Pursuing Peace Amid Pessimism


By Daniel Levy

Published December 18, 2008, issue of December 26, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

If the emerging Washington consensus is to be believed, then here is the Middle East peace conundrum waiting to greet the new Obama administration: Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more than ever a strategic priority for the United States, but it also seems more difficult to achieve now, perhaps even unattainable in the foreseeable future.

The transition of power always produces a proliferation of policy papers, reports and recommendations. This season virtually all converge around some variation of the following message: President Bush’s seven-year neglect of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking eviscerated the regional standing of the United States, and this unresolved conflict fuels anti-Americanism, weakens allies, emboldens foes and is a recruitment tool for extremists.

The trouble is that a deep skepticism prevails as to what can be done given the divisions and political dysfunction displayed on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides and the failure of the Annapolis effort. Serious and well-intentioned people in America and Israel are arguing that the best the incoming administration can do on the Israeli-Palestinian front is focus on conflict management, postpone pushing for a comprehensive resolution and go for an Israeli-Syrian deal instead.

But it would be a profound mistake to put on the back burner efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough. Without addressing the Palestinian issue, it is extremely unlikely that the region can be re-stabilized, that American credibility can be revived or that Israel’s future can be secured. Nor is working to achieve a Palestinian-Israeli deal inconsistent with the goal of reaching an accord with Syria; regional issues are increasingly interconnected and a comprehensive approach (including American-Iranian diplomacy) makes most sense.

The challenge, then, is how to make an Israeli-Palestinian deal possible in the near term. In tackling this issue, it is essential to resist the temptation to lapse into familiar and failed approaches.

Focusing efforts on improving the Palestinian economy or security capacity, gradually building trust and confidence, while receiving updates on and encouraging the parties’ bilateral negotiations — all of this sounds reasonable and laudable. It certainly creates lots of diplomatic activity, announcements, visits and conferences. However, as we have learned from experience, this approach is not enough to yield meaningful and sustainable results. Condoleezza Rice, as secretary of state, visited Israel an astonishing 22 times (compared with eight visits to China and India combined) with precious little to show for it.

We live in a transparent world. It can do more harm than good when an American administration declares the Israeli-Palestinian issue to be a priority — and invests energy, effort and visibility — but the result on the ground is more insecurity, settlements and closures. When the United States appears incapable of delivering, friends and foes alike take notice. There is no such thing as an “A” for effort.

Israel, for its part, urgently needs to achieve permanent and recognized borders, reach a two-state solution and end the madness of ongoing settlements in the West Bank. A process without progress does not advance Israel’s interests.

So, is there a more promising alternative that better addresses American and Israeli needs (and the unconscionable predicament of the Palestinians) that has a realistic prospect of success? I think there is, but it requires bold, ambitious and new thinking, especially about the “when,” “who” and “how” of advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

First, the “when.” Delay, postponement and gradualism have ill-served the cause of peace. The conditions for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict do need to be created — but that can and should be a short-term project, not a perpetual pursuit.

As for the “who,” of course a resolution requires a threshold of Palestinian and Israeli capacity, but the idea that the sides need to do all the heavy-lifting and have hyper-charged peacemaking and implementation capacities is both unrealistic and holds back progress. Key and necessary ingredients for delivering peace and security can be substituted by the United States, the Quartet, Arab states, the European Union, NATO and others.

This is not to say that Israelis and Palestinians should be relegated to the roles of mere onlookers — sufficient local buy-in is essential. Israelis should be encouraged to acknowledge and address the stark choices and options that they face (occupation vs. democracy) and to build a consensus around the peace option. Palestinians need internal reconciliation and to build an inclusive national movement that can legitimately make national decisions and come to terms with Israel in the context of a dignified peace.

And finally there is the “how,” which really follows from the “who.” Israeli-Palestinian peace needs to be embedded in a new regional effort. That requires a comprehensive approach incorporating Syria and articulating a detailed plan for implementing the Arab peace initiative. Ultimately, a new regional security architecture should also be developed.

Closing the details of an Israeli-Palestinian deal cannot be left to the parties themselves — the emotional baggage weighs too heavily. When it comes to the minor modifications to the 1967 border and land swaps, special arrangements for Jerusalem’s holy sites and achieving recognition and compensation for Palestinian refugees absent relocation to Israel, there should be American proposals backed by the Quartet and Arab states. For both sides, closure is more easily reached by saying “yes” to a combination of the United States, Arab states and the international community than to each other. These external actors are also better placed to guarantee the implementation and finality of any deal — the end of claims being of particular importance to Israel.

Likewise, post-occupation security in a new state of Palestine should be internationally guaranteed by multinational (perhaps NATO) forces — at least for a period of time. This avoids creating the sort of power vacuum that followed Israel’s clumsy unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and gets beyond unrealistic attempts to incubate fully functional Palestinian security forces under the watch of both the Israeli army and a dispersed and increasingly violent settler population.

This, of course, is an ambitious menu. But it does suggest a direction for an administration committed to peace and to resolving the conflict, unwilling to cede this goal to the skeptics and open to new thinking.

Daniel Levy is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the Century Foundation. He previously served as an adviser in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.