Dead end or new beginning: U.S. engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict arena is once again beset with violence. The parties have retrenched to recriminations and hardline positions, and once again the US faces the question of how to get things back “on track.”   The latest derailment of diplomacy has left an unclear road ahead.  Those in the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps have largely reached the conclusion that peace will not be possible under their current leaderships, and with a year left of the Obama administration, a question arises whether bold moves by the US to revive diplomacy will help. 

Beyond personalities is the issue of process.  The US-mediated bilateral negotiation approach is a well-worn path, yet amid the simmering violence, Israelis and Palestinians are further from peace today than they were when the Oslo process began.   Israeli and Palestinian societies alike are internally and bitterly divided. While the conventional wisdom long held that a two-state solution was supported by a majority of the Israeli and Palestinian publics, the margin of that majority has steadily shrunk.  The publics are moving on- whether through affirmative ideology or passive resignation. Additionally, a growing chorus of Israeli right-wing politicians-including those inside Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet- now reject the desirability of two states and the land-for-peace formula. 

Two-state Endgame as vital US Interest

Notwithstanding shrinking support for, or belief in, a two state end-game, neither side has articulated an alternate solution to this conflict that simultaneously addresses legitimate Palestinian and Israeli demands and aspirations, without which, it is difficult to conceive of reaching any sustainable peace. With stagnation, further violence is certain.

Therefore, it is in the US national security interest to prioritize the pursuit of a two state solution, because, and not in spite, of the broader regional disarray. The events unfolding in the Middle East over the past five years leave little doubt that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the cause of all political and social ills in the region—a trope long-exploited by autocratic rulers and radical groups.  However, the perpetuation of the status quo constrains the ability for Israel to maximize the benefit of strengthened regional diplomatic and security relations in a shared threat environment. The broader security benefits derived from such strengthening would be highly beneficial to US interests.   While a degree of regional cooperation between unlikely partners is already happening, the strategic (not to mention economic) benefit to all parties to be gained by moving such engagement into the open should not be underestimated. 

The most recent violence emphasizes another constant of this conflict: whenever it flares, the US is drawn in, consuming diplomatic energy and attention.  The past few weeks have seen Secretary Kerry in Amman meeting with President Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan, and in Berlin, meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, in an effort to defuse the current crisis through addressing its proximate cause:  The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict –a conflict over land- risks morphing into an intractable religious conflict that is seized upon by extremist actors beyond the geographic parameters of the territorial dispute.

Therefore, the US must reject the well-worn notion that it can’t want peace more than the parties themselves. It should reaffirm the two state goal as a vital national interest and pursue it vigorously and urgently.  But it is also imperative to change the way of playing the game.

Coordinated Multilateralism to Maximize Leverage

The US role as primary third party actor and guarantor is indispensable, but it is time to leverage the roles of other key actors who, in a coordinated fashion with the US, can wield the right set of sticks and carrots at both parties to affect change. It has been considered axiomatic that only the US can “deliver” Israel, in view of the US’s role as a staunch ally that can give Israel the confidence to take risks for peace.  This theory works optimally when paired with its corollary:  that such leverage also requires the US to wield disincentives.  To date, the US has focused much more on the former than on the latter, producing a situation in which behavior counter to the stated goals of a negotiated two-state solution is consequence-free. This is particularly the case when it comes to settlement activity: the US issues verbal condemnation only, despite a longtime insistence that settlements are “an obstacle to peace.” This does not go unnoticed by the Palestinian public and has contributed to a sense of despair that is part of the drive behind the current violence.

The US needs to find an appropriate balance by which it is willing to reinforce previously-articulated redlines with consequences, while providing Israel with the needed security assistance and diplomatic protection it requires in the face of frequent knee-jerk hostility in the international arena. This would signal seriousness, restore faith in the US’ and international community’s sense of purpose, and would require immediate follow-through in order to maintain credibility. One can look to the 1991 withholding of loan guarantees to Israel under President George H. W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, for an example of where such an approach was wielded effectively, addressing the obstacle to peace of the settlement enterprise, without prejudice to Israel’s security concerns.

More recently, the last round of negotiations led by Secretary Kerry offers a constructive example of how a coordinated role with EU partners can yield results. In 2013 the EU issued guidelines limiting the financial support for activities of Israeli entities in the settlements, giving cover for the Palestinians to enter the talks.  This was not, by all accounts, a move requested or endorsed by the Americans, but it was helpful to US diplomatic efforts, suggesting a model for a productive division of labor that could be replicated and scaled up. This approach is also relevant in relation to the Palestinian Authority, where the US and international community must use its influence to press for greater efforts on institution building and reform: projects key to the viability of a future Palestinian state, yet which have seen erosion in recent years.

Likewise, key Arab states have a role to play.  The US should continue to voice support for the Arab Peace Initiative (API), and actively engage relevant Arab countries on the possibility of a) reviving it as a basis for joint dialogue with Israel rather than as a take it or leave it proposition, and b) considering an incremental implementation strategy. Israel has legitimate concerns about the Arab world’s willingness to follow through on API commitments, given the weakness of many of the relevant countries.  Accordingly, an incremental mechanism by which Israel could reap gradual benefits in response to meaningful steps toward creating a Palestinian state could go a long way to building trust and confidence in the process.  The growing convergence of interests between Israel and certain Sunni Arab states may ease the way down such a path.

