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Could a New U.S. Strategy Bring Peace?

By Andrew Wilson and Alison Wakelin

In light of the recent outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, it is time for the United States to renew its involvement in the Middle East. The escalating violence, which began with the murder of three Israeli teens, may be traced to Secretary of State John Kerry’s failure to mediate peace talks in May. Despite this initial failure, the only way to ensure a permanent end to the bloodshed is to restart the peace process. In short, Kerry must return to the region and lay the groundwork for negotiations to resume. 

Since direct negotiations between governments have crashed and burned, Kerry must engage different political actors in renewed negotiations. In Israel, it is not enough for Kerry to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stated just last week: “There cannot be a situation, under any agreement in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” He should meet with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, and Labor Party chief Isaac Herzog, who have repeatedly spoken about their commitment to reaching a peace agreement. 

In June, at the Herzliya Conference, Livni called for resuming negotiations and stopping new settlement expansion in the West Bank. At the same conference, Lapid called for Netanyahu to move the peace process forward by revealing his proposed map of where Israel’s future border with Palestine should lie. Meanwhile, Herzog has been calling for negotiations with the Palestinian Authority to resume, even in the midst of the war with Gaza. 

At the same time, Kerry needs to gauge what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is willing to do for peace. Kerry should speak to Abbas about alternatives to his agreement with Hamas, so that Israel can be reassured that he is still a partner for peace. If Abbas insists on preserving the unity agreement with Hamas, Kerry needs to ascertain the role Hamas will play in the unity government and meet its major players to fully understand their intentions. No matter how difficult that may be, Hamas currently speaks for the roughly two million citizens of Gaza, and their needs should not be ignored. 

Kerry should bring a delegation that can promote cooperation, peace, and mutual prosperity, such as mutually beneficial infrastructure and economic projects. They should reach out to leaders of business and civil society both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. This will be a signal that the United States is willing to support those institutions and individuals who do what is essential to build and maintain peace.

Kerry’s delegation should include women and his peace mission should feature meetings with women leaders. In recent history there have been spectacular instances of progress in resolving seemingly intractable conflicts once women became involved. Could Northern Ireland have gotten through its troubles without Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams, who bridged the divide between Catholics and Protestants to build a powerful grass-roots movement for peace? 

More recently when deadlock over the 2013 budget forced the U.S. government to shut down, women played a critical role. While the majority male Congress postured, a bipartisan group of three Republican women and three Democratic women made the necessary deals to pass a compromise. 

In looking back at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Tzipi Livni seemed to be the only minister in the Israeli government seriously trying to make peace.  

In launching American re-engagement, a primary goal should be to support Abbas. He is the only credible Palestinian partner, having made major concessions to turn the Palestinian Authority away from the violence of the historical PLO, accept Israel’s right to exist, and begin the work of state building. 

For the last five years, the Palestinian Authority has provided Israel with generous security cooperation, and its population has exercised self-restraint based on the implicit promise that peace talks would lead to a state. Yet Israel’s behavior during the failed talks, from unrestrained settlement expansion to reneging on the agreed-upon release of a fourth group of prisoners, has left serious doubts if the current Israeli government would ever agree to a Palestinian state. Given this doubt, Abbas turned to the unity deal with Hamas. Yet despite the violence that ensued after the murder of the three Israeli teens, he has continued security cooperation with Israel.  

The war in Gaza has marginalized Abbas in the eyes of his own people, and has instead boosted the credibility of Hamas. This could be intentional on the part of certain elements of Israel’s leadership, who would prefer not to have a Palestinian partner for peace at all, because they are more comfortable keeping the status quo. If Operation Protective Edge Abbas is sidelined, it would make the Israeli occupation easier to justify and maintain ad infinitum. The U.S. has to block this right now. 

Also, Abbas has more cards to play in his diplomatic fight against Israel, including going to the International Criminal Court. He has more incentive to play those cards now, if only to counter the internal challenge of Hamas. Under what conditions would he be willing to keep that sword in its sheath? Meeting Abbas will help Kerry calibrate the U.S. position toward these Palestinian diplomatic moves.  

Having learned from the failure of the previous round, Kerry must be tougher upfront with both sides on setting up parameters for negotiations that do not allow either side to just talk for the sake of talking while maintaining the status quo. Among them should certainly be a fixed time limit, a settlement freeze, and presentation of a redrawn map, defining the borders of a two-state solution. The main precondition for the last round of talks, a prisoner release, seems to have been futile. 

Despite the current violence, the big picture remains: the only way to end the growing conflict is to negotiate a two-state solution. By re-engaging with the region, Kerry can cool the temperature. He can push the reset button for a new round of talks and work towards ending the violence.

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Andrew Wilson and Alison Wakelin are co-authors of the "Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine," an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.

[Photo courtesy of Google Commons]

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