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Reassess America’s Mideast Policy

After three years of violence, a seemingly unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears resistant to any negotiated solution. From the failure at Camp David in 2000 to the debacle at Taba, from the now-forgotten Mitchell report to the abortive missions of CIA Director George Tenet and General Anthony Zinni, and most recently the wildly off-course “road map,” there is ample evidence that conflict resolution is not an option at present.

Unending conflict places a new set of demands on the United States, responsibilities radically different from the post-Cold War approach that emphasized bilateral negotiations and an end of conflict. Washington needs a containment strategy aimed at preventing large-scale human catastrophe, preserving the two-state option, protecting the larger fabric of the peace process and safeguarding an ally, Israel, that will increasingly come under siege at home and abroad. It is a strategy the Bush administration, now dazed and confused by resurgent Israeli-Palestinian violence, does not seem to appreciate.

How do we know the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, for the time being, irresolvable? First, the bilateral option in which the parties negotiate a solution is discredited. Did Oslo fail because of a lack of political will, power asymmetries, rejectionist terrorism, flawed agreements, the absence of a strong monitoring and enforcement mechanism — or perhaps a combination of the above? Whatever the reason, the conflict is not a scientific or divinely inspired problem. It is a political dispute requiring a political solution, although the parties are currently incapable of reaching one.

Second, developments on the ground continue to imperil a two-state solution, pushing the parties further away from the only settlement that ensures a future for Israel that is both Jewish and democratic. These include a Palestinian leadership complicit in terrorism and unwilling to endorse a specific vision for peace, combined with Israeli settlement activity and the construction of a fence aimed as much at preventing a viable Palestinian state as at defending Israelis. Combined with shifting demographics, these developments are quickly foreclosing the two-state option.

Third, the possibility that external parties could impose a settlement — as were the cases in Kosovo, East Timor and Iraq — is now more remote than ever. Arab states lack the wherewithal, Europe has no common foreign and security policy and the United States would not contemplate such an action against Israel’s expressed wishes. Unless the Israeli-Palestinian arena witnesses a catastrophic human tragedy, or the parties miraculously agree on terms for inviting outside forces, intervention can be ruled out.

The conflict may not be ripe for resolution, but Washington still has a decisive role to play. Greater attention needs to be given to preventing large-scale human tragedies, whether Israeli or Palestinian. The United States should continue to work closely with Israel on anti-terrorist efforts, especially to prevent a mega-terrorist attack. But Washington must also be willing to oppose Israeli actions that are punitive, rather than preventive.

Furthermore, human development indicators in the West Bank and Gaza are dropping to dangerous levels. Vastly more humanitarian aid will be required in the years to come, and the United States will also need to prod Israel on issues like water, health care and the delivery of aid. A restored occupation brings with it human welfare obligations as well.

Washington must also act quickly to preserve the two-state option. This means continuing to pressure the Palestinian leadership to dismantle armed renegades and finally endorse a clear proposal for a permanent settlement, and also using carrots and sticks — not just rhetoric — to convince Israel to stop expanding settlements and refrain from extending the security fence deep into Palestinian territory. A policy of containment should not endorse attempts by Israel to consolidate a permanent hold on the territories.

Washington also needs to endorse a formula for a permanent settlement, even if one cannot be realized at present, that is far more explicit than the road map. Otherwise, extremists on both sides will continue to promote policies that undermine a viable solution. Without clear-cut steps, the Bush administration will soon discover its favored policy is no longer feasible.

Unending Israeli-Palestinian violence will also imperil Israel’s peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt. In order to prevent the larger fabric of the peace process from unraveling, the role of foreign aid will likely grow, and the United States will increasingly face new and uncomfortable trade-offs in managing these and other relationships with Arab states. Most noticeably, the United States will continue to find itself alone in diplomatic arenas, protecting an ally increasingly perceived as a pariah by much of the international community.

Unlike the 1970s and 1980s, there is no Cold War to temper anti-Israeli sentiments among other American partners. Discussing and planning for these potential new costs and constraints is not to endorse a realignment or revision of this bedrock American relationship. Policy planning is about drawing lessons and projecting forward.

As unattractive as these forecasts appear, they attempt to provide a sober picture of the environment and present the choices American policymakers will increasingly face. It is time to consider whether our immediate objective — ending violence, renewing negotiations and implementing the road map — may be seriously misplaced.

Wish as we may for a negotiated settlement, there are limits to what the United States can accomplish under circumstances that preclude a return to meaningful negotiations, or even the intervention of outside forces. Present attempts at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are only a waste of time. That said, the United States needs a containment strategy that minimizes the fall-out of continued Israeli-Palestinian strife and preserves the option of a negotiated two-state settlement down the line, once both peoples turn a corner and realize how much they have lost.

Scott Lasensky is a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

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