In Jerusalem last week with my Princeton University students, I hailed a taxi one day from my hotel to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The driver asked whether I would need him for the rest of the day. "If you can take me to Ramallah," I replied, "that would be great. Otherwise, no thanks."
My driver's reaction was symptomatic of what I was hearing from many Israelis. "Ramallah!" he gasped. "Why would you go there? They're all rich and spoiled and hate us. They build big houses and then complain that we don't treat them well. You shouldn't go there."
The current spasm of violence in Gaza had not yet begun -- his concern was not due to current events, but a general disapproval of ever venturing into the West Bank. I tried to explain the poverty rampant in Palestinian society and especially the dismal conditions in the refugee camps, one of which my students and I had visited the previous day. Yes, there are some wealthy Palestinians, but most do not live all that well under occupation. Settlements are a particular problem. We rode the rest of the blessedly short trip in silence.
Later that week, my students and I took two taxis from the hotel to Abu Dis, a West Bank village just outside the security barrier that surrounds Jerusalem. What should have been a 15-minute ride took about 40 minutes, as the taxis had to travel in a wide loop to circumnavigate the wall. As we approached the office of the Palestinian official we were to meet, the driver in my taxi started to laugh. "My friend [the second driver] is in a panic. He doesn't want to be here. He's scared and doesn't want to go further."
Indeed, when we reached our destination, the second driver took off in a flash, clearly feeling imperiled to be driving in a Palestinian village, even one just minutes from downtown Jerusalem.
The ongoing conflict in Gaza, of course, is only going to deepen such fears. As Israel and Hamas pummel each other in yet another sadly predictable spasm of violence, their political visions seem as irreconcilable as ever. It is the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The two sides live so near each other, yet can seem so far away.
But while achieving a lasting peace may seem impossible at the moment, the Gaza conflict drives home once more why the United States cannot walk away from this part of the world. Gaza will be a periodic war zone unless a way is found to move Israelis and Palestinians toward reconciliation and peace.
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.