At the start of a Senate hearing entitled “Middle East Peace: Ground Truths, Challenges Ahead,” on Thursday, February 4th, Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) expressed his frustration with the Middle East Peace process. He advocated a U.S. withdrawal from the peace process by quoting New York Times columnist Tom Friedman: “[the U.S. should] end its participation in the peace process, publicly informing the parties that we will come back when they get serious.”
Sen. Lugar is not optimistic about the idea of “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Newer methods of diplomacy, he argued, are needed between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The hearing consisted of two and half hours of testimony from former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, Dr. Robert Malley, Dr. Ziad Asali, and Mr. David Makovsky on how the United States should conduct itself in the upcoming peace talks. The written testimony of all witnesses is available from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
In contrast to last week’s House responses to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, discussion with several members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations was both progressive and productive. Much of the dialogue was devoted not to how what sort of diplomacy should be used, but rather how much of it should be applied.
The witnesses before the committee seemed to agree that President Obama’s recent demand on a freeze of settlement activity has amounted to a diplomatic failure, one that harmed both parties to future negotiations. The United States, they argued, had set its expectations too high.
Most witnesses and committee members also seemed to believe that if “proximity talks” do not eventually lead to face-to-face negotiation, the effort will be wasted. More than one individual in the hearing room eagerly pointed out the fact that both Israeli and Palestinian diplomatic envoys have met one another face-to-face in the past, and there is no reason why this should not take place now.
In addition to discussion of how American diplomats should pursue negotiations, the senators and witnesses also mentioned Gaza, which was a welcome sign. Both Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) deplored the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and both senators and witnesses found themselves in agreement that the current blockade is not only unspeakably cruel to the 1.5 million people of Gaza, but that it also strengthens extremists and works contradictory to the goal of sustainable peace
Many other aspects of the peace process were discussed that day that most Americans would never have expected to hear discussed in any United States government facility even three years ago, at least without a politician destroying his or her career for speaking so favorably of the Palestinian people. From an outside perspective it is becoming slightly easier to be an optimist about the American role in the establishment of a free and independent Palestinian state, especially listening to the words of Chairman Kerry. What remains to be seen is the performance of American diplomats in the coming talks later this month, and then one can truly decide how optimistic to be.