President Bush has stressed the need for America’s allies to play the leadrole in ending conflicts and maintaining security in their strategicbackyards. According to this view, the European Union should shoulder theresponsibility for dealing with the civil wars in the Balkans, while theAssociation of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Australia should beresponsible for containing ethnic instability in Indonesia.
But while Republican leaders seem ready to shift the burden of maintainingstability in parts of Asia and Europe to allies, they don’t seem to want toapply that paradigm to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet that dispute isthe kind of regional problem that can be dealt with by local players whoselong-term military, economic and demographic interests are affected by theclashes in the Holy Land.
The disastrous results of the hyperactive American diplomacy underPresident Clinton to work out a Palestinian-Israeli deal showed not only thelimits of U.S. influence but also how such influence can backfire and createincentives for the parties to harden their positions. By placing the UnitedStates at the center of the negotiations, Clinton raised undue expectationsamong Israelis and Palestinians that he could “deliver” the other side. Atthe same time, the White House made far-reaching commitments—for example,proposing that U.S. troops would help secure the border between Israel and aPalestinian state—that would have drawn America into direct involvement in abitter 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’send, the dramatic collapse of the Clinton effort made a bad situation worsewhile eroding U.S. prestige in the region.
The earlier talks in Oslo were more successful in moving Palestinians andIsraelis toward peace, resulting in a framework agreement that provided abasis for reconciliation. One reason was that the United States playedalmost no role in the negotiations. Instead, that process involved directtalks between Israeli and Palestinian officials who recognized that only astep-by-step diplomatic course implemented through a combination ofconfidence building and improvisation could bring about progress.
That negotiations haven’t yet led to the Promised Land of peace shouldn’tcome 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 andreligious roots, could be resolved in a week of talks in Camp David. Andgetting Washington to “do something” is not going to transform this reality.
What the United States could do is encourage its friends in the MiddleEast -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan--to play more assertive roles in thePalestinian-Israeli conflict. As it is, they are lounging on the diplomaticsidelines and pressing the United States to get involved, or worse, placingobstacles on the road to peace by discouraging the Palestinians from makingconcessions on Jerusalem. Those Arab countries have not only benefited fromAmerican financial largesse and security protection; they know that acollapse of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could threaten them directly.
At a minimum, the continuing bloodshed in the West Bank could createdisorder among the Palestinian population in Jordan and lead to Iraqiintervention in that country. At worst, it could bring about the collapse ofpeace accords between Israel and both Jordan and Egypt and create theconditions for a regional war.
There are many ways in which Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, as well asother U.S. “friends” in North Africa and the Persian Gulf, could contributeto a resolution of the conflict. Jordan and Egypt could provide directsupport for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement (including an offer to stationpeacekeeping troops in the West Bank and Gaza). Saudi Arabia and Moroccocould propose ideas for Arab control of the Moslem religious sites inJerusalem. The Saudis and other Gulf states could back the establishment ofa regional investment fund to help settle the Palestinian refugees in theWest Bank and Jordan. The EU, whose members, especially France and theMediterranean states, are more affected by developments in the Middle Eastthan in the Balkans, should assist such efforts.
With a little help from its Middle East and European friends, Washingtoncould start lowering its high-profile role in the region. That change wouldbenefit both the United States and the region.