by Michael Lame, posted on April 22, 2011
“I know that the President will be speaking in greater detail about America’s policy in the Middle East and North Africa in the coming weeks.” So said Secretary of State Clinton earlier this month to the U.S.-Islamic World Forum. She went on to reaffirm America’s commitment to “a negotiated two-state solution” and to reiterate the indispensable party theory so beloved of American diplomats:
“And while it is a truism that only the parties themselves can make the hard choices necessary for peace, there is no substitute for continued active American leadership. And the President and I are committed to that.”
The appropriate role of American leadership in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is worth re-thinking. In the coming weeks, when President Obama speaks to the world about the Middle East, what can he say, beyond peace platitudes expressed in soaring rhetoric, that could really make a difference? What can the U.S. government do that would be genuinely useful in helping to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?
First of all, the administration could publicly communicate to the Palestinians in no uncertain terms 1) that it opposes Palestine’s efforts to become a U.N. member prior to reaching an agreement on borders with Israel, and 2) that it will veto any membership resolution which comes before the Security Council absent such an agreement. As Susan Rice, America’s ambassador to the U.N., told the Security Council this week,
“Negotiations between the parties remain the only path to a solution that resolves all issues and establishes a sovereign state of Palestine alongside a secure state of Israel as a key part of a comprehensive peace among Israel and all of its neighbors.” [Emphasis added.]
Secondly, administration efforts to get the parties back to the negotiation table in order to reach a grand bargain should be shelved for the time being.
George Mitchell should be allowed to retire, with the thanks of the president and the nation for his energetic though ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of Middle East peace.
An agreement on final status issues arrived at through bilateral negotiations isn’t going to happen any time soon unless Netanyahu and Abbas suddenly and uncharacteristically get serious about cutting a deal. There is scant evidence that a negotiated peace agreement is high on either one’s priority list. Both like to posture as if they are anxious to return to negotiations, just as soon as the other side meets certain criteria which they know full well the other side will not agree to. (Abbas wants a complete cessation of Israeli settlement activity beyond the green line and Netanyahu wants Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.)
Thirdly, it’s time for the administration to look for individually important issues that it can successfully address with the Israelis, the Palestinians, or both. That we can’t accomplish everything right now should not stop us from trying to accomplish something. And doing nothing would only feed into the negative direction in which the conflict is now headed.
Why should the U.S. President and his staff, the Secretary of State and her staff, the National Security Council, and various other federal agencies continue to invest so much time and effort in attempts to resolve a conflict that many have argued is not currently “ripe” for a solution? The reason is that, politically speaking, Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans are all trapped in a lose-lose-lose downward spiral.
Israel’s global standing takes hit after hit for its treatment of Palestinians. What passes in Israel for the best diplomatic news in months is Richard Goldstone changing his mind.
The West Bank’s economic strides forward and the PA’s governmental maturation are not matched by domestic political reforms or by diplomatic progress at reconciling with Hamas or reaching a peace agreement with Israel. The economic development or stagnation of the West Bank and Gaza remain under Israel’s control. Although the “Arab spring” has not yet reached the Palestinians, if it does, it is unclear whether the object of Palestinian demonstrations will be Israel, the PA, or Hamas. None of them has legitimacy in the eyes of many Palestinians.
People who care about Israelis and/or Palestinians must be concerned about the two peoples’ uncertain future and about the continuing deterioration of the relationship between the two communities. The worse it gets, the more likely it becomes that there will be further rounds of lethal violence.
The downward trajectory for the U.S. in regards to Israelis and Palestinians is due to the vast discrepancy between the world’s expectations and America’s performance. During the last several administrations, the United States has promised much and delivered little regarding “the Holy Land”, a matter of great concern to key constituencies at home and key allies abroad.
Although American influence on Israel and on the Palestinian Authority has its limits, no other outside player – not the UN, the EU, the Arab League, or the Quartet – has a relationship with both sides anywhere near as strong or as consequential as America’s. It may not be indispensable, but the U.S. has the power to do great good or great harm to both parties. Apart from the strategic benefits that could accrue to the United States by playing a central role in the resolution of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American credibility is at stake. For all these reasons, the United States should continue to look for ways to resolve the conflict in whole or in part.
All parties have failed
Currently we are faced with a situation of failure by all parties. The Netanyahu government, which has been in office for over two years now, has failed to offer any compelling vision of coexistence or concrete steps towards a solution. The Abbas government has likewise failed to move towards a negotiated peace with the Netanyahu government. Abbas and Netanyahu have only met a handful of times, in contrast to Abbas and Olmert, who held more than thirty sessions together.
The leaders of Israel and Palestine should insist on meeting each other every week, whether they are addressing final status issues or not. The number of friction points, large and small, as well as the number of opportunities for improving relations and improving lives, ought to be sufficient to warrant regular, frequent, problem-solving sessions at the highest levels of the two governments. Shame on both leaders for their fecklessness.
The Obama administration has also been a miserable failure in its Middle East policy. As Yossi Alpher, a keen observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years, wrote earlier this week:
“US President Barack Obama has made nothing but mistakes in the Israel-Arab context since taking office. A policy of “engagement” and gentle persuasion doesn’t work in Damascus, Jerusalem or Ramallah. Peace envoy George Mitchell’s fabled patience is not the right tactic. You don’t give presidential “vision” speeches in Cairo and Ankara without giving one in Jerusalem. The settlement freeze demand had no chance of succeeding…”
Given this track record of all-around failure, who or what could break the logjam?
Breaking the Logjam
An Israeli-Palestinian deal on even a single issue of importance could make a huge difference. Arguments are always raised, by one side or the other, against more interim agreements or against agreements on anything less than everything. Especially for those who hope to arrange trade-offs between different issues, an attempt to resolve a single issue removes a source of bargaining leverage for addressing other issues. For example, some hope to trade Israeli concessions on Jerusalem in exchange for Palestinian concessions on the right of return.
This trade-off notion is based on a deep misunderstanding of the parties to the conflict. There is no monolithic Palestinian community which stands in opposition to a monolithic Israeli community. Instead, there are multiple interest groups on each side, in competition with one another for the priority of their issues.
For many Palestinians living in Lebanon, in conditions of statelessness and severe economic restrictions, the right of return is profoundly important, in practice as well as in principle. It is of far less concern to those West Bankers who were never refugees.
Jerusalem is of great symbolic significance to millions of Palestinians and Israelis, but whether and how to divide the city are issues of far more immediate concern to the Jews and Arabs who live in Jerusalem than to Palestinians in Gaza or to Israelis in Haifa and Tel Aviv.
The Palestinians in Lebanon will not be helped by trading away their concerns to benefit the Palestinians of Jerusalem. Each problem requires its own solution.
What issues, if any, can be addressed individually, without waiting for a comprehensive end-of-conflict agreement? Even if the solution to a single issue or sub-issue cannot be agreed to between the parties, perhaps unilateral action by one party can change the trajectory of the relationship between the parties in a mutually beneficial way. We can argue whether Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza was positive or negative in its long-term impact on the conflict, but it certainly altered the political landscape.
I invite readers to consider which issues, friction points, injustices, or counter-productive behaviors could be addressed unilaterally by the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Americans or others. Alternatively, on which individual issue might the parties reach agreement, even if an all-encompassing settlement of outstanding issues is much further off?
In my next article, I will suggest areas in which Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians might look to generate positive movement towards resolving discrete issues.
Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.