My trip was part of a study being conducted by my students on whether the two-state solution is still viable and whether there are alternative ways of achieving peace. It is increasingly vital to detail not only what happened during the past 20 years of Arab-Israeli negotiations, but also to look ahead and argue why an ambitious peace policy is important for the United States. It seems so logical in Jerusalem and Ramallah to think this way; not so in Washington.
As analysts and pundits suggest what the U.S. president's priorities should be in the months and years ahead, the Middle East peace process figures on few lists. The arguments range from "it's too hard" to the familiar "we can't want peace more than the parties." The assumption is that the status quo will hold while incremental steps are taken -- steps designed to smooth the roughest edges off the occupation's restrictions on mobility, economic activity, or institution-building. These critics direct a blind eye at Israeli settlement activity and rocket fire from Gaza, as though these ongoing, chronic behaviors can be ignored or managed. As the recent outbreak of violence proves, this is mistaken. The status quo is not sustainable.
Those counseling a hands-off approach are also equally blind toward history, which proves time and again that inactivity by the United States allows the situation on the ground to heat up until it boils over -- and that active, agile, and persistent diplomacy by the United States actually has a chance of making things better.
The current escalation in Gaza illustrates the point. The course of this conflict is actually fairly clear: Israel and Hamas will pound each other, and when the fighting stops each side will declare "victory." Israel will have degraded Hamas's military capacity, and Hamas will have killed some Israeli civilians, disrupted life in southern Israel, and lived to fight another day. There will be a lull in the violence, and the clock will start ticking until the next confrontation. The idea of making peace -- real, lasting peace -- will not occur to the leaders in the region.
It is time for a fresh American initiative. There is no need for fancy plans or gaudy conferences, but rather a well-structured, fair, and balanced policy aimed at driving the peace process toward resolution. Failure to do so will handicap everything else Barack Obama's administration tries to accomplish in the Middle East. If the United States is willing to put in the effort, it may actually yield surprising and positive results.