After a drawn-out and divisive campaign, the American people will finally go to the polls on Tuesday and elect a new president. A new leadership presents an opportunity for new thinking and a chance to redefine relationships, including with Israel, a strategic ally in a volatile region.
The United States and Israel share the same values and interests, including embracing peace for its own sake. As a new administration prepares to assume office in January, here are five ways to lay the groundwork to make peace possible between Israelis and Palestinians.
1) Rethink America’s role in the process
When the late Israeli prime minister and president, Shimon Peres, was asked whether he saw a light at the end of the tunnel of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Peres answered that he could see the light, but the problem is that there is no tunnel.
Israel wants peace. No Israeli needs to be convinced that life would be better free from the persistent shadow of terrorism and war. Plus, the majority of Israelis believe that the Palestinians should have a state and the freedom and dignity that come with self-determination. There is agreement on the solution; the question is how do we get from here to there — how do we build the “tunnel.”
Every American president since Harry Truman has aspired to solve the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. Administrations have endeavored to pave the way through summits, road maps and peace plans, all to no avail. After decades of unsuccessful attempts, maybe it’s time to consider whether it’s really America’s job to solve the conflict — or whether it’s America’s job to create the right conditions for Israelis and Palestinians to resolve the conflict themselves.
2) Give Israel credit for sacrifices made — and security lost
During the Oslo Peace Process, Israel offered the Palestinians a state in all of Gaza, some 96% of the West Bank, with compensating border adjustments elsewhere, and with East Jerusalem as their capital. Yasser Arafat refused the offer.
Too often, Israel is not given enough credit for the significant sacrifices it has made in pursuit of peace. In the aftermath of Oslo, waves of Palestinian suicide bombers targeted buses, cafés and markets across Israel, murdering more than 1,000 Israelis.
Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 led to Hezbollah amassing over 100,000 sophisticated missiles capable of striking any Israeli city. Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 led to Hamas building a terror stronghold from which it has launched thousands of rockets and built tunnels to infiltrate and attack Israel.
It is little wonder that the Israeli people are weary of international efforts to drive peace through territorial concessions. More than anything else, Israelis are animated by security concerns. Only the United States can assuage those concerns and rebuild the confidence of the Israeli people. It can do so through confidence-building steps, like ending Israel’s isolation in international forums like the United Nations, blocking Iran’s support for its terrorist proxies, and bolstering deterrents to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
3) Stop letting Palestinians off the hook so easily
It’s no secret that from time to time, there have been differences of opinion between Israeli and American leaders. But in recent years, public censure of Israeli policies has been delivered at the highest levels of government and using particularly strident language.
At the same time, you’d be hard-pressed to find criticisms of the Palestinian leadership’s cronyism, corruption, anti-Israel incitement and implicit or explicit support for terrorism. These are not insignificant obstacles to resolving the conflict and realizing the establishment of a Palestinian state.
While it’s true that good friends and allies should be honest with one another, holding one party to account while giving the other a free pass will not advance the cause of peace. On the contrary, one-sided pressure emboldens the Palestinians to dig in their heels and reject making the concessions that are necessary to achieve peace.
4) Tackle the divisions between Palestinians first
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a three-way tug of war. Neither Hamas nor Fatah can rightly claim to speak for the Palestinian people as a whole. Hamas is entrenched in the Gaza Strip, while Fatah is clinging to power in the West Bank. Between these two territories there are two discrete governments, two security apparatuses, two economies and two very different cultures.
Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank may share the aspiration for a Palestinian state, but they have very different visions for that state. Hamas makes no secret of its commitment to destroying the Jewish state. Before tackling the issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians, a plan is needed to tackle the sizeable divisions between Palestinians.
5) Support regional cooperation projects with Israel
In his September 2016 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke about the partnerships that Israel has forged with nations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Countries throughout the world see opportunities to benefit from Israeli expertise in industries such as cyber, agriculture, healthcare and water. Many Middle Eastern states see Israel as an indispensable ally in the fight against radicalism, and some are even working with Israel to address domestic concerns.
Earlier this year, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian researchers presented a plan to build solar facilities over hundreds of square kilometers in the Jordanian desert that would supply electricity to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In exchange, Israel would provide its neighbors with water through the planned Red Sea–Dead Sea Canal. Lending American support to these sorts of regional cooperation projects may not be the tunnel Shimon Peres had in mind, but it may just open the channels for peace.
Aviva Klompas is the senior director of strategic Israel engagement at Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. Previously, she served as the director of speechwriting for Israel’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York City. Follow her on Twitter, @AvivaKlompas