It is not often that a candidate in a tight US Senate race actually says something significant about the Middle East peace process—or the lack of a process. Pennsylvania Democrat Joe Sestak has done so, with a call for the administration to do more than just "open lines of communication."
Sestak, who defeated incumbent Arlen Specter in last month’s Democratic primary, faces a tough fall race with Republican Pat Toomey in what is likely to be one of the roughest races of the fall.
As such, Sestak might have been expected to avoid discussing the Middle East. Most candidates, especially most Democrats, do—and that has been doubly the case in recent weeks, as relations between Israelis and Palestinians have degenerated following the Israeli military raid on an aid flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip.
Instead, Sestak has waded into the debate by prodding the Obama administration to take a leadership role in encouraging and facilitating direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is certainly not a radical stance. But it is an important one, as the director for Defense Policy on President Clinton’s National Security Council not only calls for direct negotiations but also scores those who criticize advocates for renewing and advancing the peace process for not being sympathetic enough to Israel.
Speaking as a friend of Israel who knows that country and the surrounding region’s security issues as well as anyone, Sestak says: "We must move forward with faith in our commitment to our special alliance with Israel, and to those who are dedicated to justice and freedom for all people, to encourage the sustained direct talks that will be necessary to bring about a just and lasting two-state solution. This is the only outcome that can offer true security for Israel, the region, the United States, and our allies around the world, and we must be ready to do what it takes to see it through."
The proper way to move forward, the retired three-star admiral and current Democratic Congressman argues, is to recognize that "the way forward in the Middle East, as it has been around the world and throughout history, is communication. There must be direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, mediated by the United States. The proximity talks that began recently were an important step, but there will never be peace by proxy."
Sestak explained in remarks prepared for delivery on Flag Day that "an open channel of communication cannot be the goal of diplomacy; it must come at the beginning. A commitment to dialogue should be the basis of negotiations, not a bargaining chip in the process. And the roadblocks that talks are meant to resolve should not be expected to be overcome before those talks can move forward."
That’s the right message for Obama, who has taken cautious steps in the right direction but has not moved quickly enough or aggressively enough.
It is, as well, the right message for Sestak’s fellow Democrats, and for responsible Republicans who fear being attacked if they advocate for meaningful negotiations.