TEL AVIV – The collapse of yet another attempt by the United States to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement should do more than provoke finger-pointing. It should spur a fundamental reconsideration of a paradigm of peacemaking – direct bilateral negotiations, under US guidance – that lost its relevance long ago.
While the US remains an indispensable global actor, it is no longer willing to use coercive diplomacy in its quest to build a new order. But it is not just a matter of willingness; the US has lost its ability to intimidate other countries, even allies and clients like Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
In the Middle East alone, the US has overstretched its capabilities in two controversial wars; repeatedly failed to broker a peace between Israel and Palestine; estranged key regional powers; and performed disappointingly on issues like Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s civil war. All of this has diminished its capacity to shape the region’s future.
The problem is not limited to the Middle East. Despite its professed strategic pivot toward Asia, US President Barack Obama’s administration has done little to address China’s increasingly assertive efforts to stake its territorial claims in the South and East China Seas or North Korea’s affronts to the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. Add to that America’s weak response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and it is no wonder that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have dismissed its peace overtures.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, in his bid for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, operated as if conflict resolution could be achieved through non-coercive solutions, deriving from the good will of the relevant parties. According to this plainly naive approach, the negotiation process operates according to its own embedded logic, independent of considerations of power, coercion, and leverage.
But treating force and diplomacy as distinct phases of foreign policy gives the negotiating parties the sense that American power lacks purpose and resolve. Diplomatic ripening sometimes requires the mediator to be a manipulator and an arm-twister.
Indeed, America’s only successful attempts at peace diplomacy in the Middle East involved a masterly combination of power, manipulation, and pressure. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used it to lead Israel toward groundbreaking interim settlements with Egypt and Syria following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. President Jimmy Carter used it to conclude the 1978 Camp David Accords, establishing diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel. And Secretary of State James Baker used it to overcome the recalcitrance of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir during the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.
If the US cannot provide this today, it must relinquish its monopoly on international conflict resolution. It is time for the US to recognize that it cannot resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, defuse the Iranian nuclear dispute, change North Korea’s behavior, or stop the Syrian civil war on its own.
Over the last two decades, the world grew accustomed to US-led international coalitions for war in the Middle East. America should now try to form a different kind of coalition – one aimed at achieving peace. Such an alliance would entail a larger role for the other three members of the so-called “Middle East Quartet” – the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations – and key Arab countries.
Within this new peace paradigm, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would become amenable to a truly international solution. If Iran’s nuclear program demands negotiations with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, and North Korea’s requires the so-called “six-party talks,” why should the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be left exclusively to the US?
As if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s depth and duration were not enough to merit an international solution, there is also the issue of Palestine’s mistrust of the US. For Palestinians, the US – a staunch ally of Israel whose leaders have strong domestic political incentives not to challenge it – cannot act as an honest broker in negotiations.
Under a truly international paradigm, the principles underlying a peace deal – two states along the 1967 border (with territorial swaps to accommodate Israel’s settlement blocs), two capitals in Jerusalem, an agreed solution to the refugee problem, and robust security arrangements – could be enshrined in a Security Council resolution. After establishing the terms of a fair deal, the international alliance – under US leadership – could devise an implementation strategy.
Such an international approach would also require a broader peace process, aimed at achieving a regional settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. This is critical, because the future Palestinian state could not offer Israel much security. Even now, Palestine is a relatively minor security challenge for Israel; the more formidable threats, which have compelled Israel to build up its military considerably, come from the Arab states that surround it.
The promise of a regional settlement that offers Israel the needed security guarantee – not to mention a considerable boost to its international standing – would make the painful concessions, including compromises on borders and Jerusalem, which are critical to the creation of a Palestinian state, more digestible for Israeli leaders. The initiators of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative understood this; perhaps now the US will come to appreciate it as well.