President Obama intends to make his first trip to Israel in his capacity as Commander in Chief on March 20. The visit is a follow up to Obama's 2012 campaign promise to visit Israel in his second term. However, he will likely spend a lot of his time reassuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the U.S. commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in light of Israeli opposition to February's nuclear talks in Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, this means that the two leaders will be unlikely to address the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Below are five things that an ideal president would discuss with Netanyahu.
1. Iran Saber Rattling:
February's nuclear talks with Iran were somewhat productive, with the U.S. and its allies making less hard line demands. In turn, Iran agreed to continual negotiations in Istanbul and Almaty later in the year, which will hopefully pave the way for an alleviation of the harsh sanctions in exchange for the closure of Iran's Fordow nuclear facility and enriched uranium transfers outside of the country. Netanyahu, however, has expressed his doubts about the efficacy of diplomacy, insisting that the extreme sanctions do not go far enough. Obama is facing pressure from Republicans, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Israel itself to reassert the U.S. commitment to military operations on Iran, despite recent diplomatic successes. Obama needs to make it clear to Netanyahu that increased saber rattling, militarization, and attacks on Iran will only undermine diplomatic efforts.
2. Palestinian Water Access:
One often-overlooked dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the issue of Palestinian water rights. Israel controls the entire Jordan River basin and 85% of the West Bank's underground aquifers. It diverts 75% of this water to Israel proper and another 10% to illegal Israeli West Bank settlements, meaning that four Israelis enjoy as much water as one Palestinian, despite the fact that appropriating water from an occupied territory is illegal according to Article 1, Section 2 of the 1996 UN Human Rights Covenants. To add insult to injury, each year Israel routinely destroys Palestinian water sources, such as cisterns, or appropriates them to its settlements. In the interest of the elusive peace process, Obama should, at the very least, tell Netanyahu to stop destroying Palestinian water supplies and provide Palestine with its equal share of water.
3. End Discrimination against Arab Israelis:
According to The Economist, 66% of Arab-Israeli children are living in poverty compared to 24% of their non-Arab-Israeli counterparts. These class and racial lines result in a de facto segregated school system. Predictably, the schools for Arab Israeli children are of much lower quality and receive less funding and resources. 77.6% of Arab Israelis believe that they face systematic discrimination while 52.5% of Jewish Israelis disagree. Israel cannot effectively pursue peace with Palestine unless it can ensure equal rights and treatment to its own citizens. In an ideal world of reasonable people, Obama would encourage Netanyahu to help stand for Arab Israeli civil rights.
4. End the Blockade on Gaza:
Since 2006 Israel has maintained its blockade on Gaza to ostensibly prevent Hamas-led, terrorist attacks on Israel. However, the blockade severely restricts the exports and imports of non-lethal items, such as construction materials and food sources, reducing revenue, causing the cost of living to skyrocket, and generally immobilizing Gaza's economy. The blockade's dire impact extends beyond economics, as it forces Palestinians to dump sewage into the sea and Gaza Valley due to their lack of access to materials necessary for the repair and upgrade of sewage treatment plants. The harsh conditions and civilian toll resulting from Israel's blockade on Gaza undoubtedly makes its population hard-liner and bolsters their support for Hamas. In the interest of peace and human rights, Obama should tell Netanyahu to end the ban on civilian exports and imports into Gaza.
5. West Bank Settlement Withdrawal:
It's no secret that a Palestinian state in the West Bank is currently unviable due to the de facto annexation of Palestinian land via settlements, which Israel, under Netanyahu's leadership, continues to escalate. Ideally, Israel would completely cede its illegal occupation and allow Palestinians to establish their state under pre-1967 borders. However, the hard line, conservative nature of the Israeli government makes this unlikely to happen. As such, Obama's previous calls for a Palestinian state to exist in the confines of pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed upon land swaps are sensible and pragmatic. Although it's a formidable task, the president should push Netanyahu to end settlement expansion and show a readiness to negotiate on settlement withdrawals.