Propelled by United States President Barack Obama, the Middle East peace process is at an important and decisive crossroad. The next few months could see the greatest advances in the Arab-Israeli dispute since the conflict began 61 years ago. If successful, the outcome of Obama’s initiative could lead to a peaceful and permanent resolution of the Middle East crisis with the Palestinians finally having a homeland. The four thorny dossiers that have been holding up the process — the issue of final borders, the question of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, the status of Jerusalem as capital of Israel and a future Palestinian state, as well as the security of Israel — could all be solved. That is the optimistic view.
Pulling in favor of the optimists is the gargantuan public relations campaign that was Obama’s speech to the Arab and Muslim world delivered in Cairo last month. The one important point to underscore is the announcement by the American president that solving the Middle East dispute is first and foremost in the national interest of the US. Also pulling for the optimists’ camp is George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, who stopped in Lebanon and Syria on his recent tour of the region, where he is quietly working to move the peace process ahead. Also trying to push things forward is John Kerry who visited Syria once more.
And depending on where you stand, Jimmy Carter calling for Hamas to be recognized as a legitimate political party and removed from the State Department’s list of terror organizations, could be seen as either good or bad.
The reverse side of the coin, the pessimistic view, is that if this round of talks fails, then it could go the other way. If history is anything to go by, then there is little doubt that the next round of violence could be more explosive and more extreme. A brief scan through the history books of the last 60 odd years will back up that statement. What began as a dispute over real estate has now turned into a war of religion and some believe into a clash of civilizations. And what initially was a regional conflict has now spilled over the borders of the Middle East and onto the streets of America and Europe.
Fodder for pessimists is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction to Obama’s speech, and Netanyahu’s support for policies that advocate expansion of the settlements in the West Bank, which is a non-starter for resumption of the peace process.
In between the optimists and the pessimists lies much uncertainty. Yet what is clear is that the future of the Middle East is in the hands of the region’s leaders now more than it has ever been. History will remember the legacy these leaders leave behind and it will not be kind to those who miss this opportunity. The Palestinian cause has for much too long been used and abused to justify the continued status quo in parts of the Middle East, with the aim of keeping the current regimes in power. History, however, will reserve a special place for those who will ultimately bring peace and prosperity and democracy to the people of the Middle East.
It is time for the leadership in the region to realize the precariousness in which the region finds itself today, not only when it comes to the question of war and peace, but in regards to where the region stands in education, cultural development, scientific advances, social welfare and the rights of individuals.
President Obama understands the urgency of the situation and the importance of bringing peace to the Middle East. But the task is not going to be an easy one with all sides strongly entrenched in their respective positions. The fundamental reason for the difficulty in moving ahead is due to a lack of trust that permeates both sides of the conflict. Building that trust will prove to be one of the hardest steps in bringing peace to the region. Sixty-one years of hatred will require time and effort to overcome.
Arabs and Israelis are destined to live as neighbors on the same small piece of real estate. And as neighbors they have to coexist or risk perpetuating more violence in the Levant, and guaranteeing a turbulent future for their children and grandchildren. Is that the legacy by which they want to be remembered?
The two sides have no choice but to continue to live, if not with each other, at least next to each other. One does not necessarily have to love his neighbor, but one has to learn to live with his neighbor. One important caveat: all the pushing and prodding, arm-twisting and threatening, cajoling and guarantees of the United States to bring about a settlement in the region will be impossible to achieve unless there is a strong desire amongst those concerned to solve the crisis.
Claude Salhani is the editor of the Middle East Times in Washington, DC