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.

Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas
(photo credit: 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.
Political 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 strategy.
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 Israeli-Palestinian talks.
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 conflict.
An important mechanism to keep negotiations moving forward would be to adopt the principle that “what has been agreed upon shall be implemented.”
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 permanentstatus issues.
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 model.
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.The writer is the founding director of Rice University’s Baker Institute and the former United States ambassador to Israel and Syria.