March 16, 2009

‘Peace will be made the day after an agreement is signed’

Sen. Whitehouse shares impressions after recent Middle East visit

A FEW WEEKS ago, I had the opportunity to visit Israel for the first time as part of a Congressional delegation led by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

As we walked through the Old City, stood in the silence at Yad Vashem, wended our way through the tunnels along the Western Wall, saw the Garden Tomb near the Damascus Gate, I could feel the mix of hope and worry shared by Israelis and Palestinians alike as they navigate towards two independent states sheltered by a durable peace.

We arrived in Jerusalem in the midst of a political fight. The ballots from the Israeli elections had just been counted, and President Shimon Peres was responsible for sorting out who should be tapped to form a new Israeli government. Just days after we departed, President Peres selected Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu to try to build a coalition to lead the Israeli government. This process will not be easy.

We met with President Peres and Mr. Netanyahu, as well as a number of Palestinian and other Israeli senior officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and Palestinian negotiator Saed Erekat.

In these meetings, in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the West Bank, I saw some reasons for hope – and reminders that America will need to stay determined and involved for this process to move forward.

Fortunately, everyone we met is already counting on our involvement. We felt a sense of opportunity, brought on in significant part by the new Obama Administration, for whom hopes are high, and we saw an acknowledgement that this opportunity could be fleeting if not seized upon. President Peres has truly seen most of the ebbs and flows of this endeavor, and he sounded an upbeat tone as he gave us a sense of the sweep of its history.

In both Jerusalem and Ramallah, we also heard strong words of support and admiration for Sen. George Mitchell, who has been appointed to serve as President Obama’s Special Envoy for Middle East Peace. In the world of diplomacy, superlatives are frequent but only occasionally heartfelt. With Sen. Mitchell, there is genuine respect and affection. Principal Palestinian negotiator Erekat called him a personal friend, and said, powerfully, “He knows us.”

Beneath a pervasive sense of hope, we heard familiar positions and statements meant to open the next round of the peace process. Mr. Netanyahu, who likely will serve as Israel’s next Prime Minister, told us that he would try to build peace from the ground up – focusing on economic development in the West Bank, settlements and the powers of the Palestinian Authority – rather than from the top down.

Some worry that this approach may exacerbate the concerns of Palestinians, who fear that a Netanyahu-led Israeli government would not truly accept the two-state solution.

However, there is some common ground. In emphasizing that any peace agreement will need to be voted on by the Palestinian people, Mr. Erekat hit upon a fundamental truth: peace is made the day after an agreement is signed, when ordinary people deal with one another, day in and day out, in the course of their normal lives.

By focusing on improving the economy in the West Bank, Mr. Netanyahu clearly understands and accepts this truth. But there is still a significant distance between that and a peace agreement that gives both peoples political and economic hope, in an environment where neither must fear for their families’ security. In a land where nearly every inch is cherished and rich with heritage, common ground is precious, and we must strive to increase it.

Together, the Israeli and Palestinian officials that we met need to move the peace process forward. And Americans, under the leadership of President Barak Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Mitchell, will support them. I would paraphrase President Obama when he spoke to Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language news channel: It may take a long time to do, but we have to do it now.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse