Moran Banai, Brendan Melley, James Pickup
Middle East Progress (Opinion)
April 27, 2010 - 12:00am

Frustration regarding efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has generated much discussion lately about whether the Obama administration should present its own peace plan to the parties. Such a move is a tempting alternative to the lack of obvious progress toward direct negotiations, and it would certainly shake things up. As the idea of a U.S. plan gains currency, however, it is important to consider the implications of such an announcement.

First, we must remember that U.S. leadership in this dispute has always come in its role as facilitator and mediator. While the United States has a strong, independent national security interest in resolving this conflict, and is better positioned than any other nation to help shape the environment for peace, the parties are the central players in this story. Any peace agreement will first require Israelis and Palestinians to accept painful compromises which run contrary to their national narratives and make personal and political sacrifices without iron-clad guarantees of success. Presently, we may want a resolution of this conflict more than the parties—and could fairly easily dictate its terms—but the United States and the international community cannot impose a peace agreement if we want it to be implemented and last beyond the first inevitable crisis.

Second, after over a year of discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, maintaining flexibility and a full spectrum of negotiating tools is critical. It is important that we not have our attention diverted by labels. For example, “proximity talks” that are focused on core issues can be more effective than direct talks that cover very little; “bridging proposals” can have more substance than a “comprehensive plan” based on broad principals. Moreover, the administration must simultaneously work to bring the parties to the table and continue its work with both parties to improve the economic and security situation on the ground.

As the administration is assessing potential scenarios and options, it is logical to maintain full maneuverability and explore all possibilities, including a U.S. peace plan. Indeed, it would be irresponsible to not consider this among the wide range of possible strategies. However, several important questions have to be considered when looking at this option. What would be the goal of putting a plan on the table? Would it be a set of principles or a fully fleshed-out plan? How would the plan address the very sensitive questions of sovereignty over Jerusalem and the right of return? Would it be released before or after the United States has discussed the issues in depth with the two parties? And most critically, what happens if one or both parties rejects the plan, or more likely says “yes with reservations,” which is effectively the same thing? Where would the credibility of U.S. leadership be after such a response?

Thinking through these questions indicates to us that now is not the right time for the United States to introduce a plan. Announcing a comprehensive plan at this stage could limit the administration’s ability to maneuver with the two parties. If the United States took a specific and detailed position on Jerusalem and on refugees, it would be giving the two sides reason to immediately say no.

Moreover, the parties do not seem ready for a plan at this stage. Even rumors of a plan have the Israeli government exclaiming that it has no intention of being pushed on the issues and questioning the administration’s commitment to its security. Meanwhile, some Palestinians see this as an invitation to let the United States do all the heavy lifting needed to restart negotiations.

Nevertheless, the time may come when an American plan is the critical next step, as were the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland or the Clinton Parameters in this dispute. Once the administration has worked with the parties, discussed the thorny questions and received their buy-in, it could come back and say, “Here are the things that you told us you could agree on; and here are bridging proposals we’ve discussed with both of you. Now, let’s talk about this.”

We strongly support any and all efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict in a comprehensive manner, including a two-state solution, because this is not just an Arab or Israeli interest, it is an American interest. Yet, a premature plan will likely have the opposite effect its proponents seek. It will not give the administration more flexibility; it will confine it. Moreover, if even one of the parties were to say no, then the administration’s ability to act would further be hamstrung. As frustrating as it might seem at this stage, we need to be guided by patience and perseverance and allow the administration to maintain the greatest degree of flexibility as it tackles this deeply complex and difficult conflict.


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