There was a serious problem on September 23, 2011 as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made their speeches at the United Nations. After decades of conflict it was apparent that neither side was talking to the other. For Mr. Abbas, the 76-year-old leader of the Palestinian Authority, it was a moment of recognition for his people and himself and an opportunity to place Palestinian statehood front and center on the international stage. For Mr. Netanyahu it was necessary to remind those present of the UN's recognition of the Jewish State some 63 years earlier, its record of singling out Israel for admonishment and of the grave difficulties inherent in guaranteeing security to Israel in a most unforgiving neighborhood.
The meat of the argument was that Prime Minister Netanyahu characterized the settlements as a result of the conflict while President Abbas sees the settlements as the basis of the conflict. Negotiations stopped when settlement construction was renewed. But negotiations were not moving forward on a reasonable time-table during Israel's 10-month settlement freeze either.
President Obama spoke to the United Nations some 48 hours earlier and said something truly important ...
"This body -- founded, as it was, out of the ashes of war and genocide, dedicated, as it is, to the dignity of every single person -- must recognize the reality that is lived by both the Palestinians and the Israelis. The measure of our actions must always be whether they advance the right of Israeli and Palestinian children to live lives of peace and security and dignity and opportunity. And we will only succeed in that effort if we can encourage the parties to sit down, to listen to each other, and to understand each other's hopes and each other's fears. That is the project to which America is committed. There are no shortcuts. And that is what the United Nations should be focused on in the weeks and months to come."
Our President has been largely unsuccessful in bringing the two leaders to the peace table let alone persuading them to negotiate the terms for a real and lasting peace. The world has tired of the conflict; the United States has squandered many opportunities even as it continues to lead a peace process that has traveled countless miles in some 20 years from a small room in Oslo to Washington, Jerusalem, Ramallah and now center court in New York City.
There is an Arab Spring full of promise and problems that includes Palestinian aspirations for freedom that may find answers through its President's trip to the UN or may open the gates to violence based on the gap between Palestinian hopes and reality on the ground. The United States and its partners in the Quartet are working feverishly to move the game forward tangibly enough to pull the principals back from the brink to another round of direct negotiations. The United States has a veto in the Security Council that can stymie the Palestinian statehood bid in deference to Israel and a requirement for direct negotiations at a cost that will shred US relations and leadership in the region and the world. So it is working with its allies in the UN and the Security Council to impose an arrangement that will alleviate the need for a vote or a veto. Israel looks around to see its relations faltering with Egypt and Turkey even as Hamas and Hezbollah are poised to inject terror back into an equation that never seems to add up to permit peace between Palestinians and Israelis to become achievable.
The Israeli and Palestinian people must become engaged in a positive conversation about peace, (beyond that of their leaders), sharing their personal histories and discussing how they can cooperate to not only promote but achieve peace. It is a process that must be underwritten by the international community and accepted by the leaders to enable people throughout Israel, the West Bank and even Gaza to engage in a person to person dialogue that introduces each people to the other and creates the opportunity to express and begin to excise the fear, anger and hatred bound up in this relentless conflict.
People have been talking for years with local, national and international NGO's, framing discussions that are fundamental but never enough to infuse the peace process itself with the popular energy necessary to force government action. Until we move the will for peace beyond the stilted framework of two leaders meeting alone in a room, Middle East Peace will remain beyond the resolve of governments.
In the wake of the Arab Spring it is incumbent upon all parties beginning with the United States to invest in peace by investing in a public campaign throughout Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to bring people together and give them the ability to work in unison for something better for their sons and daughters and the future of two ancient peoples.