In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are three actors whose cooperation is necessary to achieve a peaceful outcome: The Israelis, the Palestinians, and the moderate Arab states. And they each have a baseline goal for a successful outcome. The Israelis want security, the Palestinians want statehood, and the Arabs want stability. So when the United States seeks to move the ball forward, it naturally turns to those goals in order to leverage influence.
The U.S. has long had an unshakeable commitment to Israeli security and provides military assistance, cooperation, equipment and support in a way it does for no other nation. In return, the U.S. tries to encourage Israeli restraint when it feels threatened or under siege and cooperation toward a two-state solution.
The U.S. proclaims support for Palestinian statehood and self-determination at every opportunity, afford the Palestinian Authority and its leaders recognition at levels commensurate with statehood, and the U.S. provides significant economic, developmental and institution-building support. In return, the U.S. tries to encourage security cooperation against violence and terrorism and serious work to build a society with the institutions and laws necessary for an independent, democratic state to flourish.
The U.S. treats the moderate Arab states as important diplomatic partners, coordinate with them against regional threats to stability (Iran, extremist groups), and provide security and economic support that helps preserve the stability of their regimes. Less admirably, or more pragmatically, depending upon your perspective, the White House often ignores anti-democratic or human rights offenses that it would denounce elsewhere. In return, the U.S. tries to encourage them to help create conditions conducive to peace — asking them to make gestures toward Israel that nod toward the benefits of peace and normalization and to use their influence with (and financial support of) the Palestinians to keep them at the bargaining table.
Which brings us to today, and the dangerous convergence of three distinct but not disconnected circumstances that — certainly in the minds of each group’s political leaders — cut to the core of their regional hopes and make solution-oriented behavior seem impossible to them.
The Israelis are dealing with the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers, a horrific crime by any measure. In those circumstances, and from their perspective, there is only one way to respond to horrific crimes that threaten their security - by exacting a serious price. Restraint doesn’t feel like an option when your body politic is consumed by an emotionally-charged threat to individual security.
The Palestinians are in the midst of a political “reconciliation” between the two-state-supporting Fatah party and the still-terrorist-succoring Hamas. Security cooperation and institution building toward statehood doesn’t feel like an option when your body politic is consumed by the political paralysis that naturally accompanies the attempted merger of two very disparate political agendas.
The moderate Arabs fear nothing (besides perhaps Iran) so much as they fear the anger of the Arab “street.” With extremist ISIS rapidly grabbing territory and treasure in Iraq and Syria — both physical and emotional — the moderate Arab leadership doesn’t feel like their regimes enjoy anything remotely resembling stability. To the massive contrary.
So where does that leave the White House? The U.S. can’t effectively encourage Israeli restraint or negotiation when they feel under attack. The Administration can’t effectively encourage Palestinian political progress or negotiation when they are in the midst of their own political crisis. And the White House can’t effectively encourage helpful behavior from moderate Arabs when they are afraid for their own survival.
So if Israel feels under siege, the Palestinian peace faction feels neutralized, and the moderate Arabs feel too threatened to move — what happens next?
The Israelis only know one way to respond to violence against them. The Palestinians are consumed with internal politics and incapable of escaping that paralysis, certainly for the immediate future. And the moderate Arabs won’t dare to say a word that exposes their own regimes to the anger of so many of their citizens; in fact, they are going to do the opposite and try and reflect Arab anger for their own benefit.
At this point, talk of a “peace process” seems delusional. But the United States engages in Middle East peace negotiations all the time, even when it has no real belief in the prospects for success. That’s because the U.S. believes that engagement is less conducive to violence than non-engagement. At least when there’s a process, there’s some colorable hope the process will lead somewhere. When there isn’t a process, there’s no peaceful resolution on the horizon, so violence becomes the only option that some people can see.
Today, the conditions on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories are particularly dangerous and problematic. The main process-convenor (John Kerry) has spent countless hours working to advance negotiations, but the intransigence of the parties, and the resulting lack of movement, has diminished the weight attached to his visits to the region. But that doesn’t mean the Obama Administration should step away — it means that the Administration should probably flood the zone with bigger characters who can demonstrate continued commitment to an outcome that works for everybody (or, at least, for everybody who wants peace). Private conversations are important, and no doubt happening every day. But there’s no substitute for public engagement, especially when you’re trying to influence public opinion. Intervention from ex-presidents, Colin Powell types, or Obama himself would be major demonstrations of interest and attention that will at least signal to all the parties that the commitment to their ultimate goals hasn’t flagged.
This is, in the meantime, a tinder box. I hope nobody lights a match.
Jonathan Prince served as a Senior Advisor in the Clinton White House and in the Obama Administration as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State with responsibility for strategic communications and public diplomacy for Middle East Peace, and a
member of Special Envoy George J. Mitchell’s regular delegation. Follow him on twitter @jonathanmprince.
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