Wednesday, July 30, 2008

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Tear down the walls in the West Bank

Before leaving Israel last week, Democratic presidential nominee Barak Obama told reporters that, if elected, he plans to immediately engage in peacemaking efforts between Israelis and Palestinians, based on the principle of two states for two peoples. However, before Obama's plane landed in Germany for his next stop, an Israeli government panel approved the building of a new settlement deep inside the West Bank's Jordan Valley.

Since the beginning of the Oslo Peace Process, every U.S. president has pursued a policy of peacemaking that was based roughly on the 1967 borders. Even the Bush administration, which stood by as Israel developed an immense separation wall deep inside the West Bank, has been critical of Israeli settlement expansion in the disputed territories. Yet even though U.S. policymakers have come to realize that the growth of an Israeli presence in the West Bank is a direct challenge to a viable two-state solution, little has been done to prevent this from happening.

The most recent decision by the Israelis toward settlement expansion, despite the threat it poses to peace negotiations, is nothing new. In fact, throughout the 1990s and after the Oslo Accord was signed in the White House Rose Garden, Israeli settlement expansion increased exponentially for almost 15 years, regardless to whether the more left-leaning Labor Party or the more hawkish right-wingers were in government.

Jerusalem, perhaps the area most affected by settlement expansion, remains a critical and controversial city because of the role it will play in any future agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their state, is surrounded by newly expanded settlements and the security structures that come with them. The Holy City has become separated from the surrounding Palestinian population, which used to frequent the city's markets, churches and mosques.

The geography left for the Palestinians is divided into Bantustan-like areas separated from each other by Israeli territory. The walls, checkpoints and soldiers that surround Israeli settlements on this territory have led to the devastation of the Palestinian economy, untold human rights abuses and the weakening of the Palestinian Authority (our only anointed negotiating partner in the conflict).

The result of these policies, and American appeasement to them, is that the two-state solution -- the backbone of negotiations for almost two decades -- is in jeopardy.

The next American president must immediately engage in negotiations with both sides, but also must be prepared to use all tools at his disposal to enforce commitments. Many already argue that the sun has set on a two-state solution. And while the proponents of a binational state remain outside of the accepted discourse on this issue in the United States, the changing realities on the ground are only lending credence to their arguments.

With a national election upcoming in November -- and candidates competing for votes in part based on who has the best policy on Iraq, Iran and the energy crisis -- voters should also pay close attention to which candidate will be most committed to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This act alone would give the United States the political leverage necessary to succeed elsewhere in the region and ultimately triumph in the war on terror.

Road to peace

Obama delivered a rousing speech in Berlin, hours after arriving from Israel, and promised, if elected, to tear down the walls that divided citizens of the world from one another.

Surely, this would be a noble policy for whoever the next president is. The next commander-in-chief can start by trying to tear down the wall in the West Bank, which is much larger than the one that once divided Berlin but also far more important for our success in creating a peaceful, stable and democratic Middle East.

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