America’s Role in Making Peace in the Middle East

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel walks with Saudi Arabia's Prince Fahd bin Abdullah, deputy defense ministerLast week at a Carnegie Endowment meeting, a wise retired career Ambassador Edward P Djerejian discussed the Baker Institute at Rice University report, “Re-Engaging the Israelis and Palestinians: Why An American Role In Initiating Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Is Necessary and How It Can Be Accomplished.” It was an insightful and thought out perspective and it was contrary to those in Washington and elsewhere who have argued against American peace efforts.  We have often argued here for a more engaged American diplomatic stance for a long time.

The question asked at the meeting was whether President Obama was fully engaged in a true full court press on Middle East peace. The response was that he had “internalized” the issue and his schedule and that of his two key national security people, namely Secretaries Kerry and Hagel were fully engaged.

Hagel is heading this weekend for the Middle East with stops in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. The Middle East peace process and Iran as well as arm sales will be key topics. Kerry has already been in the region as well as Obama’s trip to Israel in which he made a major speech giving his perspective in honest and, at moments, direct terms, reaching out to the Israeli public to argue that peace is better than war for Israel. 

Interestingly Amb. Djerejian mentioned in his talk the documentary file “Gatekeepers” (which we have previously mentioned at RNS) in which Israeli top former security agency officials both noted the increasing security dangers to that nation and the disastrous policies followed by Israel given the reality of the regional landscape.

Against this background, news reports are reporting that Prime Minister Netanyahu, in talking with the BBC, said that Israel is ready to strike Iran unilaterally if it is the only option to stop the Islamic Republic from gaining nuclear weapons. This was said against a background that Iran officials have threatened Israel and indicated they may enrich uranium to a 50% level, which has no legitimate peaceful use, but moves further towards weapons grade.

These developments only emphasize again the need for a peaceful and diplomatic solution to this critical issue, rather than starting an all out war that would be a catastrophe for all. Often those who argue for “war” do not talk about the resulting likely aftermath for citizens and society on all sides.  The sound of “war drums” seems to increase on all sides as both Iran and Israel sound stupid and hysteric giving warnings and threats.

In the United States, the Congress that cowardly defeated a common sense and needed gun limiting legislation voted, on the other hand, for a belligerent stance towards dealing with the Iranian issue and indirectly a blow to seeking a regional Middle East peace construct.  On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed unanimously to legislation to go to the Senate floor affirming U.S. support for Israel in the event that Israel has to unilaterally take military action against Tehran. The bipartisan language emphasized the shared danger that Iran represents to both the U.S. and Israel, it pledged “diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.”  Administration officials tried to underline that the resolution expressed support for unilateral Israeli action, rather than a commitment for U.S. action. This leaves us with a measure of ambiguity and of asking if both Israel’s and American’s vital security interests will be compromised by perceptions and mindless actions, which will create a regional tinderbox for all.

My view is that a war on Iran will serve those who do not want a Middle East peace as the results of a unilateral strike by Israel without firm indications of imminent major danger from an Iranian existing nuclear weapon capability. Such an action in the mind of some who do not accept the “Two State” road map see such action as vitiating any hope of a large Middle East peace compact and only causing horrific conflict against Israel.

The best answer remains the diplomatic path and many with considerable experience in this region rightly argue that a major and direct U.S. presidential involvement and engagement is needed. Along with this is a major effort to seek to calm the drumbeats for war with Iran, a reinforcement of negotiations, and if needed, serious “sticks and carrots” to move towards an agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons.

The world is a glowingly dangerous place, no time for silly threats and dangerous nuclear weapons development, and least of all mindless strategies aiming at conflict rather than avoiding it.

Click Here for Baker Institute at Rice University’s report, “Re-Engaging the Israelis and Palestinians: Why An American Role In Initiating Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Is Necessary and How It Can Be Accomplished.”

Middle East Upheavals, Israeli-Palestinian Stalemate, Where Now?

