Seven Decisions the U.S. Must Make to Jumpstart Middle East Peace

A comprehensive, robust, and sustainable American policy represent the best chance for a transformative change in Israeli-Palestinian politics and in America’s standing in the region.

It is time for the United States to adopt a new policy, a new strategy, and new tactics in Middle East peacemaking. Such an investment will pay dividends if it moves the conflict toward resolution and allows the region to act in concert to deny Iran its power ambitions. Doing nothing, or doing too little, is a prescription for trouble. A comprehensive, robust, and sustainable American policy and strategy represent the best chance for a transformative change in the Middle East and in America’s standing in the region. The first order of business is to construct a cohesive American policy that includes seven critical elements.

1. Create the physical template—borders—of Israel and Palestine.

It is illogical that sixty-five years after the UN partition resolution, there is still no agreed border that demarcates the State of Israel and the future state of Palestine. This must be a core component of American policy: to realize the goal of secure, recognized, and defensible borders. President Obama got it right in May 2011 when he urged that negotiations produce borders that are based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. Israelis and Palestinians need to know where their respective states begin and end.

2. Address Israeli and Palestinian fundamental security requirements.

The U.S. should lead the effort to define and address the security requirements of the two peoples. In 2008, President George W. Bush asked General James Jones—later to become Obama’s national security advisor—to undertake a comprehensive security assessment. Jones’s study was never published, but the work he started should be refined and completed. In parallel, the on-the-ground work of the United States Security Coordinator—tasked with interacting daily with both sides, training and equipping the Palestinian Security Force, and rebuilding security cooperation and coordination—should be intensified. Israel’s security needs will expand dramatically in the context of an agreement with the Palestinians, and the United States should thus be prepared to address Israel’s legitimate needs.

3. Adopt an American view of the parameters on the core issues.

Negotiations require terms of reference to start and to succeed, but Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization cannot agree on any terms of reference. The irony is that the two sides have narrowed gaps substantially on the core issues in dispute since the Taba negotiations in 2001. None of this progress has been memorialized in an agreed record, but the progress achieved cannot be doubted. Before deciding whether or how to resume negotiations in a manner that has a chance to succeed, the United States needs to decide for itself its own views on the shape of a final settlement, that is, the parameters for resolving the core issues. Without this, American policy lacks focus and is ineffectual, limited to carrying messages or proposing discrete fixes to negotiating impasses. Just as the parties need to have a comprehensive view of all the issues in the negotiations in order to be able to weigh concessions against possible gains, so too the United States needs an internal policy on the shape of a settlement. For the United States to be able to act wisely and creatively to help the parties, it has to know where it is going and what road can best take the parties to an agreed outcome.

4. Ensure Palestinian institutional and economic capacity.

Palestinians have made great strides in creating the institutional and economic structures to sustain independent statehood. The United States and many others have assisted these efforts, but it is time to kick this process into higher gear.

5. Change Israeli and Palestinian conduct.

In 2003, the United States and the other members of the international Quartet (the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) developed the Roadmap, which required mutually reinforcing actions by Israelis and Palestinians to change bad behaviors—stop settlement activity; permit greater Palestinian mobility; uproot terrorist infrastructure; create accountable institutions; stop incitement. These goals are already part of American policy; as elements in a broader strategy, the United States needs to do more to try to achieve them. The United States should establish a robust system of monitoring Roadmap performance, hold the parties accountable—publicly—for their actions, and exact consequences for failure to abide by commitments or to change behaviors.

6. Involve the region in building the infrastructure of peace.
The United States should seek ways to capitalize on earlier examples of Arab-Israeli interactions: lend support to the Arab Peace Initiative, exploit the contacts that already exist, and broaden the base of public support and activities tied into building a culture of peace.

7. Don’t ignore religious, ideological, and historical narratives.

Under the best circumstances and the smartest American policy, peace will be challenged by mutually exclusive Israeli and Palestinian religious, ideological, and historical narratives. Diplomats traditionally shy away from these issues, for they are not amenable to quick fixes, and they speak to the deepest psychological and emotional instincts of the two peoples. However, as much as policy makers would prefer to ignore these issues, they need to be considered if the goal is a conflict-ending, claims-ending agreement.

Daniel Kurtzer is the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.  During a thirty-year career in diplomacy, he served as the United States Ambassador to Israel and to Egypt.

Alex Levac