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Responding to Aaron Miller

Dear Aaron Miller:

Back in the 1990s, you were the first senior diplomat I ever met. In the years since, you have been a mentor, friend and an example of American diplomacy at its best. Your book on U.S. Middle East peacemaking ("The Much Too Promised Land") is searingly honest and breathtakingly incisive.

Only in this context can I explain the sadness and alarm I felt upon reading your Washington Post op-ed "Start with Syria". If I believed that your basic thesis - that the U.S. should put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the backburner - was merely mistaken, I would have saved my response for one of our periodic talks. But as an appeal to President Obama, it is more than wrong. It is dangerous.

You base your analysis on the argument that the Israeli and Palestinian body politics are too dysfunctional, and Israelis and Palestinians too divided on the core issues, to warrant making a priority of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Beginning with the substance of peace negotiations, I must tell you: you are mistaken. You and I have often ruefully recalled the staggering unfamiliarity the negotiating teams had with the core issues as they went into talks at Camp David. But today is different. We haven't wasted these past eight years. Sometimes looking like the Flat Earth Society, we continued to work on the details of what final status will look like. And today, with rare exception, we know. What was quantum physics in the summer of 2000 is high school trigonometry today. And never before have the overwhelming majorities in Israel and Palestine known better what it will take, or been more ready to pay the price. It is the absence of political will, rather than substantive divisions, which keeps us from the endgame.

Moving to the political context, you argue that political dysfunction in both Israel and Palestine renders peace efforts pointless. You are dead right on the facts, but miss the point. The political situation is indeed dysfunctional, but progress is still possible, and indeed, it is perhaps the only hope for improving the political context. Nothing has debilitated the leadership of both societies more than the political despair of the last eight years, and nothing has more potential to rehabilitate and empower the forces of moderation in Israel and Palestine than a credible peace effort. Sadly, Israeli and Palestinian fantasists - including Israelis who argue that Palestinians will accept economic development in lieu of political empowerment, and Palestinians peddling the pipe-dream of an Islamic Palestine from the river to the sea - are only strengthened by calls to defer peace-making efforts.

You also fail to recognize that opportunities exist to immediately generate a credible negotiating process: the Arab peace initiative, the determined involvement of faith communities, and above all, a re-engaged White House. They offer Israelis and Palestinians something we have lost over the past eight years: hope. Hope for a conflict-ending agreement that delivers both security and universal acceptance of Israel, with recognition of Jewish Jerusalem as its capital, and hope for an end to occupation and humiliation, with the realization, at long last, of Palestinian national aspirations.

Shortly after the outbreak of the second Intifada, a senior American diplomat whom we both know met with President Bush. The President told him he wanted to put the issue into "park". Our friend responded that this conflict has no parking gear - only "drive" and "reverse" -- either progress is being made toward peace, or forces are working to transform this conflict into a zero-sum battle defined by religious-nationalist zealotry. This counsel is as true today as it was then: Bush could not put the conflict into "park" and neither can Obama.

Over the past eight years, our conversations have invariably opened with you asking: "Is it still there?" Meaning, "have facts been created on the ground that make the two-state solution impossible?" And I invariably assure you: "It is". But don't take that answer for granted. With another few years of neglect the answer could change. And the alternative is unthinkable. It was you that taught me that the "one-state solution" is no solution at all, but rather a consequence that would mean the death of Israel as we know it.

Aaron, we are hanging on by our fingernails to the two-state solution.

If President Obama heeds your counsel, the day may not be far off when you ask, "Is it still there?" and I will be compelled to respond: "No, it's gone". And just how devastating this will be to America's global and regional interests, and to the viability of the State of Israel, needs no elaboration. The fact that this would mean that your life's work and passion as an American peacemaker, and my own, as an Israeli, will have come to naught, will be mere collateral damage.

Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem attorney and founder of the Israeli NGO Ir Amim, dedicated to an equitable and stable Jerusalem with an agreed political future.

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