US Mediation Between Israel and Palestine: Arbitrator or Attorney?

The essentiality of US mediation in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is an unchallenged axiom in most Washington policy circles. US leadership has been central to negotiations in the past, and the US may continue to be the only actor that can bring both parties to the table and enforce concessions once they get there.

A negotiated peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians is in the strategic interest of the United States. Such an agreement would contribute to regional stabilization and resolve a major source of resentment of US policy across the Middle East. This resentment is not only fodder for terrorist recruiters, but it hinders, harrows, and constricts US regional policy. Yet, in spite of the efforts of the world’s sole superpower, each year sees Israeli occupation further entrenched, Israelis and Palestinians continuing to suffer, and the obstacles to peace growing more intractable. Given its power, regional relationships, and diplomatic clout, why has the US failed as a mediator? More importantly, is there any reason to expect success in the future?

Consecutive American presidents since Lyndon B. Johnson have conceived of the same basic parameters of a negotiated settlement to the conflict: Israel should only relinquish land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace (an adoption of UN Resolution 242); the 1967 armistice line, the “green line”, will be the negotiating basis for borders; and the status of East Jerusalem should be settled in negotiations. Thus, in holding these parameters, the US has sought both to arbitrate and to delineate the framework of negotiations. In the words of William Quandt, a veteran of the Camp David Accords: “The United States cannot advance the search for peace between Israel and the Arabs by simply playing the role of mailman; nor can it design a blueprint and impose it on reluctant parties.”

American efforts in the peace process have been ongoing for decades at varying intensities, with a relative lull during the George W. Bush administration. After the Second Palestinian Intifada, the 2003 “Roadmap to Peace” was adopted, outlining steps that both sides should take to lay the groundwork for negotiations. However, with escalating violence and mutual intransigence, neither side met the preconditions for the timeline of resolutions.

President Barack Obama’s efforts began with strong rhetoric in 2009, but they have since tapered off, as neither side would meet the other’s preconditions for talks. Despite recent US efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, tensions remain high and prospects for substantive peace talks seem more remote than ever. It remains unclear what role Obama will play in future negotiations. This role depends not only on American power and leverage, but also on the ability of the US to overcome obstacles to genuine mediation with both parties.

The US and Israel

The Israeli alliance with the US is rooted in deep historical and cultural ties, and remains an economically and strategically crucial relationship. Despite accusations that the Obama administration is abandoning Israel, the US Congress and the White House continue to furnish Israel with lavish financial, military, and diplomatic aid. Still, Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have had some public disagreements. These included Obama’s demand that Israel halts settlement expansion, and his public recognition that negotiations should be based on the 1967 armistice lines. Obama’s political opponents charge that his relationship with Netanyahu is damaged, as evidenced by the latter’s open support for Mitt Romney during the recent presidential contest.

It has been speculated that Obama has gained leverage over his Israeli counterpart through his unwavering support during the recent Gaza crisis. Moreover, that he could use that leverage to pressure Israel to reach a compromise with the Palestinians. However, both assertions are questionable.

Obama has loyally backed Israel in crises throughout his first term: against the Goldstone Report, a UN investigation into the Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2008; in response to an Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara and the killing of a US citizen by an Israeli commando; and through American efforts to block a Palestinian bid for UN observer status. Obama has also retreated from earlier demands of a settlement freeze and has campaigned on promises of continued support.

Netanyahu’s strategy of intransigence, coupled with political pressure through his own allies in Washington, is working. Israelis reelected him in January, 2013, albeit with less widespread support than anticipated for a rightwing coalition. Netanyahu has little impetus to alter policy or to acquiesce to Washington. Obama’s support in resolving the Gaza crisis is a continuation of his status quo, not a policy shift that will alter the fundamental political dynamic between the two leaders.

Genuine US mediation would, by necessity, increase demands on Israel. The US would be put in a position of pressuring Israel to give up some of what many Israeli voters believe is rightfully theirs, and asking Israel to make compromises counter to its security strategy. Regional unrest, escalating violence in Gaza, and exchanges of bluster with Iran have fortified an Israeli ethic of constant existential danger. Israel will be hard pressed to make concessions in the name of an elusive peace that it perceives to be against its geostrategic interests. As Netanyahu enters another term in office in the wake of Hamas’ missile attacks, immediate security concerns will take precedent over a lasting compromise, thereby limiting Obama’s ability to induce Israeli concessions.

