- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 8, 2009

When it comes to peace in the Middle East, we’ve tried just about everything and nothing has worked. And if you believe that, there’s a bridge over the River Jordan I want to sell you.

The truth is that one American administration after another has embraced the same false premises and, from that starting point, set into motion a “peace process” that ineluctably fails. Afterward, they say: “We came so close!” Which is like saying: “The last time I jumped off the roof, I almost flew!”

Start with the assumption that the core issue in the conflict is the Israeli “occupation” of Palestinian territories and that the solution is therefore “land for peace.” In 1967, Israel’s Arab neighbors fought a war to wipe the Jewish state off the map. When they lost, Israel took control of Gaza (which had been Egyptian) and the West Bank (which had been Jordanian). Israelis were willing to relinquish those territories — but they wanted a solid peace treaty in exchange. No Arab leader was willing to pay that price.

Four years ago this month, in exchange for nothing, Israel removed from Gaza every last Israeli — including even those buried in the cemeteries. Palestinian leaders did not say: “If we can next disengage from the Israelis on the West Bank, the conflict is over.” Instead, Hamas was soon launching thousands of missiles from Gaza at cities well inside Israel proper.

Move on to a second premise: that the primary goal of Palestinian leaders now is a Palestinian state that would live in peace with Israel. Seven years ago, President George W. Bush became the first American president to officially endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state — as long as it would not become another terrorist-sponsoring state.

Hamas explicitly rejected that condition. Hamas demands that infidels leave the Middle East or, at the very least, submit to Islamic rule and Shariah law. But isn’t that just where the bargaining begins? No, that’s the third mistaken premise. For Hamas, Islamic supremacy is not a negotiating position; it’s a religious conviction and therefore not open to compromise.

As for the more “moderate” Fatah movement, this week it held its Sixth General Assembly in Bethlehem. The path to peace with Israel was not its theme. One prominent Fatah politician, Muhammad Dahlan, recently said: “For the 1,000th time, I want to reaffirm that we are not asking Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Rather we are asking Hamas not to do so, because Fatah never recognized Israel’s right to exist.”

A new administration ought to think outside the box. If President Obama were looking for new and improved approaches to peace processing, what options might be considered?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thinks an “economic peace” could pave the way to a broader settlement. He recalls that the economy of the West Bank was among the fastest growing in the world after 1967 and before 1993 — when Israeli leaders brought Yasser Arafat from exile and installed him as Palestinian strongman under the Oslo Accords. A precipitous economic decline followed. Violence increased as well.

In recent months, Mr. Netanyahu has removed military checkpoints in the West Bank and opened the Allenby Bridge across the Jordan River 24 hours a day to promote freer trade among Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians. New shopping centers and industrial parks are being built and/or planned. The International Monetary Fund predicts the West Bank economy could grow by an enviable 7 percent this year.

“We are opening ties,” Mr. Netanyahu said last week. But a durable peace, he added, must be based on “reciprocity, not unilateralism.”

If Palestinians in the West Bank see their lives improving, will they stand up to the militant jihadists who have victimized them and who are only too eager to sacrifice their children in pursuit of Israel’s annihilation? Probably not. But such an approach would represent real change and does offer a flicker of hope where now there is none. You’d think that would appeal to President Obama.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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