President Obama used his speech to the United Nations General Assembly today to issue a challenge to the international community to support the Israel-Palestinian peace process:
Many in this hall count themselves as friends of the Palestinians. But these pledges must now be supported by deeds. Those who have signed on to the Arab Peace Initiative should seize this opportunity to make it real by describing and demonstrating the normalization that it promises Israel. Those who speak out for Palestinian self-government should help the Palestinian Authority with political and financial support, and – in so doing – help the Palestinians build the institutions of their state. And those who long to see an independent Palestine rise must stop trying to tear Israel down.
After thousands of years, Jews and Arabs are not strangers in a strange land. And after sixty years in the community of nations, Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate. Israel is a sovereign state, and the historic homeland of the Jewish people. It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakeable opposition of the United States. And efforts to threaten or kill Israelis will do nothing to help the Palestinian people — the slaughter of innocent Israelis is not resistance, it is injustice. Make no mistake: the courage of a man like President Abbas — who stands up for his people in front of the world — is far greater than those who fire rockets at innocent women and children.
It would have been nice to see some reference to Israel’s obligations here, at the very least a mention of the word “occupation,” in the speech, which, apart from reiterating the Quartet’s call for Israel to extend its settlement moratorium, focused exclusively on the responsibilities of Israel’s neighbors. I doubt the lack of such references will calm the president’s conservative critics, who will continue to label him “anti-Israel,” despite the fact that the Israeli Prime Minister, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., and AIPAC all disagree.
It’s worth noting President Obama’s reference to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative — he stated that those who signed it “should seize this opportunity to make it real by describing and demonstrating the normalization that it promises Israel” — in light of Secretary of State Clinton’s hailing of it on Wednesday as a “groundbreaking initiative [that] provided a far-sighted vision for comprehensive regional peace.” Clinton called “the principles enshrined in the Arab Peace Initiative” — which offered full normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 and the creation of a Palestinian state — “more important than ever.” Israel has yet to formally respond to that offer.
It’s easy — and, given the state of negotiations, on a knife’s edge over whether Israel will extend its settlement moratorium and amid some of the worst unrest in East Jerusalem in years, probably not entirely incorrect — to be cynical about the prospects for a peace deal in the near future. But it’s a testament to the centrality of the conflict to a number of other U.S. challenges in the region, and the strong U.S. national security consensus around the reality of those linkages, that the president has chosen to put his political and diplomatic capital, and America’s, behind this effort right now.