M.J. Rosenberg
Israel Policy Forum (Opinion)
February 8, 2008 - 7:48pm

The latest news from the region is that once again the Israelis are reducing the supply of electricity to Gaza, in response to increased Hamas attacks in Israel. The cutbacks come despite the fact that the policy of punishing the general population has been repeatedly tried and failed, and despite a strong warning from the Bush administration. 

Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said “We understand Israel’s right to defend itself, but we do not think that action should be taken that would infringe upon or worsen the humanitarian situation for the civilian population in Gaza.” Human Rights Watch said that the fuel and expected electricity cuts “amount to collective punishment which is a violation of international law.” 

Clearly the next President will have to deal with the worsening Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this point, we can only guess who the next President will be, although the number of possibilities has narrowed considerably over the past month. No matter who it is, the next President should draw on the experiences of the last several Presidents who have worked to produce an end to the conflict.

True, President Bush has stated his intention to make significant progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues by the time he leaves office, but it is safe to assume that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be over in 11 months. One can hope that the process will have advanced enough so that the 44th President can hit the ground running, rather than start at the beginning.

That task has been made considerably easier by the United States Institute of Peace, a U.S. government think tank, which has just published Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East. The report is the work of a study group led by Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer and USIP Senior Associate Scott Lasensky with Professors William Quandt (University of Virginia), Steven Spiegel (UCLA, one of IPF’s National Scholars), and Shibley Telhami (University of Maryland).

The USIP report is based on interviews with policy insiders in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. They were asked what works and what doesn’t in Middle East diplomacy and came up with ten lessons for the next set of U.S. Middle East negotiators. None of these lessons are new but the USIP team weaves them into a serious policy document that will prove invaluable to future administrations.

The 10 lessons:

Number 1 is the simple recognition that perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict damages America’s “ability to build alliances for other critical challenges facing the region, such as the situations in Iran and Iraq. It also fuels instability and violent conflict in neighboring arenas, such as Lebanon.”

This is rather obvious but is nevertheless rejected by those who fear that recognition of the damage the conflict poses to America would ultimately lead to the United States’ leaning on Israel to end the occupation.

Number 2 is that “U.S. policy must never be defined anywhere but in Washington. Consultations with the parties must take place and policy revisions based on those consultations are inevitable, but our policy must be seen as our own.”

This recommendation is a reference to the 2000 Camp David Summit where the United States took its cues from the Barak government, undermining our credibility with the Palestinians and our ability to produce an agreement. It also refers to the experience of the last seven years when U.S. actions on Israel/Palestine were pre-cleared by Jerusalem.

Number 3 is that the United States “must not only exploit openings but also actively encourage, seek out, and create opportunities for peacemaking.” 

This reflects the view that the Bush administration made no particular effort to exploit opportunities for diplomacy during its first seven years in office.

Number 4 is that “the peace process has moved beyond incrementalism and must aim for endgame solutions.”

The report states that “building a web of regional support is critical not only for insulating the process from rejectionist forces (e.g., Iran and its allies) but as a building block for pursuing U.S. interests in the Gulf and across the region.” The report faults the Bush administration for twice “failing to respond when Arab states indicated a fundamental change in policy in 2002 and 2007 with the Saudi-backed Arab peace initiative.”

Number 5 is that “commitments made by the parties and agreements entered into must be respected and implemented. The United States must ensure compliance through monitoring, setting standards of accountability, reporting violations fairly to the parties, and exacting consequences when commitments are broken or agreements not implemented.”

This is a reference to the oft-promised settlement freeze and dismantlement of illegal outposts which seem never to happen. It also refers to America’s reliance on Israel to determine whether Palestinians are sticking to their pledges of non-violence rather than using our own monitoring mechanisms  (under President Clinton, the CIA did the monitoring and Palestinian suicide bombing ceased).

Number 6 is that “the direct intervention of the President is vital, but Presidential assets are finite and should be used selectively and carefully. Too direct a role runs the risk of devaluing the power of the office. Too modest a role runs the other risk of failing to capitalize on diplomatic opening. . . . The direct involvement of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, all of whom helped lead important negotiations and conclude path-breaking Arab-Israeli agreements, is instructive in its careful calibration of purpose, process, timing, and the selective use of presidential assets.” 

In other words, utilize direct Presidential involvement only when Presidential intervention is almost guaranteed to produce the desired effect. The rest of the time trusted envoys should be utilized.

Number 7 is to “build a diverse and experienced negotiating team steeped in regional and functional expertise; encourage open debate and collaboration within the government. A dysfunctional policy process should not be tolerated. U.S. policymakers repeatedly stressed to the study group six elements of organizational success: clear lines of authority; a disciplined, diverse, and experienced team; debate; deliberation; information sharing; and proper policy planning and preparation. For much of the period under review, however, many of these elements were lacking.”

This comes through loud and clear in recollections of Camp David by Dennis Ross, Robert Malley, Aaron Miller, Clayton Swisher, and even President Clinton himself.

Number 8 is to “build broad and bipartisan domestic support and use political capital before it is too late in a presidential term. Keep Congress well informed. Cultivate close relations on Capitol Hill and with advocacy communities without being held captive to the agendas of domestic groups.”

The panel believes that domestic political considerations, and the pro-Israel lobby, “influence policies” but do not determine them. It states that “Presidential leadership is the most decisive factor. When Presidents lead in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, Congress and public opinion follow; as legislators from both parties told the study group.” This “truism is sometimes lost even among U.S. negotiators as the so-called anticipatory reflex sets in and policy choices are preemptively constrained. At times, U.S. policy on settlements and Jerusalem has reflected this phenomenon.”

The panel also found that Israeli Prime Ministers themselves fear to engage in conflict with an American President (especially after both Prime Ministers Shamir and Netanyahu lost their posts following such conflicts). Accordingly, Presidents have as great a sway in Israel as here.

Number 9 is that “a successful envoy needs the strong and unambiguous support of the White House, credibility with all parties, and a broad mandate. Envoys should not substitute for meaningful diplomacy. Better a policy without an envoy than an envoy without a policy.”

Certainly a Presidential envoy should not be cut off at the knees as General Anthony Zinni was when the neocon claque back in Washington used every available means to torpedo his efforts. Zinni quit in disgust although in terms of his abilities, contacts, and status as former head of CENTCOM, he might have achieved a great deal.

Number 10 is that the United States “use the diplomatic toolbox judiciously and pay close attention to developments on the ground. Tools, such as economic assistance and summitry, should be used with strategic objectives in mind, not merely to buy time.”

The USIP report is extremely valuable but its recommendations are hardly revolutionary. None of them would require America to abandon its friendship with Israel; in fact, all the recommendations are predicated on our strong alliance with Israel. It is that friendship—and the trust the two sides have in the other—that makes successful diplomacy possible. That is why it is the United States, and not the EU or the UN, that can broker an agreement. Only America can.

But will we? The signs are not especially good. From Nixon to Ford to Carter and Bush 1, right through to the current President, successive administrations have faced increasing and sometimes unrelenting pressure to preserve the status quo. Presidents Ford or Carter could speak honestly about the Middle East the way Presidents Clinton or George W. Bush would not have dared. USIP’s recommendation to Presidents: dare.

A President who sets his mind to it can end this conflict and thereby vastly enhance not only America’s security but Israel’s as well. The President of the United States may not hold all the cards, but he or she holds most of them and should play them. Advice to #44: Play them.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017