Ziad Asali
University of Jordan
March 30, 2008 - 12:00am

The last few years have witnessed a significant development in US foreign policy regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In addition to the longstanding strategic US commitment to Israel, the creation of a Palestinian state has now become a constant in the definition of US interests in the Middle East. While previous Administrations have embarked on peace making since the early 90’s, it was only recently recognized that a Palestinian state is not only desirable but necessary.

This development was partly due to Israel’s own realization that ending the occupation is in its own interest, but this is only part of the story. There has been a new-found realization that as long as the national aspirations of the Palestinian people of statehood are not met, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will continue to be a source of instability in the region. In addition, the constant and consistent push by Arab allies, and in this regard the role that HM King Abdullah and before him the late King Hussein has been invaluable, has had a cumulative effect. Moreover, new Palestinian-American voices have emerged that operate within the established US political process to advocate this line. It was no coincidence that Secretary Rice chose to highlight this shift during her address to the ATFP annual Gala. The fact that this message was couched not only in moral or emotional terms, but also in rational terms of real politic and US national interest has helped focus US thinking.

While these factors are not new, the context in which these arguments are made has created a new urgency. The ascendance of the war on terror to the top of the US national security priorities has forced a rethinking of the approach to the Palestinian-Israel conflict. In the post-9/11 world, the conflict has become a distraction from the objective of fighting global violence and a drain on scarce resources.

In addition, it became clear that as the conflict and the occupation rages, it will continue to be a powerful source for dissatisfaction among Arabs and Muslims, and a potent tool of recruitment and mobilization for terrorist organization. One needs look no further than statements by Bin Laden and his lieutenants to see their exploitation of the suffering of the Palestinians.

Conversely, it is also obvious that resolving this conflict will send a clear message that negotiations, diplomacy and peaceful political means are the way to achieve Palestinian national aspirations, and thus strengthen moderate forces.

The regional political landscape has changed after the Afghanistan and Iraq War to offer strategic advantages to Iran, which has emerged as a regional superpower with influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and in Palestine. Its attempt to appropriate the Palestinian cause has put it in direct opposition to with the Palestinian moderate forces that seek a negotiated peace.

The United States and its allies can diffuse Iranian predominance in the Arab Middle East by moving forward on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This is a significant argument that advances the prospects of creating a Palestinian state. However, the US commitment to Palestinian statehood is not unconditional. It will only apply as long as the method of creation of this state and its foreign policy and domestic political operation comply with the principles for which the US stands. Namely, the state should be created through peaceful means.

Attempting to achieve statehood through violence and terrorism will only elicit strong American opposition. Similarly, the new state should clearly be created within the two-state framework: it should be clear that its creation will signal the end of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and that it is willing to live along side the state of Israel in peace and security. Domestically, the state should be governed by responsible democratic means. This entails not only the holding of periodic elections, but also the creation of a governance system that explicitly and unconditionally renounces terrorism and violence, respects its international obligations in accordance with the basic rules of international relations, and functions according to constitutional rules of human rights – including women’s and minorities’ rights – and freedoms.

Within this basic framework, policy differences can be expected and will be accepted – friends do disagree. However, the US will not support a state that stands in opposition to its interests and fundamental principles. A Palestinian state that seeks to perpetuate the conflict with Israel, one that aligns itself with irresponsible regional regimes and which continues to advocate and use violence will not be allowed to come into being, neither by the US, nor by Israel, Europe, or even the great majority of Arab and Muslim states. The fact that the US now recognizes a Palestinian state as a national security objective does not immediately translate into concrete policies and changes in behavior or allocation of resources. In the US, when the President or the Secretary say “jump”, the response is not an immediate “how high?”. Foreign policy decisions are taken and actions are made based on a complex balancing act that goes beyond the fairly simple balance of powers envisaged in the constitution between the Administration, the Congress and the Judiciary. Indeed, strict foreign policy considerations are only one factor, and often not the main one. Factors such as public opinion, the media, special interests, party-political considerations, institutional interests, economic factors, congressional and electoral politics, legal issues, deals and compromises within and between issues have to be aligned in such a way as to make concrete decisions both possible and implementable. All of this has to operate in the framework of competing priorities over limited financial, institutional and political resources.

