The opening of talks between Palestinians and Israelis last week marks a small but important step toward resuming the hard work of a long-held U.S. policy goal: two states for two peoples, Palestine and Israel. Since becoming secretary of state, John Kerry has held multiple meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the effort to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. While much work still lies ahead, Secretary Kerry’s efforts underscore the importance of the two-state goal for U.S. interests in the region, as well as the urgency of the moment.
While the images of a U.S. secretary of state shuttling back and forth from the Middle East may seem familiar on the surface, Secretary Kerry’s efforts to create movement on a range of fronts marks a shift in strategy for the administration. While still acknowledging direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians as the necessary arena for final status negotiations, Secretary Kerry’s approach is based on the understanding that certain steps can and must be taken in order to give the talks a greater chance of success.In an issue brief for the Center for American Progress published earlier this week, I described some of these steps:
Cultivating regional support. In late March 2013, shortly before President Obama’s Middle East visit, Israeli media reported that Secretary Kerry would seek to revive the Arab Peace Initiative as a starting point for future talks. After meeting in Washington in late April, the Arab League agreed to support limited, mutually agreed-upon land swaps as part of a peace deal. “The Arab League delegation affirms that agreement should be based on the two-state solution, on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line” with the possibility of a “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land,” said Qatar’s then-Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, speaking on behalf of the Arab League.
On July 17, Secretary Kerry received the Arab League’s support for restarting negotiations, an important step in two regards. First, it gave President Abbas needed political cover for re-entering talks, about which many of his own Palestinian constituents have grown skeptical. Second, it demonstrated to skeptical Israelis that there is regional support for negotiations, which is necessary for any agreement to be seen as legitimate and sustainable.
Economic-development assistance for the Palestinian Authority. At the World Economic Forum conference in Jordan in May, Secretary Kerry announced $4 billion in economic-development assistance for the Palestinian Authority. Developed by a group of international and regional experts, the goal of this aid is to increase Palestine’s gross domestic product by 50 percent and cut unemployment from 21 percent of the workforce to 8 percent in three years. “The intention is not just to make it transformative, but to make it different from anything ever seen before,” Secretary Kerry said, noting that $4 billion can make an enormous difference in a relatively small area with a population of 4 million people.
Under the leadership of Middle East Quartet Representative Tony Blair, the plan targets eight sectors for growth: construction/housing, building materials, tourism, light manufacturing, agriculture, energy, water, and information technology. “The objective here is to leverage the private sector into making very, very significant investments into the West Bank and also to Gaza Strip,” said a senior State Department official. The official cautioned, however, that “[t]his will only work in the context of a two-state outcome.”
Security coordination. In late May Gen. John Allen, former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, was named as a special advisor for the secretary of defense focusing on security in the context of Middle East peace. Security is a top priority for the Israelis, and Gen. Allen’s work will focus on coordinating with Israel on the security arrangements and guarantees that would accompany the establishment of a Palestinian state and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank.
Gen. Allen’s work complements the efforts of the U.S. security coordinator, or USSC, a position established in 2005 to reform, train, and equip the Palestinian security forces that is currently filled by Vice Adm. Paul Bushong. This serves the dual purpose of creating a professional security corps that enhances the Palestinians’ readiness for statehood while also addressing Israeli concerns about the capabilities of security forces post-withdrawal of Israeli soldiers.
Strategic communications. A key element of President Obama’s March speech in Jerusalem was a call for Israelis to push their leaders to make the tough choices necessary for peace. “Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this,” President Obama said in his speech in Jerusalem in March, “political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.”
Understanding the importance of U.S. domestic politics to Middle East policy, the administration has initiated outreach to U.S. groups invested in the issue. Secretary Kerry echoed the president’s Jerusalem speech in his own speech to the American Jewish Committee on June 3. “Send the message that you are behind this hopeful vision of what can be,” he said. “Let your leaders and your neighbors alike know that you understand this will be a tough process with tough decisions, but that you’re ready to back the leaders who make them.”
As the administration moves forward with negotiations, there are also a few other steps it could take to give them a greater chance of success. The first is to reiterate its support for the 1967 lines with swaps as a basis for talks. While both sides understand that Israel will not return to the pre-1967 lines, the lack of an agreed-upon starting point has undermined negotiations in the past. The second is to increase its strategic messaging on two states as a U.S interest. President Obama and members of his administration should reiterate to Congress and to the American public why this effort is being undertaken and why it will benefit the U.S. A third is to keep a private record of commitments made by the parties. Opportunities for breakthroughs have often been undermined by offers made and retracted in negotiations. While keeping the details of negotiations secret, the U.S. mediator should keep track of commitments made in order to continue to push the talks forward.
Finally, the U.S. should explore ways to arrest the separation between the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian unity is essential for any genuine, lasting peace, and the division between Gaza and the West Bank undermines the possibility that an eventual agreement will be sustainable or seen as legitimate by all sectors of Palestinian society. While the U.S. should be cautious about steps that could empower Hamas, it should work with Israel and with European and Arab partners to end the economic separation between the West Bank and Gaza by allowing greater exports from Gaza to the West Bank as a first step.
While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only one of a number of regional challenges for U.S. policymakers, it is one in which the United States is uniquely engaged, by virtue of our “special relationship” with Israel and by the so-far failed efforts by multiple U.S. administrations to broker a lasting peace deal. As former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer succinctly put it to me a few years ago, “It’s not the biggest problem in the region, but it is the issue on which perception of U.S. power is largely formed.” Ending the conflict won’t make other problems in the region simply go away, but by removing a core issue of instability, it will make addressing those problems easier. It will also serve as an important demonstration of American leadership at a moment when many in the region are questioning its value.