It has barely been noticed, but there has been a change for the better in the Bush administration’s thinking -- or at least talking -- about the Middle East. For the first time in six years, Washington is putting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations near the top of its agenda. For the first time, it wants those negotiations to address the fundamental political issues that divide the two sides and has begun to evoke the need to lay out what the administration calls a political horizon. And for the first time, it seems willing to take a risk. There was even a whiff of Bill Clinton in this most un-Clintonesque of administrations when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested that dealing with provisional issues would be just as difficult as dealing with permanent ones, and hardly as rewarding.
This news is long in the waiting, but it’s good news nonetheless. Movement on the peace process is important on its own merits, but -- more important from a U.S. perspective -- there are critical benefits to America’s national security as well. The United States faces greater challenges today from the Middle East than perhaps at any other time in its history, yet it purposefully deprives itself of a major asset in that struggle when it walks away from Arab-Israeli diplomacy. A fair and energetic U.S. role would help restore America’s battered credibility abroad, bolster pragmatic forces throughout the region, deprive violent groups of an easy recruiting tool, and help achieve broader objectives in the Middle East. Not everything in the region would be cured as a result of a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but virtually nothing can be cured without it.
During the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the three of us worked on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for our respective peace teams -- Israeli, American, and Palestinian. Much has changed since those days, little of it for the better. Still, many lessons remain -- from the failures no less than from successes -- of that previous experience. Whether the Bush administration carries through on its self-proclaimed objectives (and there is some reason to doubt it will) or whether the task of reinvigorating peace efforts falls to the next president, we herewith offer 10 recommendations regarding what the United States ought to do -- and what it ought to avoid.
1. It’s the endgame, stupid.
The time for interim agreements -- agreements that, as in the 1990s, defined incremental steps both parties should take -- is long past. Because they satisfy neither side’s essential needs, and because both sides know that the final compromises still await, partial agreements tend to diminish what they seek to augment, if what they seek to augment is mutual confidence. The temptation- -- always present, seldom resisted -- is to create new facts on the ground that are prejudicial to a permanent-status deal. Though it won’t be easy, America’s primary focus should be on resolving the conflict through a comprehensive settlement.
When the Oslo Accords were signed, Israelis and Palestinians imagined it would take five years of gradual steps before they could resolve all outstanding issues. At last count, they were marking the seventh anniversary of that long-missed deadline. The delay is frustrating, perpetuates hardship, adds to obstacles on the ground, and fuels regional tensions. Yet it does even more than that: Over time, it is killing faith among both peoples in the possibility of a viable two-state solution. The loss of hope, in turn, risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Israelis and the Palestinians, given their weak leaderships, are unlikely to reach an agreement on their own. That means that the United States must put forward, at the right time, more specific ideas on a permanent settlement, describing the desired trade-offs and possible compromises. This should not be rushed, should not be proposed without sufficient international support, and should not be done out of desperation that all else has failed. But a permanent settlement should remain the objective, and all other actions should be subordinated to this aim. Insofar as success may take time, specific U.S. parameters in the interim would make the possibility of a two-state solution more palpable and real, and could help transform domestic dynamics in both Israel and Palestine. It could also help restore faith in the United States -- no mean or trivial feat given how low its reputation has fallen.
2. Get the content right.
If the United States is to play a positive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it needs to be perceived as fair by all sides. That is not necessarily a matter of "neutrality" or of "even-handedness;" too many American politicians have suffered for too long from the mere utterance of those words. Nor is it necessarily a matter of ceasing to coordinate closely with Israel, or of no longer sharing our plans with Jerusalem in advance. But enjoying a special relationship with Israel and being an effective and fair broker are not incompatible; in fact, to the extent that peace with its Arab neighbors is a vital interest to Israel, they ought to be viewed as going hand in hand. At the same time, Washington does nobody a favor by putting forward ideas that are sure to offend even the most open-minded Palestinian.
There is regrettable precedent to go by. At the 2000 Camp David summit, the United States assessed proposals based on how far Israel had moved from its initial positions rather than on how far it still would have to go. Four years later, in a letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Bush administration took a stance on territorial and refugee issues that displayed virtually no sensitivity to Palestinian concerns -- cherry-picking from among the various compromises only those that the Palestinians would have to make (no return of refugees to Israel, for instance, and recognition of the fact that some settlements would be annexed by Israel) and announcing them in the wake of discussions with Israel from which Palestinians were deliberately excluded. The net result was to further erode U.S. credibility and status as an honest broker, jeopardize efforts to mobilize pragmatic Palestinians, and make more difficult eventual Palestinian acceptance of compromises that moderates will have wanted to sell as a fair deal and militants will have wanted to denounce as an imposed one.
This was all the more unfortunate because, since Camp David, the broad outlines of a settlement have been demystified, whether in the Clinton parameters of December 2000 or in the more detailed Geneva Initiative. The outlines of an agreement are now basically known, and polls among both Israelis and Palestinians consistently show that these outlines enjoy majority support from both peoples: two states, based on the lines of June 4, 1967, with minor, reciprocal, and negotiated modifications; Jerusalem as the home to two capitals, divided along demographic lines; control by each side of its respective holy places, with unimpeded access to each community’s sites; a solution to the refugee problem that addresses the importance and legitimacy-conferring role of the exact language used, but whose practical implication will be that refugees can return to the territory of the Palestinian state, not Israel, while providing meaningful financial compensation and resettlement assistance; and security mechanisms that can address Israeli concerns, while respecting Palestinian sovereignty.
