- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009


The last time I saw Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was a few months before he was assassinated by a Jewish terrorist on Nov. 4, 1995. I will never forget his infuriated expression when he first heard that Bob Dole, the Republican presidential candidate, decided to introduce a new bill that was designed to compel the U.S. administration to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus recognizing Israel’s sovereignty of both parts of the disputed city.

Mr. Rabin was afraid that the initiative would undermine his efforts to create a positive atmosphere between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. Rabin thought that it was Ehud Olmert, then the mayor of Jerusalem, and the conservative leaders of the Jewish lobby that were to be blamed for the initiative. He said he did not think that the bill would change the American policy toward Jerusalem. The prime minister told me that in the beginning of the 1970s, when he was Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., he met with Rep. Gerald R. Ford, then the House minority leader.

“He promised me that if he will ever become president, the first thing that he will do will be to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem,” recalled Mr. Rabin. “A few years later, after I was elected prime minister, I met President Ford at the White House and reminded him of his promise. … ‘Sure, I remember’, he said, ‘but sorry, my friend, l have to tell you that life looks different from the Oval Office.’”

This story came to my mind in July, when I first heard Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama promising in Amman, Jordan, that as president he will be engaged with the Middle East peace process.

The current violent confrontation at the southern border of Israel shows President-elect Barack Obama that the reality in the Middle East does not look different from the White House. By the time he is sworn in, the crisis may look much worse than it was last summer.

Once the peace negotiations, which were launched in Annapolis in November 2007 between Israel and the pragmatic Palestinian leadership, reached a deadlock, it was clear that the radicals who reject the two-state solution would have the upper hand. The current war in Gaza is another proof that this analogy is still relevant.

Annapolis was only one of a series of blunders. It began with President Bush’s support of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to bring down the regime of the late Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, followed by the American insistence on conducting the 2006 elections in the occupied territories, which brought Hamas to power. It was topped by Mr. Bush’s support of the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, which was another proof to the Palestinians that violence is more efficient than diplomacy.

Now, a few weeks before Israel’s Feb. 10 general elections, polls show that the Likud, the major center-right political party in Israel headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, has a good chance to form the next government. Mr. Netanyahu’s record as prime minister, together with the Likud candidates, doesn’tdemonstrate any desire to help Mr. Obama create breakthroughs in the peace process. They promise to stick to their approach that rules out the formula of territories for peace.

Mr. Obama’s remarks recall the policy of then-President George H. W. Bush, who at the height of his second bid for the White House dared challenge the Jewish camp’s wheeler-dealers. He refrained from taking part in the theater-of-the-absurd, whereby the U.S. was dragging Arab countries to the center stage of the Madrid Peace Conference, as the Jewish settlements were flourishing.

The elder Mr. Bush demanded that the then-prime minister and the leader of Likud, Yitzhak Shamir, choose between settlements and economic aid for the absorption of 1 million immigrants from the Soviet Union. Mr. Shamir decided to set the Jewish community and the Democratic Congress against the Republican administration, and brought relations with the administration to a low point. This crisis was one of the factors that ended the rule of the right in Israel at the time, and paved the way to Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat shaking hands on the South Lawn in September 1993, after the signing of the Oslo Agreement.

Mr. Olmert and the new leader of his Kadima party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, were to the right of Mr. Shamir. As time went by, both have realized that the two-state solution is the only way to ensure the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel. At the same time, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his team have bet their credibility on the negotiations with Israel. If they fail again, the remnants of the Palestinian peace camp may disappear. Hamas, Iran and al Qaeda are waiting to fill the void. Without a Palestinian partner, the vision of a democratic Jewish state, secure in internationally recognized borders, will become a fleeting dream.

The people of Israel and Gaza are waiting for Mr. Obama to help their leaders put an end to their suffering.

Mr. Obama has no reason to run from his commitment to change the sour reality in the Middle East. He has nothing to fear from the hard-line Jewish lobby. Despite his frank remarks about American policy in the Middle East, Mr. Obama won the votes of 78 percent of the Jewish electorate in the U.S.

The U.S. Embassy has not changed its venue. It is much easier to lobby for empty bills than to play an active role in the peace process. It is more popular to sign shallow petitions against “dividing” Jerusalem (how can one redivide a city that was never really reunited?) than helping to turn the cliche “City of Peace” into reality.

Mr. Obama will have to decide whether to let the war in Gaza mark the collapse of whatever Mr. Bush has left from the American Middle East coalition, or to lead the Israelis and the Arabs to a political settlement that will give Jerusalem the honor of being the only city in the world that is the capital of two people.

Akiva Eldar is a senior columnist for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. He is the co-author of “Lords of the Land: The War for Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007.”

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