A Return to Interim Measures

Bringing the parties back to the table without success is not cost-free, and the US would be ill-advised to push the leaders into negotiations today.  Unfortunately, the parties and international stakeholders cannot afford to sit tight.  The status quo is far from static. The current environment ultimately breeds violence and allows irreversible facts on the ground to take hold. Therefore, the US, along with its international partners, should work with the parties to take steps that are commensurate with the long-term goal of a two state solution. These should include pushing implementation of existing agreements under the Oslo framework, creating mechanisms to ensure adherence by both sides. This goal was already articulated by the United Nations Special Coordinator in its report to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee in September 2015. The outlined approach can induce the parties to work cooperatively with each other, and see the tangible benefits of doing so. This is particularly crucial on the economic front, whereby ensuring compliance with the terms of the Paris Protocol that governs economic relations between the two sides could reap great payoff to the Palestinian economy.  Likewise, the US and its international partners should work with Israel to promote the significant easing of “Area C” planning and development restrictions for Palestinians.

The Palestinians have long been averse to an incremental approach, which they have construed as a way for the Israelis to kick the can down the road while realities on the ground shift, and the final outcome never materializes.  Meanwhile, Israel remains skeptical of Palestinian commitment to signing on to any end-of-claims agreement, and is concerned that any concessions will be pocketed by the Palestinians with no reciprocal assurances forthcoming.   This is why such an approach must be buttressed by a coordinated US and EU monitoring and accountability role and can only succeed if attached to a clear end game.

Articulate a Vision

While the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has taken center-stage in the recent events, and cynical actors have taken the opportunity to propagate incitement, the young  age of the Palestinian attackers, and the East Jerusalem epicenter of the violence paint a more complete picture of what is driving events:  the sense of despair among a generation that has seen no payoff from their parents’ commitment to the peace process; has no hope for their future; and is constantly aware of the stark distinction in their prospects and living conditions relative to those of their West Jerusalemite neighbors.  While this argues for improving the socioeconomic conditions of East Jerusalem neighborhoods, the situation has passed the point of responding to economic band aids alone.

The US must take the lead in articulating a clear end game.  There are a couple of paths to consider:  1) parameters put forth by President Obama that lay out a US view of the minimum requirements for the two state solution, and that will leave a legacy to be picked up by the next Administration; 2) parameters enshrined in a UN Security Council Resolution, and endorsed by the US, which would need to have a strong hand in the drafting to ensure such a resolution is balanced in its demands and expectations of each side. Public opinion is not static. An internationally agreed upon set of guidelines for how this conflict gets resolved would reenergize the two-state conversation among the Israeli and Palestinian publics, empower the peace camps on both sides, and exert constructive pressure on Netanyahu and Abbas to make bold decisions. 

Addressing Gaza and Palestinian Unity

Focus on the breakdown of negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu, frequently relegates Gaza to an afterthought.  However, in September 2015, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reported that Gaza may be uninhabitable by 2020 if current trends continue. The implications for further instability are enormous and could fully derail any prospects for a peace agreement.

While Israel and Egypt have both relaxed border restrictions over the past few months, the US should work with these two countries to do more, finding ways to maximize assistance to the Gazan population, while ensuring that respective security concerns are met.  Part of this puzzle is the issue of Palestinian fragmentation- an obstacle to negotiating peace.  Hamas’s authority in Gaza presents a challenge to the US’s ability to unreservedly embrace Palestinian unity, but the US and Israel must actively engage this challenge and longer-term set of considerations, finding the best way to square this circle while not empowering Hamas at the expense of Abbas.  

In the meantime, the US should lean on Abbas to take up the charge of security responsibility at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt.  The Palestinian Authority (PA) returning to this border with its Presidential Guard would greatly enhance donor trust and facilitate movement across the border with Egypt, easing Gaza’s dire economic situation.

To date, deep animosity between Fatah and Hamas has precluded the realization of this arrangement, which Abbas is reluctant to implement without Hamas ceding full presence or authority. However, meaningful efforts to address the Gaza humanitarian crisis could ultimately shore up much needed domestic legitimacy for Abbas who is largely seen by the Palestinians as having abandoned Gaza.

Leading the Way

President Obama has little more than a year left of his administration.  He should prioritize using his second term capital to forcefully invest in keeping the two state solution viable, and handing his predecessor something to work with.  Prime Minister Netanyahu will be in Washington the 2nd week of November.  By all expectations, he and President Obama will focus on getting their soured relationship back on a more solid footing so as to safeguard the US-Israel relationship that remains vital to both countries’ interests.  This is important.  But mending these fences should not preclude steps in the direction laid out above.  

To the contrary, there is an opportunity to reinforce the notion that a commitment to a two state solution is also a commitment to Israel’s long term security. American regional interests are tied up in ensuring Israel’s survival, and the creation of a Palestinian state. The current round of violence, grounded in desperation yet detached from an end goal that was once supported and assumed, marks a dangerous turning point for the conflict. Urgency dictates a new beginning and peace-seeking Israelis and Palestinians alike are desperate for leadership and vision. The stakes are too high, and for too many, for the US to walk away.  

This article was published as a part of an hbs North America series on US-Israel relations. To read more from this series, click here