3. Set your objectives and strategy up front -- and stick to them.
Prior to the Camp David summit of 2000, the Clinton team had settled on an approach, and appeared determined to pursue it, until objections -- sometimes Israeli, sometimes Palestinian, often both -- derailed it. This gave rise to a bumper-style diplomacy in which the United States allowed itself to run into hurdles rather than jump over them. Being flexible is one thing; being malleable is another -- and being so does a favor neither to us, nor to the parties, nor to the peace process. Expect Israeli and Palestinian leaders to protest on matters of substance and process -- they have to, and they will. But that should not be a showstopper.
The United States needs to decide for itself -- either now or during the next administration, and on the basis of its national-security interests -- what it is seeking to accomplish; acknowledge the domestic and international political capital it will need to expend to reach that goal; anticipate healthy criticism; commit to a process; and then, mindful of remaining the master of its own policy, tenaciously pursue it.
4. Don’t fly solo.
The United States may be the principal outside player, but it is not the only one. This was made plain in 2000, when Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat was asked to agree to compromises on the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem’s holy sites, which he could not do alone and for which he lacked the necessary Arab and Muslim backing. In the interim, the need for involvement by Arab countries has become, if anything, greater given the fragmentation of the Palestinian political scene and the relative weakness of the Palestinian leadership. It has also grown given Israel’s increased lack of trust in the Palestinians and concomitant desire for normalized relations with all Arab states as a quid pro quo for territorial compromise.
A key task for the U.S. administration should be to coordinate closely and early with key Arab countries. This has been made easier by the Arab world’s willingness to engage more proactively due to regional developments, as evidenced by the Arab peace initiative -- a commitment by all Arab states to normalize relations with Israel once a comprehensive regional peace settlement is achieved.
In particular, should the United States decide to present final status parameters, it ought to make plain that it will do so only if Arab countries commit in advance to publicly defend and promote them. This will not be easy: Six years of desultory U.S. diplomacy -- coupled with four years of a tragic Iraqi adventure -- has wiped out much of America’s credibility with its Arab allies. A sustained effort to convince the Arabs that the United States is serious and that it will carry through on its pledges will be required to obtain the necessary reciprocal commitments.
Along with the Arab world, Europeans and others need to be involved, and not as a mere afterthought. In the past, the United States has tended to appear hat-in-hand, expecting last-minute financial support once political deals were made. That’s unlikely to take it very far. U.S. allies must feel they have a stake in the success of any peace initiative if they are to do their share -- whether in terms of international endorsement of the agreement; monetary assistance to finance Palestine’s reconstruction and long-term development (or to create a fund for Palestinian refugees); a multinational military or police presence to monitor compliance with an eventual agreement and deter violations; or the establishment of special relations between the European Union on the one hand and Israel and Palestine on the other.
Palestinian acceptance of any agreement will be greatly facilitated if it has been endorsed and legitimized by the United Nations through a Security Council resolution, the Arab League, and by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, just as Israel’s acceptance will be made easier if its public sees that an accord will trigger relations with the broader Arab and Muslim worlds. Ultimately, the aim should be to make the benefits of an agreement as tangible, real, and attractive as possible.
5. Don’t get spooked by domestic Israeli politics.
The one constant of recent Israeli politics has been its inconstancy. What began in the mid-1990s as perpetual instability has since bordered on systemic crisis. The breakdown began when a change in Israel’s electoral rules coincided with deepening socioeconomic trends of marginalization and a new wave of immigration. The result has been a fragmented political mapping, the strengthening of political parties catering to narrow sectarian or ethnic constituencies (Russian, Sephardic-religious, anticlerical, Arab), the decline of the two dominant movements (Likud and Labor), and an inability to form stable governing blocs.
Over the years, U.S. officials have become experts in, fashioned themselves micromanagers of, and ended up paralyzed by the famously complicated Israeli political system. How often have Israeli officials invoked the fragility of the coalition du jour to argue against a given U.S. initiative, warning it would simultaneously torpedo the government and usher in a more right-wing successor? And how often have U.S. officials taken the bait?
It is in the nature of Israel’s democracy to be vibrant, unpredictable, and utterly unmanageable. That is sometimes good (as when an independent commission holds the government accountable for its mismanagement of the Lebanon war), and sometimes less so (as when all government action is seemingly halted as an entire nation awaits the cabinet’s fate). The United States cannot afford to shape its actions on the basis of the latest poll or coalition maneuver. Instead, and without being oblivious to political realities, Washington should remind itself that a credible peace plan enjoying strong American backing can count on majority Israeli public support. This, rather than the latest round of cabinet musical chairs, is what should guide U.S. policy-makers.
