pushing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the back burner went up in smoke in recent days. As ever, "the conflict," now focused on Gaza, is squarely front and center on a new American president's plate.

    My hope is that the president-elect will seize this crisis and its aftermath as an opportunity to set a bold new course for America in the Middle East. What better step for a president looking to define a new role for the United States in the 21st century than to lead Arabs and Israelis toward settling their long-running conflict peacefully and comprehensively.

    What would a bold move by the new president look like? With talk of a first 100-days presidential visit to a Muslim nation, why not use that forum to extend a welcoming American hand to the Arab League Peace Initiative, which offers Israel acceptance from 22 nations in the region in return for a land-for-peace resolution of its conflicts with its neighbors?

    Following that gesture, why not take Air Force One straight to Israel and use the full weight of the presidency to coax a new Israeli government to accept the invitation to explore the initiative, too. In twin speeches to Muslim and Jewish audiences, outline the clear concessions each side will need to make, and commit to do what it takes personally to make that agreement happen together with key international partners.

    Imagine the impact in the Middle East and throughout the world on the dismal public perception of the United States. Imagine the impact on Iran if a lower level of anti-American sentiment began to erode its position as leader of the opposition to the U.S. and Israel - or if Syria could be lured from its grasp. Imagine an Israel accepted, finally, by all its neighbors, freed by diplomacy from rockets and terror. Imagine extremist groups deprived of the conflicts that fuel the fires of terror.

    It's hard to argue how such a move would not serve U.S. interests. Washington hands and Jewish communal leaders may shake their heads - believing no president would ever risk the domestic political fallout they think such an effort might bring.

    But a transformational president - if that is indeed what Obama intends to be - will recognize not only that the world needs such an initiative but that the American Jewish community is ready for it as are the people of Israel and of Palestine - if not their leaders.

    In fact, the most recent events in the region make such an initiative not simply attractive but downright urgent. Soon, the Israeli attack on Gaza will wind down. It is doubtful that Israel will have stopped the rockets or toppled Hamas, and there is no chance of Hamas breaking Israel's will with its rockets.

    A new cease-fire will end the violence (on terms that might well have been possible with real effort before the attack) and both peoples will be left to confront the futility of their military options.

    A bold Obama-led initiative is perhaps Israel's last chance to find a peaceful way out of a downward spiral caused by a conflict that its own prime minister has now said publicly threatens Israel's viability as a Jewish, democratic state.

    Any such initiative will meet stiff opposition from the right - both here and in Israel - which will claim that the initiative's proponents don't support Israel and don't understand the threats Israel faces.

    Yet, today, it is right-of-center activists who aren't facing up to the reality of the long-term threats to Israel - due to the increasingly out-of-control settler movement and the ever-longer range rockets from Gaza.

    The darkness of a future without a peace deal for Israel and for the region cannot be overstated. What sort of state will Israel be if a Jewish minority governs a land whose majority is non-Jewish? To maintain the state's Jewish character will mean denying fundamental democratic rights to millions.

    What sort of security will the\e be for Israeli children as terrorists acquire ever longer-range and more sophisticated weapons amid ever-deeper grievances? And, in an increasingly globalized world of economic opportunity, will Israel's best young minds remain in a land torn by conflict and violence, and isolated from the world community?

    On the U.S.'s watch - in fact, with the U.S.'s protection and implicit blessing - Israel is marching slowly to the edge of an abyss. Those of us who truly love the country and care about the future of the Jewish people cannot stand idly by, watching it commit national suicide.

    If we truly care about that land, if we truly seek to be pro-Israel, then it is our duty not simply to support a bold new initiative from President-elect Obama but to press with all our might for its pursuit.

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    Jeremy Ben-Ami is executive director of JStreet, a Washington Pac.

Last modified on Tuesday, 13 January 2009 07:42