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A Letter to President Obama

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images
President Obama at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention, Washington, D.C., May 22, 2011

Our letter to President Obama of January 24, printed below, was submitted to him just before the remarkable democratic revolutions began to sweep much of the Arab Middle East. We welcome the President’s declaration in his speech of May 19 that these revolutions have made the resolution of the Israel–Palestine conflict “more urgent than ever.”

As indicated in our letter, we also strongly agree with the President that, while no peace can be imposed on the parties, there is little prospect of them ever reaching an agreement if their negotiations are not framed by a set of reasonable principles of fairness and international legality. While President Obama has not gone as far as we urged in our letter, he has made a critical contribution by defining some of those principles: that the 1967 lines, with agreed mutual swaps, define the border of the two states; the importance of verifiable security arrangements for both Israel and a nonmilitarized Palestinian state; and the “full and phased” withdrawal of Israel’s military from Palestinian territory.

We believe these principles should also have included the sharing of Jerusalem and an agreed solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees, as proposed in the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Prospects for the implementation of these principles depend entirely on an understanding by both parties that there are consequences for their rejection. As suggested in our letter, if the stalemate continues, we believe the US should take the lead in bringing the issue back to the Security Council and its Resolutions 242 and 338, which serve as the foundation of the peace process.

In his speech, President Obama omitted reference to consequences. We believe the cost-benefit calculations of neither party will be changed without that understanding.

Lee Hamilton
Director, Center on Congress
Indiana University
Bloomington, Indiana

January 24, 2011

The Honorable Barack H. Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President,

We write to you in light of the breakdown of Middle East peace talks following your most recent efforts to get the parties to resume negotiations for a two-state accord.

We believe this latest impasse once again confirms the impossibility of getting the parties to reach an agreement on their own. Left to their own devices, it is the vast disparity of power between the two parties rather than international law and fairness that will continue to prevail. The experience of these past two years has surely not suggested any other possible outcome.

What is widely perceived as a terminal failure of US Middle East peace diplomacy has left a vacuum that threatens to deepen the State of Israel’s isolation, undermine Palestinian moderation, and endanger American interests in the region and beyond. That vacuum is beginning to be filled by new international initiatives that increase Israelis’ sense of existential threat from what they perceive to be a global movement that seeks their country’s delegitimization.

But it is not the State of Israel within its 1967 borders that is being challenged. It is Israel’s occupation, the relentless enlargement of its settlements, its dispossession of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and the humanitarian disaster caused by its blockade of Gaza that are the target of international anger and condemnation.

We strongly support America’s commitment to Israel’s security, but that commitment cannot justify obstruction of legitimate international efforts in the Security Council and in other international institutions to halt illegal behavior that the US itself has long opposed.

It has been said that terms for a peace accord cannot be imposed on the parties. But surely the United States can declare the principles that will henceforth determine what this country will support and what it cannot and will not support. The declaration would serve to let friends and foes throughout the world know that America remains faithful to the principles and values that you so eloquently articulated in your address in Cairo.

What we believe should be the major features of such a statement of US policy was described in two previous letters to you of November 6, 2008, and April 30, 2010, to which many of us were signatories. We have reviewed them in the light of current developments and have attached suggested formulations which we believe are balanced, equitable and likely to be effective in finding the answers to key differences among the parties on the central questions. If US parameters are rejected by Israel or by the Palestinian Authority (or by both) as the framework for a permanent status agreement, they should be submitted for adoption by the UN Security Council.

We are persuaded that a clear statement reflecting longstanding American principles would influence the debate within Israeli and Palestinian societies far more consequentially and constructively than a renewal of the unproductive bilateral talks that have taken place to date. Such a statement would also help diminish Iranian influence in the region, improve Israel’s security, and reduce the risk of a military conflict with Iran.

Because of our long and unique history of deep friendship with the state and people of Israel, only our country has the ability to help bring this conflict to a close. Only the US can provide the parties with the credible security assurances they will need to make compromises in their positions that a peace treaty will require. No other country can do that. Therefore, if we do not put forward a clear framework for a fair and workable two-state solution to the conflict, the peace process will in effect have been abandoned, for all other approaches have been tried—over and over again—and have failed.

This abandonment will inevitably return Israelis and Palestinians to the cycle of recurring conflicts of ever-escalating violence that has marked the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, into which other destructive forces in the region will be drawn, and into which we will inescapably be drawn as well.

We understand, Mr. President, that the initiative we propose you take to end the suffering and statelessness of the Palestinian people and efforts to undermine Israel’s legitimacy is not without political risks. But we believe that if the American people are fully informed by their President of the likely consequences of an abandonment of US leadership in a part of the world so critical to this country’s national security and to the safety of our military personnel in the region, he will have their support.

David L. Boren, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank C. Carlucci, William J. Fallon, Chuck Hagel, Lee H. Hamilton, Gary Hart, Rita E. Hauser, Carla Hills, Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, Sandra Day O’Connor, Thomas R. Pickering, Paul Volcker, James D. Wolfensohn

PROPOSED FRAMEWORK FOR A PERMANENT STATUS ACCORD

1. The US will oppose any effort to challenge or undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel within internationally recognized borders.

2. The US will work for the establishment of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, subject only to agreed, minor and equal land swaps to take into account areas adjoining the former Green Line heavily populated by Israelis. Unilateral changes to the 1967 borders will not be accorded US recognition or legitimacy.

3. The US will support a solution to the refugee problem that is consistent with the principle of two states for two peoples and addresses the Palestinian refugees’ sense of injustice, providing them with meaningful opportunities for resettlement and financial compensation. Proposals that undercut the principle of two states for two peoples—such as proposals for unlimited entry of Palestinian refugees into the State of Israel—will be opposed by the US.

4. The US believes both states must enjoy strong security guarantees. In this context, the US will support the establishment of a nonmilitarized Palestinian state together with security mechanisms that address legitimate Israeli concerns while respecting Palestinian sovereignty. The US will support the presence of a US-led multinational force to oversee security provisions and border crossings.

5. The US believes that Jerusalem should be home to both states’ capitals, with Jewish neighborhoods falling under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty. Arrangements should be arrived at between the parties regarding the Old City that provide for each side respectively to control its holy places and to have unimpeded access by each community to them.

6. The US will encourage the reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas on terms compatible with these principles and UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338.

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