Why US engagement in Israeli-Palestinian peace is needed
Strong and sustained US engagement with the president’s full backing would be essential to advance a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace.
US President Obama with Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas, September 1, 2010. Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed
President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel, Palestine and Jordan provides an
opportunity for the administration to reassess the role of the United States on
the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The question for US policy-makers is whether the
US should develop a more proactive approach on this issue at a time of historic
change in the Middle East.
Prevailing wisdom offers bleak prospects for
renewed negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
uncertainty, unilateral actions and a general lack of trust have immobilized
policy-makers in both Israel and Palestine. A key factor is whether or not there
is the requisite political will, beyond mere rhetoric, to move forward on peace
negotiations in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington. Although both Israelis and
Palestinians recognize that the status quo is untenable, the power imbalance
between the parties remains too large for negotiation and agreement without
substantial third-party intervention.
In this respect, strong and
sustained US engagement with the president’s full backing would be essential to
advance a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace, but only through diplomacy
that also reshapes the environment on the ground. The goal would be the twostate
solution – considered by most observers as the preferred resolution to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict – with a democratic Jewish state and an independent
and sovereign Palestinian state living in peace and security next to one
another. The alternatives are continuing stalemate, occupation and conflict, or
a onestate solution where the Jewish population becomes the minority as a result
of current demographic trends.
What diplomatic framework to initiate and
sustain effective negotiations would need to be put in place if the president
and his national security team decide to get engaged? The main components of a
proposed negotiating framework could include the following: 1) Announce a US
political horizon for the negotiations and general terms of reference on key
issues such as territory, borders, Israeli settlements, Jerusalem, refugees,
security arrangements and water.
2) Negotiate and sign proposed Memoranda
of Understandings with the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to
address their respective considerations and concerns.
3) Call upon the
parties to start direct negotiations in fast and graduated tracks with the
obligation to implement and build on areas of agreement and continue until a
final settlement is reached. A supportive international framework and
backstopping initiatives would be essential components of the
The terms of reference for negotiations should be broad enough
to allow buy-in from both parties and regional stakeholders, while at the same
time sufficiently defined to ensure breakthroughs and avoid a deadlock,
especially in the graduated negotiating track. They should also be linked to the
Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. The purpose of the fast-track negotiations would
be to rebuild trust between the parties, which is integral to reviving
Strengthening the Palestinian state-building
effort by expanding the political, administrative, security and economic control
of the Palestinian Authority over most of the West Bank territory is an
achievable step in this direction, permitting substantial headway in the short
term and paving the way for solving the outstanding core issues of the
An important mechanism to keep negotiations moving forward
would be to adopt the principle that “what has been agreed upon shall be
This approach would be based on understandings between the
parties, and with guarantees from the international community, that all measures
implemented shall be without prejudice to remaining issues and subject to the
terms of reference and rules of engagement of the negotiating process. The
essence of this principle is to transform the economic, social and security
environment on the ground while working concurrently to achieve breakthroughs on
Another important component complementing the US
role and buttressing negotiations is to maximize regional and international
support by building on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 with a new
international framework expanded from the Quartet (the United Nations, United
States, European Union and Russia). Bilateral negotiations on permanent status
could be supplemented by specific issues of common interest and concern through
multilateral negotiations. In tandem with the fast and graduated negotiation
tracks, the parties could form a US-facilitated international group to address
the linkages between the various aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict and
Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In particular, these negotiations could cover,
inter alia, the status and mechanisms for resolution of the refugee issue;
security cooperation and a multinational force presence; and regional economic
and infrastructure cooperation. The 1991 Madrid Conference should serve as a
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will have the
opportunity to assess the situation firsthand on their Middle East trip.
Hopefully, they will come back to Washington with the impression and the
determination that the parties can be brought to the negotiating table with
strong US and international support leading to a two-state solution.
writer is the founding director of Rice University’s Baker Institute and the
former United States ambassador to Israel and Syria.