6. Leave Palestinian politics to the Palestinians.
Just as it has suffered from excessive knowledge of Israeli politics, the United States has been hamstrung by insufficient knowledge of Palestinian politics. To Americans, they are unfamiliar, both complex and fluid, with ever-shifting alliances and loyalties. Sources of power and legitimacy, as well as the modalities of political behavior, are seldom straightforward, a function of overlapping geographical, generational, historical, and ideological considerations. And this is at the best of times, without taking into account Fatah’s more recent fragmentation, Hamas’ ascent, and the assertion of numerous militias, tribes, and families.
There often will be temptation to play Palestinian politics, especially when parts of the leadership appear nonresponsive to U.S. pressures or, worse, hostile to U.S. interests. And there rarely will be a shortage of Palestinian leaders offering themselves up as potential allies in the hope that ties to the United States will strengthen their hand in the domestic competition. Yet every time the United States has sought to meddle, the meddling has backfired, with results ranging from the ineffective to the outright counterproductive. Lack of understanding is part of the reason, but part only. Added to that is the reality that America’s embrace can do more harm than good to those it seeks to benefit. Attempts to isolate and bypass Arafat, to mention but one glaring example, not only failed to reduce his standing; they also contributed to Fatah’s fragmentation and to the loss of U.S. credibility and leverage.
Rather than waste its resources seeking to manage a political game that is beyond both its understanding and control, the United States should focus on promoting a more successful peace process. Over the long run, there is no better or surer way to influence the Palestinian political landscape.
7. Don’t view the domestic Jewish community through a monolithic prism.
The domestic political risks of the Arab-Israeli peace process have been called the third rail of American politics, but that term is extraordinarily reductive and misleading, simultaneously flattering and disserving the Jewish community: There is flattery (at least of a kind) in ascribing to that community the sort of omnipotence that often is assumed, and there is disservice in suggesting that all American Jews are of one mind (the most intransigent mind) when it comes to the Middle East.
True, the most vocal and organized groups tend to advocate the most rigid policies, and they tend to enjoy disproportionate political influence, most notably in Congress. This, for good reason, inspires caution within the executive branch, which is loath to expend political capital and provoke an unwanted political distraction for the sake of an uncertain gain. Yet poll after poll suggests that the vast majority of American Jews support Israel, oppose settlements, favor territorial compromise, and prefer diplomatic solutions to military ones (and American engagement to disengagement) in order to further these goals. The key is for the administration to have a clear strategic vision and to articulate it in terms of defending U.S. national interests without compromising Israel’s. If it does so, American Jewish support is certain to follow.
8. Dial Damascus.
Although the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it cannot be resolved in a vacuum. Within the limits of its reach -- and its reach into Palestine has only grown as the Palestinian political system has become increasingly permeable -- Syria has proved time and again its nuisance and spoiling capacity. If Damascus feels marginalized and snubbed, it will do what it can to torpedo progress between the Israelis and the Palestinians; that likely will entail promoting violence from among a plethora of militant groups and engaging in unhelpful diplomacy in the Arab diplomatic arena.
Conversely, U.S. engagement with Syria -- and support for a resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations -- should give Damascus reason to curb hostile activities by its allies, many of whom are heavily dependent on Syrian support. In this context, the Bush administration’s decision to discourage Israel from dealing with Syria is both unprecedented (never before has the United States stood in the way of an Arab country’s call for unconditional peace talks) and unwise. For Israel to achieve comprehensive normalization with all Arab states, it will need to achieve comprehensive peace with all its Arab neighbors. That, inevitably, will have to include Syria.
9. Pay strategic attention to events on the ground.
Managing everyday issues and immediate Israeli and Palestinian concerns on the ground should not be a substitute for pursuing a comprehensive agreement. Checkpoints, closures, the existence of armed Palestinian militias -- all are a function of the existing political context, and none can be genuinely solved without transforming that context through a permanent-status arrangement. At the same time, these issues have a way of forcing themselves on to the agenda, undermining the credibility of any political process while reducing the willingness or ability of actors to move.
In short, developments on the ground should neither be ignored nor invoked to stymie negotiations. Instead, strategic U.S. intervention on the most damaging day-to-day issues should complement the pursuit of a permanent political settlement.
10. Make this peace a presidential priority.
Dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict is never cost-free -- not domestically, given the sensitivities and emotions involved, and not internationally, given the closeness of America’s alliance with Israel and the complexity of America’s relationship with the Arab world. For that reason, a decision must be made to invest serious political capital, and that decision can only be made and conveyed by the president.
Presidential engagement does not necessarily mean daily presidential involvement. Some have argued that President Clinton invested himself too much in the Arab-Israeli negotiations, that his exhaustive knowledge of and enthusiasm for the minutest details of the talks ultimately devalued him when -- as at Camp David -- the stakes became higher and his leverage more necessary. That may or may not be the case. What cannot be doubted is that unless and until the American president is convinced that tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict is central to U.S. interests, that America’s standing in the region and capacity to curb the growth of radicalism depend in large part on American efforts to resolve it, and that our efforts will be worth the unavoidable political costs, nothing will happen. That is to say, nothing good, nothing lasting, and nothing safe.