Israel and the Palestinians

The US also faces obstacles as a mediator in its relationship with the Palestinians. Past US efforts at mediation have, at best, yielded transitory improvements, and, at worst, further entrenched a system of occupation and disenfranchisement. President Obama’s lone veto of a UN draft resolution condemning Israeli settlements (countering his own 2009 speech to the UN), and his response to Israeli actions in Gaza in both 2009 and 2012, detract from the United States’ ability to act as an impartial arbitrator.

Palestinians are acutely aware that the bombs falling on Gaza, the planes dropping them, and the “Iron Dome” defense system protecting Israeli citizens from Hamas rockets, are all funded by the US. While Palestine seeks UN recognition in a declaration of statehood, the US holds that statehood can only be conferred in bilateral negotiations — negotiations that have a history of failing the Palestinian people. This stance ostracizes the US from the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and from the American ideological mantra of freedom and self-determination, while leaving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to seek greater diplomatic and financial support from elsewhere.

The US is not only complicating its relationship with the PA, but is also refusing to negotiate directly with Hamas. Hamas is designated as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the US State Department, but it won popular support in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election, and continues to rule Gaza and receive wide support from Palestinian voters. As it degrades the legitimacy of the PA, its preferred negotiating partner, by blocking Abbas in the UN and stifling Fatah’s reconciliation with Hamas, Washington is weakening and distancing itself from the very Palestinian factions that possess the political legitimacy to compromise on behalf of Palestine.

US Mediation in a Changing Environment

The upheaval in the Middle East is an upheaval for American security interests and assets in the region. The “Arab Spring” leaves the US with less tractable regional leaders, and a newfound political voice will make Arab societies’ demands for solidarity with Palestinians harder for their governments to ignore. But could the “Arab Spring” also be an opportunity for the US to leverage regional actors to influence the Palestinian leadership?

Though Palestinian rights may not be the foremost concern of Arab revolutionaries, calls for solidarity with Palestinians enjoy a rare universality among many Arab groups. This could push Arab states towards more aggressive postures with Israel, and therefore with the US. But many of the most influential Arab states rely too heavily on the US to risk jeopardizing their relationship, and thus will need an alternative policy option.

The US could capitalize on this urgency. It could exert its still significant leverage, primarily through economic and military aid, on regional leaders like the newly elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, beleaguered King Abdullah of Jordan, and the regionally ambitious Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Each one of these leaders is intrinsically bound to the US, and has a vested interest and demonstrated hand in Palestine.

However, US leadership in engendering Palestinian compromise would need to be matched with a fundamental shift in American domestic politics. Unequivocal support for Israel is a political imperative in the US. This policy agenda is advanced by powerful political interests such as AIPAC — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — and buttressed by both Christian Evangelical and Jewish-Zionist supporters.

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department advisor on Israeli-Palestinian issues, writes, “Today you cannot be successful in American politics and not be good on Israel. And AIPAC plays a key role in making that happen." Being “good” on Israel has traditionally meant alignment with many of Israel’s most hawkish policies, but this may be changing.

J Street, an alternative pro-Israel lobby, points to recent elections of congressional Democrats who have more moderate stances on Israel as evidence of a paradigm shift among Israel supporters in the US, and the growing view that supporting Israel does not entail a refusal to question or criticize its policies. If this evolution is apparent among Democrats, the opposite seems prevalent among many Republicans. The Republican platform and intra-party debates, reaffirm commitments to leave no “daylight” between Israel and the US; effectively advocating that the US defer to a foreign government in formulating its Middle East policy.

Rather than leaving no daylight, a genuine mediator must maintain distance between itself and both parties. It must use all of its tools to convince both sides that compromise will be better than the status quo. The US’ “special relationship” with Israel puts it in the unique position to guarantee Israeli security, enough for it to change policies in favor of peace. The United States and Israel share a strategic and security interest in ending the Palestinian crisis, but immediate political and security concerns make a compromise untenable in Israel.

Though politically difficult, President Obama could change this. He could tie support for Israel, and American efforts against Iran, to Israeli concessions in the name of peace. This would shift the Israeli strategic calculus from investment in the status quo to a posture amenable to compromise, backed by US security guarantees. In this way, US pressure would not violate Israel’s right to sovereign self-determination, but rather align US policy with American ideals and interests.

Indeed, this will be a difficult policy to sell in the US and it represents a huge political risk. For President Obama, leading a country consumed by partisan rancor over fiscal policy and gun violence, and engrossed in near-constant election cycles, such US leadership in negotiations may have to wait.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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