Diplomatic Pouch / November 9, 2009
By Larry Luxner
When it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Gen. James L. Jones is proving he can be pro-active and credible without taking sides.
As President Obama's national security advisor, Jones has been received with varying degrees of enthusiasm by Jewish groups ranging from the mainstream American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to the upstart J Street.
On Oct. 15, the retired four-star general addressed close to 700 Arabs and their supporters at the Fourth Annual Gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP). And in large part, his eloquent words of support for a Palestinian state were warmly welcomed by his audience.
"Honored guests, the president is committed to achieving two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security," he said. "Make no mistake about that. He is personally committed to this goal because he believes that peace is in America's interests, just as it is in the interests of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples."
In an indirect swipe at the Bush White House, Jones said Obama fully supported the diplomatic efforts of special Middle East envoy Sen. George Mitchell "because this is a clear prority for this administration, and because this president was not going to wait to do something about it until the end of his administration."
The general, who devoted 40 years of his life to the U.S. Marine Corps, has served in various positions related to Middle East security since his retirement in 2007. Those positions include chairman of the Congressional Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, State Department special envoy for Middle East security and chairman of the Atlantic Council of the United States.
"We have been clear, unambiguous and consistent," he declared at the black-tie fundraiser. "The time has come to relaunch negotiations without preconditions to reach a final status agreement on two states."
Jones said "we have called on all parties to meet their responsibilities and to take steps to promote an environment in which negotiations can prosper and succeed. These steps were never meant as an end in themselves but as a way to relaunch talks on the core issues of the conflict: security for both Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees and Jerusalem."
Specifically, the retired general urged Israel to "stop settlement growth, dismantle outposts and improve access and movement in the West Bank." For the Palestinians, "it has meant continuing efforts on security and reforming the institutions of governance. And for the Arab states, it has meant reaching out to Israel to demonstrate the benefits of the Arab Peace Initiative as Israel takes steps towards peace."
However, the Obama approach is not all political, he stressed.
"It is also based on building an infrastructure for peace through bottom-up efforts to help the Palestinian Authority ensure security, develop its institutions and provide for the Palestinian people. The Palestinian Authority under the leadership of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad has made great strides towards achieving these goals. I witnessed this progress first-hand in 2008, when the PA transformed Jenin from a battle-scarred hotbed of violence into the secure, hopeful city full of people with great expectations that we see today."
Jones, who was born in 1943 — five years before the establishment of the State of Israel — said he eagerly awaits the dawn of "a viable, independent and contiguous Palestine that ends that occupation that began in 1967 and realizes and unleashes the full potential of the Palestinian people."
Insisting that the "continuing humanitarian crisis" is unacceptable to the Obama administration, he demanded that Israel "reopen the crossings, with an appropriate monitoring regime, to allow for the entry of legitimate goods into Gaza, because progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must absolutely and unequivocally be a part of the road to peace. But he also urged the "immediate release" of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas for more than three years.
In introducing the general, ATFP President Ziad J. Asali praised the 65-year-old national security advisor's "profound grasp of the integral relationship between politics, security and economic development" and called on fellow Palestinians "to build, in spite of the occupation, the foundations of a society and state in which every citizen is afforded both the rights and responsibilities of liberty."