President Obama has said at the General Assembly that “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN.” In that he is right. But he is also wrong that the existing stalemate can only be negotiated between the two parties. This is caused by Benjamin Netanyahu’s game of resistance to real honest negotiations, along with the Palestinian desire to not go to the table as long as Israel acts in a unilateral way with more and more settlements. This creates an almost impossible way forward if left in limbo and leaves frustration to simmer without a real solution.

Sadly, Netanyahu’s action in announcing the illegal building of 1,100 new settlement housing units in South Jerusalem, on the Palestinian side of the 1967 borders, shows he is not serious about true negotiations or a true “two state” solution (see yesterday’s article in the New York Times entitled “Israel Angers Palestinians With Plan for Housing“). It is an effort to sabotage the whole peace effort.

I share the view that peace will not be found via the UN membership or for that matter the agreement for member state observer status via the UN General Assembly alone. But any close analysis must conclude that the PLO does not have any realistic other options. If it starts negotiations and Israel continues new settlement, it would be impossible for the PLO authority to stand by and wait for all their land to be devolved over time.  Some analysts have stated it would turn the West Bank into Bantustans. With this I agree.

Both sides need to make concessions. That is also clear. The PLO needs to stop attacks on Israel and Israel needs to stop creating new settlements and indeed, best of all, pull down at least the so-called “illegal” settlements. But both sides refuse to act alone without some added guarantees.

My suggestion is for the Quartet and possibly others to back a specific set of necessary conditions to which each side must agreed and to set deadlines for agreement, and if progress is not made, to present a third party plan that would be structured in a way that both sides would have major inducements to agree.  Everyone keeps saying that an agreement can’t be “imposed” by a third party.  What then is left – the only outcome will be conflict and tragedy for all sides and a Middle East in turmoil.

Clearly, after more than a decade neither side seems willing politically to put forth any proposal or accept any proposal that would provide for a balanced and fair outcome for both sides.  Frankly, everyone knows what that truly “fair formula” is all about – but they just don’t want to give to get. They just want it all. In the past with some outside help, as at Camp David, some progress was made, but in the end it fell apart. The extreme politics now on both sides make the effort even more difficult. Yet those who say wait are playing a game of “Russian Roulette.”

One reality is that the Palestinians will likely, in the end, get their state recognized by the UN/GA. Second reality, Israel is already seeing by its intransigence and foolish policies increasing isolation around the world.  Recently an Israeli committee recommended a cut in their military expenditures in order to provide domestic social security for a nation experiencing economic inequality.

Thus, face-to-face negotiation will not work without outside forces to help make it work.  Already those forces exist for Israel in the changing landscape of the Middle East and in the strategic changes that are forming around the region. But the right-wing parties, especially in Israel and Gaza, are blind to those realities.

Since America, sadly due to the largely right-wing Israeli Lobby, can’t do it, that leaves a third party or grouping with the power to enforce or better entice a fair settlement on both.  Who then?  That party MUST be of such a nature that both sides recognize they are dealing with a known global leader backed by a wide group of countries or joint group of countries, that has no agenda for one side or the other, but insists that lasting peace be the only and necessary outcome.

Suggestions have been made that the EU might be that mediator or the Quartet, but with Putin in charge the Russians seem an odd bird for this role. There are other alternatives.  The French seem willing to help but Sarkozy is in trouble at home, while Turkey seems to want to take the leadership in the region but its motives are unclear. One key factor is to assure Israel that its security under any kind of peace deal is assured, and I might add the same for the new Palestinian state.  That, in the end, will require certain American guarantees.

There should be enough interest on the part of all “external” parties including Europe, America, and Middle East nations, for them to realize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a time bomb waiting to happen which will engulf them all.  Already there are frantic efforts to get the parties together but it will not work without some kind of external pressure on both and a truly fair outcome.

By Harry C. Blaney III.