It is specifically this complex balance that creates the stability that has always been the mark of the US political system. In this context sudden concrete shifts rarely happen, and when they do, they are usually in response to severe crises. Thus, any domestic US political actor that seeks to affect behavioral changes and impact policy decisions must operate within this complex context. Denouncing the US and its policies and operating outside the system, while it is a constitutionally guaranteed right that is often exercised, will not make an impact. However, once an actor accepts the rules of the political game, many tools become available. The US system is designed to be lobbied, a lesson learned and applied effectively by many ethnic US groups such as the Armenians, Koreans, Cubans, and Jews.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The complexity of decision-making in the US is most obvious perhaps in the way the Annapolis process has unfolded. I have little doubt that President Bush and Secretary Rice are committed to the peace process. This is not simply a matter of guessing intentions, but rather a function of close political observation. They have both put a great deal of their own personal political capital and credibility into the process. Yet, the institutional and financial resources needed to translate this from the realm of macro-politics into the level of concrete changes on the ground have lagged behind.

The parties themselves are locked in a dynamic developed for decades and worsened over more than seven years of active conflict. The Palestinian civil and security sectors have been decimated, and the economy is in tatters. From the Israeli perspective, the Palestinian issue was redefined as a security one and is dealt with institutionally by an establishment that sees everything through a strict security lens. A vicious cycle has emerged: the Palestinians, under their present governance structures, are unable to enjoy or provide security given the current state of an occupation with no visible end, while Israel is unwilling to change its behavior on the ground until Palestinians can deliver security. This, of course, is happening within an atmosphere of mistrust developed over seven years of violence.

The high-level involvement of the Administration seems to be making some progress, however. Secretary Rice’s efforts, solidly backed by President Bush, have secured the resumption of permanent status negotiations. All reports indicate that President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert are making progress in their talks over these core issues. However, by their very nature, such talks can only succeed if conducted away from the public eye. Their subject matter, while fundamental to the future of both nations, is not one that produces immediate tangible changes on the ground.

The main challenge facing the US Administration today is how to break this vicious cycle. This requires behavior modification by the parties not only at the high level of leadership but also at the operational level. Such a process will require a constant US diplomatic presence on the ground and engagement on a day-to-day basis. Palestinians must feel improvements in their economic lives, personal safety, and freedom of movement. Israelis need to regain a sense of security as they reconcile themselves to ending the occupation.

This is essential in two ways. First, unless things on the ground start to tangibly change, the chances of an agreement between the two leaders being publically supported will greatly diminish. After all, Palestinians and Israelis will be less inclined to embrace a peace deal and trust the other side if things on the ground continue to be conflictual.

Second, in case a peace deal is not reached during this Administration’s term, a smooth handover to the next Administration will require stabilizing matters on the ground. If the next Administration inherits a peace process in tatters and an explosive situation on the ground, it would probably not be inclined to immediately engage in peacemaking. This holds true no matter who wins the general elections.

Ladies and Gentlemen, By virtue of being the world’s economic, military and political superpower, the US will continue to be an important partner for most nations. The question that faces every decision maker on the international arena is not whether to engage the US, but how to go about such an engagement. It is unrealistic to expect the US – or any nation for that matter – to act in a manner that is not consistent with its own self interest. As such, international actors must identify the areas of overlap between their own national interests and those of the US, and seek to use and expand this space. Equally important is the understanding that engaging the US must take place on all levels. Actors who engage only with the foreign policy circles will quickly find out strict limitations on their ability to influence. Instead, they must recognize the complexity of the US decision making process and engage with all the different levels of the US polity. Such an approach can open the door for solid partnerships with the US to the benefit of all.

Finally, ladies and gentleman, the US is not a perfect power but it is the only power that can help to fashion and implement a resolution of this conflict. It is wise to keep that in mind. Words of sound and fury emanating from anywhere resonate and reverberate everywhere. They do, unfortunately, signify much worse than nothing.


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