For the sake of reaching a cease-fire in Gaza, and for long-term efforts toward a two-state solution, the US must encourage more regional diplomatic participation.
US attempts for a cease-fire in Gaza have been a disaster. Despite working endlessly to incorporate the efforts of regional and European actors, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s hopes of bringing an end to the weeks-long escalation between Israel and Hamas have mercilessly been dashed.
Although it has fallen short, the US has chosen the right course. A strategy of encouraging greater participation from these self-appointed Middle Eastern mediators and others represents the surest way the US can expect to broker a cease-fire. Moreover, this option can satisfy the large swath of Americans weary of the toll that a protracted involvement in the Middle East has taken but who worry about the prospect of a declining US influence around the world.
Dr. Galia Press-Barnathan at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem once argued in an academic article that by allowing greater intra-regional European security cooperation after the Cold War, the US was able to mitigate the costs of maintaining stability there while still preserving its hegemonic position. This theory of “security regionalization,” as she calls it, may be extrapolated to a US option in the Middle East of “diplomacy regionalization,” whereby the US would encourage regional third party states to engage more actively in negotiations with the conflicting parties – Hamas, Fatah, and, at least indirectly, Israel.
If this power-sharing scheme the US has embarked upon is so wise, why has it so dismally failed thus far? Mainly, rather than exhibiting regional cooperation, the cease-fire talks – and inter-Arab relations in general – have been characterized by competition.
This competition has manifested itself in a clash between a Saudi- and Israeli- backed Egyptian cease-fire initiative, on the one side, and Turkish and Qatari efforts to vouch for Hamas on the other. Making matters worse for itself, in the search to find a more palpable offer for Hamas after it rejected the former’s terms, the US appears to have swung a full 180 degrees, adopting almost entirely those of the latter.
Although Israel and Hamas were bound to be dissatisfied with a proposal from the other track while a more favorable option from their own was on the table, Kerry’s lopsided proposals have stirred feelings of betrayal and mistrust from all sides.
To this end, both Israeli and moderate Palestinian leaders alike have rebuked his latest proposal, culminating in what may be described as a Kerry- bashing royale. That offer, released to the parties on July 26 after a meeting in Paris between Western leaders and Turkey and Qatar, was soundly rejected by Israel’s cabinet for omitting any mention of Israeli security demands. Tellingly, it was also categorically dismissed by the Palestinian Authority, which ridiculed the US for having discarded the Egyptian initiative in favor of a “friends of Hamas” outlook.
For the US to rebound from this series of diplomatic blunders, it must make a more concerted effort to juggle the demands of all parties, rather than oscillating between them. To do this, it should devise an international mechanism combining regional cooperation within the divergent camps and the various conflict party-mediator relationships that allow, for example, the US to circumvent having to speak with Hamas directly.
Though a daunting task, only a year ago Kerry pulled off another admirable feat by convincing the Arab League to amend the Arab Peace Initiative to allow for negotiation on minor land swaps. Such endeavors for compromise are helpful, and align with the spirit of diplomacy regionalization.
The US must also see to it that Abbas and the PA be placed at the center of all Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, including over Gaza. In fact, although arguably one of the conflicting parties itself in the Gaza escalation, the PA is the only party substantially in communication with both Israel and Hamas, and for that reason it should be exploited as a primary mediating source. The surest way for the US to bolster the PA’s voice over that of Hamas is to countenance the Fatah-Hamas “government of national consensus,” which has established Abbas as the sole, legitimate leader of the Palestinian people.
If the US were to leverage this international mechanism adeptly for the cease-fire talks, its success would lay the groundwork for a permanent avenue on which to conduct final-status negotiations. Greater regional diplomatic involvement under this mechanism could prevent another fissure within the Palestinian ranks, would act as a confidence-building measure between Israel and the Arab parties, and would provide international (US or EU) monitoring for the implementation of (and against breaches to) agreements.
In short, a Middle Eastern diplomacy regionalization is the US’s most secure, comprehensive and cost-effective path out of the current mess, and onto the road to a two-state solution.
The author is a visiting fellow at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies in Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter at: @BrianNReeves.