Let the Locals Fix the Israeli‐​Palestinian Conflict

June 21, 2001 • Commentary

President Bush has stressed the need for America’s allies to play the lead role in ending conflicts and maintaining security in their strategic backyards. According to this view, the European Union should shoulder the responsibility for dealing with the civil wars in the Balkans, while the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Australia should be responsible for containing ethnic instability in Indonesia.

But while Republican leaders seem ready to shift the burden of maintaining stability in parts of Asia and Europe to allies, they don’t seem to want to apply that paradigm to the Israeli‐ Palestinian conflict. Yet that dispute is the kind of regional problem that can be dealt with by local players whose long‐​term military, economic and demographic interests are affected by the clashes in the Holy Land.

The disastrous results of the hyperactive American diplomacy under President Clinton to work out a Palestinian‐​Israeli deal showed not only the limits of U.S. influence but also how such influence can backfire and create incentives for the parties to harden their positions. By placing the United States at the center of the negotiations, Clinton raised undue expectations among Israelis and Palestinians that he could “deliver” the other side. At the same time, the White House made far‐ reaching commitments—for example, proposing that U.S. troops would help secure the border between Israel and a Palestinian state—that would have drawn America into direct involvement in a bitter ethnic‐​religious war. Such an entanglement would have made the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in the 1980s seem like a pleasure outing. At day’s end, the dramatic collapse of the Clinton effort made a bad situation worse while eroding U.S. prestige in the region.

The earlier talks in Oslo were more successful in moving Palestinians and Israelis toward peace, resulting in a framework agreement that provided a basis for reconciliation. One reason was that the United States played almost no role in the negotiations. Instead, that process involved direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials who recognized that only a step‐​by‐​step diplomatic course implemented through a combination of confidence building and improvisation could bring about progress.

That negotiations haven’t yet led to the Promised Land of peace shouldn’t come as a shock. And it has nothing to do with lack of “U.S. leadership” but rather with the lack of leadership on the Israeli and Palestinian sides. No one should expect that a national conflict, with deep ethnic and religious roots, could be resolved in a week of talks in Camp David. And getting Washington to “do something” is not going to transform this reality.

What the United States could do is encourage its friends in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan– to play more assertive roles in the Palestinian‐​Israeli conflict. As it is, they are lounging on the diplomatic sidelines and pressing the United States to get involved, or worse, placing obstacles on the road to peace by discouraging the Palestinians from making concessions on Jerusalem. Those Arab countries have not only benefited from American financial largesse and security protection; they know that a collapse of Israeli‐​Palestinian negotiations could threaten them directly.

At a minimum, the continuing bloodshed in the West Bank could create disorder among the Palestinian population in Jordan and lead to Iraqi intervention in that country. At worst, it could bring about the collapse of peace accords between Israel and both Jordan and Egypt and create the conditions for a regional war.

There are many ways in which Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, as well as other U.S. “friends” in North Africa and the Persian Gulf, could contribute to a resolution of the conflict. Jordan and Egypt could provide direct support for an Israeli‐​Palestinian agreement (including an offer to station peacekeeping troops in the West Bank and Gaza). Saudi Arabia and Morocco could propose ideas for Arab control of the Moslem religious sites in Jerusalem. The Saudis and other Gulf states could back the establishment of a regional investment fund to help settle the Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Jordan. The EU, whose members, especially France and the Mediterranean states, are more affected by developments in the Middle East than in the Balkans, should assist such efforts.

With a little help from its Middle East and European friends, Washington could start lowering its high‐​profile role in the region. That change would benefit both the United States and the region.

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