Finding a true path to true peace in Mideast

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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Recently I had lunch with an Israeli friend who, despite being a strong supporter of a two-state solution (as this writer is), was skeptical that the U.S.’s basic approach to the peace process — emphasizing negotiating the details of a peace agreement — would be enough to bring true peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

“What good is a piece of paper that is top-down if there is not peace from the bottom up, too?” he asked. “If we don’t have Israelis and Palestinians able to have dinner together, able to enjoy watching their children play together, we can never have true and lasting peace.”

Of course, the answer lies in the concept of convergence: the intersection of a negotiated peace and the development on the ground, among real human beings who are Israeli and Palestinian, of the conditions of a meaningful and enduring peace.

The best things that can be done in the immediate and foreseeable future to bring about such convergence are to gradually ease living conditions, avoid incitement and refrain from provocative actions on all sides, as the Palestinians and Israelis slowly resume their contacts and negotiations under U.S. auspices.

The Palestinians and Israelis need to be encouraged to think of each other as potential partners in the future, rather than eternal enemies frozen in the past. The U.S. can be a facilitator for coordinating a slow path to easing economic and security conditions while also shepherding an agreement.

Neither imposing solutions nor walking away is an option.

One pathway to get there in the short term, on which both Israeli and Palestinian Authority leaders appear to agree, albeit quietly, is a serious effort to promote jobs, economic development and a strong and stable governmental infrastructure in the West Bank (and in Gaza, if Hamas, the terrorist group seeking only the “destruction” of Israel, can be repudiated by Gazans themselves).

In a newly released report, “Palestine: Moving Forward, Priority Interventions for 2010,” the Palestinian Authority sets out a program to establish the institutions of a state even before a state is officially declared. “The logic is simple,” said Dr. Ziad Asali, the visionary and inspiring Palestinian physician who founded and is president of the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP). “If you build it, the state will come.”

With Americans for Peace Now, ATFP is sponsoring summer internships to send Palestinian students to Washington and American students to Israel and the West Bank.

Several years ago, in 2007, a significant economic initiative began, called the U.S. Palestinian Partnership (UPP), conceived in part by the noteworthy Aspen Institute under Walter Isaacson’s leadership. The UPP is composed of major U.S. companies and Palestinian and American political leaders from both parties. The UPP has already begun to attract significant business investments in the West Bank hospitality sector and in information and communication technology, with one project sponsored by Cisco Corp. that helps provide outsourcing contracts for Palestinian companies.

In recent years the Palestine Investment Conference (PIC), sponsored by the UPP, drew more than 1,000 attendees and raised $1.4 billion in investment commitments. Another PIC is scheduled for early June. But the UPP has to be steadfast to ensure meaningful follow-up and implementation.

Meanwhile, Israel has quietly pursued Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s economic development policies for the West Bank. As reported by the Israel Project, trade between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) has increased 35 percent in 2008. Tourism to Bethlehem increased by 94 percent in 2008. The number of Palestinians given Israeli work permits increased from 21,000 in 2007 to 23,000 in 2008, and there was a 206 percent increase in agricultural exports from the PA to Israel in 2008.

Ultimately, it won’t be bricks and mortar that bring a lasting peace but, as my Israeli friend said over lunch, people and families on both sides of the Jordan River and across the Gaza border reaching out to one another, if not in friendship then in civility.

Last month during the Jewish holiday of Passover, our family and friends were honored to have Dr. Asali of ATFP and his wife, Naila, join us for our Passover Seder dinner. We held hands as we said the Hebrew prayers for peace and justice for all peoples, read together the Passover narrative of liberation and freedom and prayed together for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

We all knew from that memorable experience that when Palestinians and Israelis can visit each other, have dinner together, pray together and watch their children play together, peace will come.

That kind of peace must converge with good-faith negotiations and a final two-state peace agreement with security for Israelis and Palestinians.

That kind of peace will be a true peace. God willing, the piece of paper that represents the peace agreement will and should be the final act ratifying what is already a reality.

This piece appears today, May 20, 2010, in Mr. Davis’s regular weekly column in The Hill “Purple Nation” and The Daily Caller.

Davis, a Washington attorney in his own law firm, Lanny J. Davis & Associates, served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006-07. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).