Diplomacy alone won’t achieve Middle East peace
By Michael Singh With Secretary Clinton just back from her first trip to the Middle East, attention inevitably turns to the future of the peace process. Doubtlessly mindful of this, President Obama has rightly pledged to spare no effort in the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. However, the form of this effort is just as critical as its magnitude. ...
By Michael Singh
By Michael Singh
With Secretary Clinton just back from her first trip to the Middle East, attention inevitably turns to the future of the peace process. Doubtlessly mindful of this, President Obama has rightly pledged to spare no effort in the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. However, the form of this effort is just as critical as its magnitude. Obama should not, in an attempt to correct a perceived deficiency of the Bush administration’s approach, substitute micromanagement of the parties’ bilateral negotiations for a genuine peace effort. Indeed, if Obama draws only one lesson from the recent Gaza conflict, it should be that a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot be made solely at the negotiating table.
Conventional wisdom holds that everyone knows what an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will look like: solutions to the so-called "core issues" — borders, refugees, and Jerusalem — have been largely worked out in past talks. If only the parties would negotiate in earnest and the United States would lend its full support, an agreement could be worked out quickly, or so the theory goes. However, this narrative doesn’t square with reality. The past years have witnessed Israeli and Palestinian leaders genuinely committed to a negotiated solution, and a high level of U.S. engagement — Condoleezza Rice visited the region more than any of her predecessors as secretary of state.
So what stands in the way of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Not the lack of clever ideas to resolve the "core issues," especially borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. The supply of such ideas far outstrips the demand. While the core issues will determine the structure of an eventual peace, the foundation for that peace depends on issues more fundamental than these, progress on which will restore domestic support to negotiators and confidence in the party across the table. And without a firm foundation, no structure can be trusted to stand very long.
Foremost among these issues is security, for both Israelis and Palestinians. Bitter experience in Gaza and southern Lebanon has shown Israelis that territorial withdrawals are poor guarantors of security. And there is no wall high enough to stop even the crudest rocket. Before Israelis will expose themselves to even greater risk by ceding control of the West Bank, cooperative arrangements will be required with both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and neighboring states to prevent groups such as Hamas, with help from Tehran, from building an ever-more-sophisticated arsenal with which to terrorize Israel.
These groups also terrorize Palestinians, who find themselves used as shields in war and beset by armed gangs even in times of calm. Freeing Palestinians from these woes requires a professional security force such as that currently being deployed by the PA with U.S. assistance. Success in this effort can restore order to Palestinian streets and give Israel the confidence it needs to curtail security operations and lift much-resented checkpoints in the West Bank.
At the same time, increased effort must be devoted to Palestinian institution-building. If a future Palestinian state is to survive past its independence day, a competent Palestinian entity must be ready to govern and economic activity must be sustainable. Accomplishing this will require cooperation from Israel, which must find a balance between its security requirements and Palestinian viability; the PA itself, whose failure to reform brought Hamas to power on cynical promises of transparency and accountability; and the international community, whose rhetorical fervor for the Palestinian cause has not been matched by zeal to assist the PA.
Finally, each side must credibly acknowledge the other’s right to a state of its own. The Arab world’s refusal to accept Israel’s existence is evident in textbooks, mass media, and mosque sermons across the region. These are rife with anti-Jewish sentiment and contribute to an atmosphere in which Israel is vilified and terrorism against its citizens is excused. Peace is portrayed as capitulation, and Hamas and its ilk are glorified, which redounds to their financial and political benefit. To counter this, Arab states must isolate extremists and throw their full support behind the PA, while demonstrating to Israel that they are ready to end the conflict.
The flip side of the recognition issue pertains to settlements. The expansion of settlements leads Palestinians to question the sincerity of Israel’s commitment to Palestinian statehood. While Israeli leaders have curtailed new settlement activity, they have exerted insufficient control over the process by which such activity is planned and announced. The confusion and resentment generated thereby do serious harm to Israel’s own interests and undermine their Palestinian negotiating partners.
Gaza was a dark reminder that there is far more to the peace process than peace negotiations. It is for this reason that the November 2007 Annapolis Conference not only launched a new round of bilateral talks, but also a multi-pronged process to support those talks by addressing these fundamental issues. It is to these issues, first and foremost, that Obama should direct the efforts of the United States and its allies. The outcome will determine whether the peace process is catalyzed or undone.
Michael Singh is a senior fellow and the managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was a senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @MichaelSinghDC
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