Israel and the Palestinians: The Issues that the Obama-Netanyahu Meeting Failed to Address

There is no better way to pick a fight in Washington than to address the most sensitive issues affecting Israeli and Arab relations. Few other subjects begin to be as polarizing, or lead to the same degree of almost instant misinterpretation. The fact is, however, that the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu may have helped bring Israel and the United States back together, and lay the groundwork for better cooperation in military security, but it did not address what could be far more serious set of issues in terms of Israel’s security, the actions of our Arab allies, and U.S. strategic interests.

There seems to be a consensus that any real progress in a peace settlement is dead for at least the near term, that the “two state” solution must be left in the equivalent of a coma, and that Israel’s growing tensions with the Palestinians can be left to fester because America’s Arab allies are so involved in dealing with Islamic extremism, Iran, and other security challenges that there will be no serious Arab protests – but rather a kind of de facto “alliance” where Israel and Arab governments focus on common enemies.

There is probably all too much truth to some of these views in the short term. Neither the present Israeli government nor any major Palestinian voice seems to believe real progress is possible in moving to a two state solution or any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Both sides seem willing to let the situation move towards another – and possibly far more violent – Intifada.

Continued anger, murder, and violent repression not only seem to be a possibility, they seem to be the future that both Israelis and Palestinians are both coming to see as inevitable. Fights over settlements and shrines and temples, and Palestinian and Israeli killings, have become an acceptable future in which the other side can always be blamed for a future that has no clear prospect of getting better for either side.

The practical problem is that it is far from clear that letting this situation fester will work, rather than make things far worse. Moreover, the question really does arise as to how many times peace efforts can fail before they become hopeless.

If far more positive action is not taken, the present round of Israeli-Palestinian tensions and fighting may create levels of lasting fear, anger, and hatred that really do make any peace impossible. They may create facts on the ground that really do kill a meaningful two state solution as well as kill any future prospect of a viable Israeli-Palestinian economy. All of the progress creating Palestinian security forces made in building mutual trust may be lost, and the security forces of both sides may find it impossible to control their own extremists – much less deal with the threat from the other side.

More broadly, it is far from clear that Israeli-Palestinian tensions and violence really can be contained because Arab regimes now focus on violent extremists, Iran, the civil conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and the war in Yemen. Israel may well see the violence in Israel impact on the Hezbollah in Lebanon, extremists in Syria, and the situation in the Sinai and Gaza. The near collapse of the more moderate Palestinian political leadership is going to make more and more ordinary Palestinians listen to the voice of extremism and violence.

One also has to be extraordinarily careful about the idea that there will be any stable form of de facto alliance between Israel and the regimes of key Arab states like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab Gulf states. Leaders may see security in traditional terms. The large numbers of young men and women in each country may have a very different view.

As 2011 made clear, regimes can confront massive challenges from their own people, and another Intifada and round of Israeli repression – where neither side is pushing for a real peace – can be a dangerous catalyst for further upheavals. It can have a major impact in adding to all the other tensions in countries that face massive problems in absorbing the “youth bulge” in their own populations and maintaining their popular support and legitimacy.

This is not an argument for yet another round of peace efforts. No one is ready for peace. It is, however, an argument to do what can be done to reduce Israeli-Palestinian tensions and make this a serious U.S. effort in spite of all the political problems this may create in both U.S. politics and U.S. relations with Israel.

It is also a strong argument for Israel to think much harder about such efforts in terms of its own security. The “hardline” arguments raised by Israel’s politicians who seem to feel the Palestinians can be safely marginalized —and that Israel can keep on creating new facts on the ground indefinitely into the future—simply ignore too many real world risks in the future. Pushing Arab regimes’ tolerance to the limit in Israeli efforts to repress Palestinians, while tolerating Israeli extremists and hardliners, is simply too dangerous.

This does not mean Israel should tolerate real threats to Israeli security, but it does mean keeping Israeli security efforts under tight control, avoiding more incidents over the Temple Mount and Hebron, finding other ways to try to reach out to Palestinians, and keep settlement growth and other efforts to create new facts on the ground to a minimum.

It also means that Palestinians should not give up on reaching out to Israel, and its many moderates and pragmatists. Any step that further isolates Palestinians from Israelis, convinces more Israelis that good relations are hopeless, or meets hardline and extreme Israeli positions with equal Palestinian extremism ignores the fundamental realities of power and the true interests of Palestinians.

As for the United States, it is not enough to simply talk about keeping the two state solution on life support – or a diplomatic version of cryogenic storage. U.S. efforts to reassure Israel in terms of security aid need to be matched with carefully calibrated civil aid to the Palestinians. The United States needs to push hard against Israeli political extremism, more settlements, and actions that do not serve Israel’s security and longer-term interests.

The United States needs to reject calls to cut its aid to punish the Palestinians and rethink how that aid can ease Palestinian anger. It needs to talk to its Arab allies and see if they will provide such aid, and whether there is any prospect of finding some form of dialogue that leads to a joint effort to ease the conditions under which ordinary Palestinians live.

These actions are no answer to the longer-term problem of a real peace, or stable relations between Israel and either the Palestinians or the Arab world. They may, however, buy time and ease the path back towards some longer-term solution. They will have at least some effect in serving U.S. strategic interests, they will help Israel look towards its longer-term strategic interests, and they will help limit the risk of extremism in friendly Arab states.

There is, however, another set of actions that can help and where recommendations are more likely to trigger the polarization and misinterpretation mentioned earlier. American supporters of Israel should not compromise on any real aspects of Israel’s security. They should, however, take the lead in calling for Israel’s restraint in security measures wherever this is possible.

They should call for a halt to hardline Israeli speeches and actions of the kind that make relations with the Palestinians even more difficult, and seek to find ways to ease the normal life of Palestinians. American Jews in particular should speak against hardline extremism in Israel, make it clear that American Judaism rejects such actions, and do everything possible to encourage steps that will ease tensions and the day-to-day life of Palestinians.

American supporters of the Palestinians should not press for sudden action on the two state solution, or treat every necessary Israeli security action as a violation of human rights or some form of war crime. Both sides need security, and only the Israeli side can enforce it. They should encourage real world quid pro quos with Israel, realistic solutions to Hebron and the Temple Mount, and dialogue with American supporters of Israel that can lead more towards a solution rather than polarization.

Finally, and perhaps most unrealistic of all, this would be a good time for U.S. political candidates to focus on Israel’s real security interests, on the need to ease tensions and violence rather than encourage, and America’s real security interests – rather than being more pro-Israel than Israel at Israel’s expense.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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