President Obama has a golden opportunity to leave a lasting legacy as a peacemaker during his next term by bringing about an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and mending U.S. relations with Iran. But will he renew his efforts to crack these hard nuts?
There are reasons to expect him to take bold initiatives in these two areas. First, he will be blessed with a relatively tranquil home front in his second term, with clouds over the U.S. economy giving way to sprinkles of sunshine. Second, except for immigration and a tax drama, no other major domestic agenda will eclipse the white House, giving him enough spare time to move vigorously on foreign affairs. Third, a new secretary of state would pump new life into U.S. foreign policy, creating a window of opportunity for the president to jump-start his stalled Middle East initiative outlined four years ago.
The crux of the long-menacing Arab-Israeli confrontation is the problem between the Israelis and Palestinians over land. This sticky issue now revolves around essentially two main contentions: Israeli settlements in West Bank and Palestinians right to return. Both are hard nuts to crack. But history shows leaders rise to challenges to tackle tough issues.
With the fear of re-election behind, Obama can now push the two sides closer as President Jimmy Carter did three decades ago with President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin. To solve the right to return issue, the United States can propose to handsomely compensate the Palestinians if they give up their land in Israel. With the money they will get as part of such a settlement, the Palestinians can buy land elsewhere, including the United States, at a fraction of the cost. As for the settlements, Israel must dismantle them in exchange for Arab recognition of the Jewish state and a comprehensive peace treaty with Arab League members.
Now the question is who will dole out the dough to pay the Palestinians for their land in Israel? First, the United States must do its part, which will be justified to U.S. taxpayers on the ground that this solution will permanently relieve them from subsidizing Israels war with the Arabs in perpetuity. Second, other countries such as China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Malaysia and Germany will be more than willing to contribute to a fund to help remove a big menace to peace.
Why should Israel accept this solution when it can defeat its enemies by force? Israel needs to do it to ensure lasting peace with its neighbors and ease jitters around the Muslim world. Israels claim that it faces existentialist threat from hostile Arabs and Iranians is not genuine. Israeli leaders have successfully used this propaganda to extract Western sympathy. Most of the world leaders know Syria is no match to Israel, but Israel still insists on keeping the Golan Heights on so-called security grounds. Israel must go back to its pre-1967 borders to bring an end to Arab jitters.
Arab-Israeli peace will bring the fire in the Muslim world under control. Contrary to the myth in the West, Muslims worldwide admire the United States and will extend a warm welcome to every American to their homes on a personal level. Muslim resentment against America is no more venomous than that held by Liberation Theologians of Latin America. In fact, many Muslims dream to enjoy the kind of lifestyle Americans do; they want to improve their lots as the Americans have.
Except for tiny fringe groups, most Muslims will have no problems to embrace Christians and Jews. Mind you, Muslims honor both Moses and Jesus as their holy prophets, and respect Christianity and Judaism as Gods religions.
As for Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's views on Israel have been grossly distorted in the West. He knows all too well no one can wipe off Israel from the face of the earth. His rhetoric is for purely domestic consumption.When Charlie Rose of Bloomberg TV asked him about wiping off Israel from the map, the Iranian president said he only blamed Israel for starting five wars since its birth, causing deaths of women and children. So he called for putting Israel out of this business.
Iran never started a war in its 2,500-year history. Tehran is unlikely to break the tradition. Iran is more than willing to make peace with the United States, provided Washington renounces its intention to replace the current Iranian regime. From Washingtons security perspective, Iran is not much different from nor more dangerous than North Korea, except for the Israeli and oil equations.
Iran can rather be an asset to ensure peace in the Persian Gulf. Unless someone pays too much attention to what the Saudis say, he will find the Mullahs in Tehran more reasonable than many Sheikhs in the Gulf. The Saudis grumble for their own reasons, which do not necessarily affect the rest of the Muslim world.
By taking care of the Middle East issue in his second term, Obama can leave his successor with one fewer foreign policy headaches and let the next president rather focus on Americas migraine of this century -- China.
B. Z. Khasru, an award-winning journalist, is editor of The Capital Express in New York, and author of Myths and Facts, Bangladesh Liberation War, How India, U.S., China and the USSR Shaped the Outcome. His new book, "The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link," is scheduled to be released by Rupa & Co. in New Delhi in July.
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