By: Elijah Jatovsky
Amid broiling sectarianism, crumbling borders, and humanitarian devastation in Syria, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern states, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken an undoubtable backseat in the Obama administration’s list of regional priorities.
President Obama’s addresses to the UN General Assembly between 2009-2015 illustrate a stark contrast in the administration’s prioritization of the conflict. In Obama’s 2009 address, he mentioned “Israel” (or “Israeli”) and “Palestine” (or “Palestinian”) 31 times, whereas in 2015, the president excluded any mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (see Figure 1).
Further confirming this reality is the sharp decrease in mentions of these words between the Administration’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) report published in May 2010 and its latest NSS report published in February 2015 (see Figure 2).
Following the collapse of the 2013-2014 US-led peace talks, the Obama administration deprioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on an assessment that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cannot make the necessary compromises to reach a negotiated solution.
For a team that rode into the Oval Office on a wave of optimism and hope, the bleak reality of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has generated immense frustration—particularly for Secretary of State John Kerry.
A conversation between Kerry and Martin Indyk, the former US special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in December 2015, highlighted the Secretary of State’s frustration. Indyk remarked, “There was a certain sense, I felt, in what you had to say of frustration, and that the underlying message… is basically it’s up to them [the Israelis and Palestinians] now… Is that the message you’re sending here?” Kerry replied, “Not entirely. Is there some frustration? Sure there is, because I believe it’s doable… I don’t think it’s just exclusively up to them, but it is mostly up to them.” Vice President Biden echoed a similar message in April, saying the US sometimes has an “overwhelming frustration with the Israeli government.”
Dynamism Over Passivity
Despite frustration with the stagnant peace process, the US can still play an active role in bringing the two sides closer to a comprehensive peace rather than passively managing the conflict.
In its final months, the Obama administration should issue a set of updated US parameters that delineate the US view of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and address both sides’ core needs.
Whether through a speech or published document, Obama would likely issue these parameters following the November elections to prevent any harm to the democratic nominee’s election prospects. Moreover, unlike the Clinton Parameters of 2000, the Obama administration should not withdraw the document as it leaves office, ensuring the parameters remain official US policy on which the next Administration can launch future negotiations.
The ultimate rationale for the Obama Parameters is the conditions, which have historically characterized Arab-Israeli breakthroughs, do not exist in the current Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. Key elements underlying the emergence of the three previous Arab-Israeli agreements (Egypt-Israel 1979, PLO-Israel 1993, Jordan-Israel 1994) were: 1) both sides felt a consequence for not acting, 2) leaderships with wills for peace and legitimacy in the eyes of their publics existed on both sides, and 3) a level of trust was present between both sides’ leaders and among their publics.
The current absence of these characteristics among the leaders and publics of Israel and the Palestinians means the traditional model of US-brokered bilateral negotiations will not successfully revitalize a peace process between the sides. Since none of these conditions appear to be emerging in the near horizon, the US must adopt a more dynamic approach.
The merit of this new approach is embodied by the evolution of Martin Indyk’s thinking regarding the proper US mediation role with the Israelis. In a recently declassified email Indyk sent to another former special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, George Mitchell, in 2010, the former outlined his theory of how Netanyahu can be persuaded to make concessions favorable to a peace agreement. Indyk writes, “Put your arm around Bibi [Netanyahu]… the purpose of embracing him is to nudge him forward.” However, Indyk reassessed his theory of embracing Netanyahu in an interview with me in 2015 stating, “Bibi has proved that he’s not moveable with [the embracing] technique…” To move someone like Netanyahu, Indyk now believes, “The only leverage that might work is the threat not to veto in the UN Security Council.”
While critics of proposing parameters argue that the Israeli and Palestinian governments will reject the parameters and that the incoming president will nullify them in 2017, the option of turning the parameters into a UN Security Council resolution would likely prevent such obstacles.
Although not a panacea, a realistic and balanced set of parameters adopted by the UNSC would commit both Israeli and Palestinian leadership to operating in ways more favorable to the two-state solution, and the international community to standing by a framework that addresses Israel’s security concerns and realities on the grounds.
While Israeli-Palestinian peace appears farther away than ever, the US must act with dynamism over passivity, beginning with the publication of the Obama Parameters.
Elijah Jatovsky is a senior at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service majoring in International Politics. Following graduation in May 2016, he will work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua.
This article draws from Jatovsky’s research conducted through Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, which is set for publication in the Georgetown Security Studies Review in May 2016.
Photo Credit: Peter Souza, The White House