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The Podium

Women — the new tool for Middle East peace

Expectations are low for President Obama’s planned Middle East visit this week, because most of the tools he’s packed in his problem-solving kit have been tried repeatedly without much success. Sanctions, aid, rhetoric,shuttle diplomacy — what else might help build peace in the region?

Two tools that haven’t yet been tried are available right now: Bring women to the table through UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and ratify CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women). These two steps alone provide the potential for making real progress toward peace in the region.

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No one denies that women and children suffer most from armed conflicts, yet they are largely absent from Middle East policy discussions that might prevent the recurring clashes, and from negotiations to end them. With a larger role in the process that better reflects their stake in the outcome, women might shift the talks in unpredictable — positive and productive ways.

I was one of 16 women leaders of progressive US organizations on recent a visit to the region. During our eight day visit, we had the opportunity to talk with women leaders from all sides of the conflict. We witnessed the power, the wisdom, the commitment, and the capabilities of women and their unwavering desire for peace. One of the most important unused tool is to involve more of these and other women leaders in Middle East discussion. UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which urges women’s full participation at all levels of any peace process, and the CEDAW , an international agreement that affirms principles of fundamental human rights and equality for women worldwide are important tools that are available now, they only require leadership and courage, something President Obama can provide.

The United States has acted on UN Resolution 1325, completing its National action Plan in 2010, but Israel has no such plan yet. Israel, however, ratified CEDAW, and the United States has not. The next steps are obvious.

CEDAW has been ratified by 186 of 194 countries. Besides the United States, the other holdouts are Iran, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and the small Pacific Island nations of Palau and Tonga. Washington should be very uncomfortable in such company, enough to ratify CEDAW — if not in time for President Obama’s trip, then soon enough to help brighten the dismal Mideast prognosis. A firm commitment from the president on this issue would send a good signal.

US ratification would cost nothing and change no US laws automatically. Instead, it would strengthen the United States as a global leader in standing up for women and girls in the Middle East and elsewhere. It would make the US voice more credible in declaring that women’s rights are human rights, and that women deserve a greater voice in Israel and other Middle East countries during any peace negotiations.

Conversely, if Israel’s overwhelmingly male dominated government approved a National Action Plan for implementing REsolution 1325, it would open the doors to more creative women like Tzip Livni. Her centrist Hatnua Party has joined the governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and she will head negotiations with the Palestinians. Action on Resolution 1325 would also galvanize the region’s International Women’s Commission for a Just and Sustainable Peace between Israel and Palestine, a coalition of Israeli and Palestinian women that has been working to implement the resolution since its inception in 2000.

President Obama has said CEDAW is high on his priority list, but he has yet to ask the Senate to act. Israel was the first country to formally incorporate Resolution 1325 ino its national legal codes, but the country has not lived up to its commitment by ignoring the requirement for a National Action Plan to put the resolution into practice. The president’s visit is a great opportunity for both leaders to show leadership and courage.

Thirty Israeli women’s organizations, both Jewish and Arab, funded, in part by our host the US based National Council of Jewish Women are working to create a National Action Plan for consideration y the new Israeli government now in formation. A good word from Obama to Israeli leaders during his trip could boost chances for its adoption.

Both countries should move now to put muscle behind their rhetoric in support of women’s rights, by taking up these neglected tools. It’s not to late to help forge a possible breakthrough in the long-stalled hopes for a Mideast peace.

Jackie Jenkins-Scott is president of Wheelock College.
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