By David Makovsky
When it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, a strategy of “engagement without illusions” will most likely drive the Obama Administration. Prospects of diplomatic success are worth trying, but at a minimum, engagement would attempt to reverse the slide toward radicalisation.
Since Obama will be preoccupied with a recession at home and two wars abroad, he does not have to be personally involved in every detail of Arab-Israeli negotiations. He could delegate that responsibility and time his interventions to maximum effect. The Obama Adminstration’s engagement will come under circumstances less auspicious than those at the end of the Clinton Administration, particularly Hamas’ ascendancy in Gaza and the emergence of the rocket threat to Israel.
The new administration should try to salvage the two-state solution, or at least avert a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. The good news is that Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have converging interests in the West Bank, since both parties fear the rise of Hamas. Moreover, both seem to believe the way to stave off this threat is by delaying the Israeli army’s withdrawal, bolstering the training of Palestinian security forces in Jordan, increasing security cooperation, and building Palestinian civil institutions. This approach has paid at least some dividends: A million tourists have visited Bethlehem this year, unemployment rates have fallen to the lowest levels in eight years, acts of terrorism have decreased, and polls suggest that Gazans think the PA government in the West Bank is more effective than Hamas in Gaza.
The lack of clarity on settlements, however, threatens the stability of the West Bank and the strength of Palestinian institutions. Amid confusion about ongoing Israeli settlement activity, it is difficult for the PA to tell it citizens to be patient in their quest for sovereignty. Fortunately, the territorial differences between Israel and the PA on the final disposition of the West Bank are minuscule, and both agree to the concept of land swaps.
A joint delineation of West Bank land would diminish the mistrust between the two sides, answering once and for all the question of whether Israel is building on territory that will be Israeli or Palestinian. Such a delineation would show Palestinians that moderates can produce results and would give the PA time to strengthen its institutions, as Israel maintains security control until circumstances permit otherwise. The large majority of Israeli settlers who live in areas adjacent to the pre-1967 border would become part of Israel, and the remainder would be relocated.
Additional issues come to the fore as the two disillusioned societies try to create a climate for coexistence: Economic progress for the Palestinians and demonstration by the PA that it is educating the next generation for peace. In addition, every step taken by Israel toward the Palestinians should be met by steps from the Arab states to integrate Israel into the region.
Regarding Syria, the Obama Administration will support Israeli-Syrian peace talks, assuming the new Israeli government wants it to do so. The new administration could explore offers that would draw Syria out of Iran’s sphere of influence, just as former US Secretary of State Kissinger pried Egypt away from the Soviet Union. Such an approach would also weaken Hezbollah, given that Syria has been a conduit for the militia’s arms. Without this dimension, it is hard to see peace talks being successful.
Finally, the United States needs to reassure Israel about its likely diplomatic approach to Iran. Israel will want to know that such efforts will not be open-ended, thereby prohibiting Teheran from running out the clock in its advance toward nuclear weapons. Engagement alongside economic sanctions may not succeed, but even failed engagement within a fixed time period could make the other options more credible.
David Makovsky is the Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a former editor of the Jerusalem Post. © Washington Institute, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.