The peace process is dead, for now

The Israeli Conflict: Has the US Failed? The panel assembled Wednesday at the Middle East Council’s Capitol Hill Conference leaned towards answering in the affirmative. Omar Kader, MEPC chairman, moderated a panel comprising former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, Foundation for Middle East Peace President Matthew Duss, Brookings Fellow Natan Sachs, and Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund and The Palestine Center. Thomas Mattair, MEPC Executive Director was the discussant in a conversation addressing the US role – past and future – in the Middle East peace process.

Munayyer argued that the US has abjectly failed to resolve the conflict. If peace was the US objective in Gaza this summer, then it has failed. But Munayyer suggests that if US primary objectives were to preserve the free-flow of resources in the region while continuing to secure the survival of Israel, then US policy has in fact succeeded. He suggested that peace between Israel and Palestine is not a priority for the US government.

This position was too far for much of the rest of the panel. Daniel Kurtzer countered that regardless of whether US policy has been carried out intelligently or successfully, the peace process is of great importance to the national interest. Duss noted that there are great costs to US interests as the conflict runs on and on. Citizens of other nations – particularly those in the Middle East – have their opinions of the US and its policies shaped through this emotive issue. The conflict can make it much harder for leaders with sizable populations sympathizing with Palestine to work productively with US officials. Ongoing injustices – whether perceived or real – foment mistrust towards the US because of its support for the Israeli government and its inability to deliver on calls for peace. Groups like al-Qaeda draw recruits to fight against the US by playing on anger felt at its perceived role in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Beyond the obvious humanitarian and ethical reasons for peace, it is also of utmost importance to US policy.

So has the US failed? So far, it seems clear it has. Much of the onus for building peace is on the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, but there was also a feeling that success – and failure – is greatly influenced by US policy.

The US has failed the peace process, in Munayyer’s view, by allowing Israel to preserve its status quo, continuing to build settlements in the territories and reneging on its promises. The US has failed to use its leverage over Israel to comply with international law – instead using its leverage internationally to allow Israel to never have to acquiesce to the law. US attempts to discourage Palestine from using the preexisting international framework to address grievances has left the only option for resolution through the US – which he termed “Israel’s lawyer.” The US bias towards Israel makes it hard for Palestinians to gain anything from the peace process: for successful negotiations, both sides must gain more politically than they stand to lose.

Sachs and Duss agreed with this assessment. For the process to succeed, both actors must take difficult steps in order to move towards a lasting accord. Duss sees the US as having the power to help Israel take those difficult steps towards building a lasting peace. To do this US support must be absolute – but while providing support, the resolve to ensure those difficult steps are actually carried through must also be there. The presence of US support without the will to enforce policies that will lead to peace has led to a belief in some quarters in Israel that the current status quo is sustainable. But that will not lead to a lasting peace.

Kurtzer stressed that defining the goals and parameters of negotiations will be key. He feels recent US administrations have failed to decide on a strategy before initiating negotiations. There has also been a degree of naïvety. For example, he acknowledges ongoing settlements are a problem but points out that simply demanding that the Israeli Prime Minister freeze them will not work. If Netanyahu acquiesces, he will pay a political price in the Knesset. To achieve results on this demand – and others – the political payoff must offset the price to the leaders. Indeed – a sustainable process must include gains for both sides that outweigh the challenges they face.

The US tendency to settle for short-term fixes was also criticized. The last decade is littered with ceasefire agreements, but Kurtzer questions whether any further progress is made once the ceasefires are implemented. If only the proximate causes of violence are fixed, and not the root causes, then we will be fated to see further violence in the future. A commitment to more than just rebuilding must be made in the wake of the cessation of violence.

Equally important to Kurtzer is the importance of holding the parties accountable to their agreements and promises. If there are no consequences for bad behavior during negotiations, then violations will occur. Important as keeping both sides at the table is the legitimacy of the peace process, which is severely harmed by duplicity.

There have undoubtedly been failings in the US attempts to bring peace to Israel and Palestine, even if less egregious than the failures of the Palestinian and Israeli governments. But Sachs believes that now is not moment to consider who is at fault in the Gaza and beyond. As anger on both sides grows and the prevailing view in political circles in Israel moves further towards accepting the current status quo, now is the time to learn from previous failings, and to try again – before mistrust and hatred make any resolution impossible.

Here is the video of the event:

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