YOGI BERRA once advised, sagaciously, that when you arrive at a fork in the road, take it. For the United States, the policy choice ahead is binary: Do we pull the plug on the life-support system of the peace process that we constructed in 1991, let this phase of Arab-Israeli interaction die a peaceful death, and try to develop a different paradigm for resolving the conflict? Or do we persist, maintaining the same goal of a two-state solution and essentially the same process of arriving at peace through bilateral negotiations? I don’t see merit in a third option of waiting it out, living with the status quo, allowing the conflict to “ripen” and choosing a different time for negotiations. There is no such thing as a status quo in conflict situations: things either improve or get worse. This conflict—if left to develop on its own and subject to the machinations of those on both sides who are intent upon disrupting any resolution effort—will get much worse, much faster than anyone can anticipate.
To suggest that the United States activate an ambitious peace strategy now, however, runs against the grain of what I have come to call the prevailing “Washington consensus.” At every meeting, working group or seminar in Washington at which the peace process is the topic, the discussion produces a chorus of the following sentiments: “It is too hard.” “Let it ripen until the parties are hurting more.” “The leaders are too weak or too ideologically opposed to peace.” “The United States cannot want peace more than the parties themselves.” “It is really up to the parties to get serious about peace.” “What if we fail?”
These are serious questions and observations. Yes, it is hard, but America can do hard diplomacy and succeed, as it has in the past. This conflict needs no more ripening; it is already overripe for resolution, and the idea of a mutually hurting stalemate—the centerpiece of the ripeness theory—has already applied to this conflict for years. Yes, leadership in the region is a problem, and even brilliant U.S. diplomacy will not offer a complete substitute; however, U.S. diplomatic strength can get the political juices in the region flowing, producing debates within the two societies as to whether leadership changes are required in order to move forward. Yes, we cannot want peace more than the parties do, but that is not the point: peace in the region is a U.S. national-security interest, and we should pursue that interest vigorously. As to the question of possible failure—well, that is not a serious question. All policies run the risk of failure, but no policy or strategy should be avoided simply because it may fail. A strong and determined U.S. policy will give our diplomats material to work with even if the parties do not immediately agree to what we are trying to accomplish.
One of the most serious questions posed is why Israel should take risks during this period of uncertainty in the Arab world. When its treaties with both Egypt and Jordan are coming under pressure from angry Arab publics, shouldn’t Israel hunker down and weather the storm? Israel faces serious security threats today as it has throughout its history. In addition to the potentially existential threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, Israel faces a very well-armed and hostile pair of nonstate actors—Hezbollah and Hamas (and other militant Islamist bedfellows in Gaza).
Despite these real concerns, it is hard to see how Israel’s security situation improves by passively awaiting the results of political change elsewhere. To be sure, Israel would need to approach negotiations today with extra care, given the enhanced risks associated with territorial withdrawals in an age of advanced rocketry, but Israel could gain potential political advantage by neutralizing, or at least dealing seriously with, the core issues at the heart of its long-running conflict with the Arabs. Indeed, this would be a moment when the United States and others would be more sympathetic to Israel’s security requirements in the context of peace negotiations, and thus a moment when Israel could gain some advantage by negotiating now, not postponing talks.
Even if the “Washington consensus” of naysayers and Israel’s reluctance can be overcome or circumvented, two key questions remain: Should the United States wait to activate peace diplomacy until after the 2012 election? And why should the president divert attention from pressing issues at home to focus attention on the Arab-Israeli issue?
Indeed, President Obama’s speech to the UN could be read as the political manifesto for his reelection campaign: focusing on the problems Israel faces and the support his administration has given to Israel’s vital security requirements. Clearly, this will sit well with the pro-Israel community in the United States that has raised questions about Obama’s commitment to Israel, and it has already lowered the temperature in the sometimes heated relationship that Obama has had with Netanyahu. However, as noted above, the Middle East does not take a break from conflict just because we are having an election. By postponing action now, the administration may find itself immersed in a real crisis, perhaps a violent crisis, even during the election campaign itself. Recall that Hamas’s escalation of attacks against Israel and Israel’s war against Hamas took place at the end of 2008, just after our last presidential election.
As to the president’s priorities, Obama himself, early in his tenure, elevated the issue of Arab-Israeli peace to near the top of his agenda. He has already invested political capital and presidential time on the issue. Ignoring it now, when the conflict-resolution process is in crisis, will undercut the very importance that the president previously attributed to it. Why should attacks from Republican opponents and a segment of the pro-Israel community that will not vote for him anyway deter President Obama from exercising leadership on this issue at a time of crisis in the negotiations? Indeed, a robust peace strategy now—constructed to be fair and reasonable—will allow the president to justify having devoted time and energy to this issue during his first term.
The only serious option, therefore, for a United States that sees itself as a leading world power is to act like a world power and lead. In the peace process, this would mean unveiling a comprehensive strategy now—right now, when everyone else is drifting further and further apart. Such a strategy should encompass at least four elements:
First, we should develop a set of parameters on all the key issues which would then become the starting point and terms of reference for negotiations. These parameters should be developed on the basis of where the two sides left off negotiations in 2008. In laying them out, Washington would explain that we intend to play an active role in helping to build bridges and overcome gaps between the parties. The negotiations would be bilateral, but we would accompany the talks closely so as to keep edging them forward.
Is it possible for the United States to develop parameters that will not drive the parties further apart? Since we know where the parties left off in 2008, we know how far the leaders then were prepared to go. These starting points would be harder to accept for Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was not in office then, than for President Abbas, who was. The U.S. intention would not be to create a political crisis in Israel, but Washington should be aware that such a crisis could erupt over the parameters. To the extent that they are crafted artfully and fairly, the United States needs to be prepared to defend these parameters in a sustained manner, even if a political crisis intervenes in Israel.
Second, Washington should encourage more ambitious state-building efforts by the Palestinians. The PA should be expected to do more to create the institutions of statehood. Under Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the PA has undertaken some reforms, especially in the security area. But more can be done. In the context of a serious negotiating environment, Palestinians can be asked to take more significant steps against those who commit acts of violence against Israel and those who operate outside the purview of the national authority.
Next, the United States should reiterate the need for the two sides to meet the commitments they agreed to in the road map, especially within the context of a comprehensive strategy for peacemaking. America needs to be ready to monitor the performance of the parties, hold them accountable for the failure to fulfill their commitments and exact consequences for road-map violations.Image: Pullquote: The Arab-Israeli conflict has become a chronic, enduring and open wound, susceptible to dangerous infection that generates fever throughout the region.Essay Types: Essay