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Stalemate Isn’t a Great Option in Today’s Middle East

Dealing with the Latest Risks for the United States on the Arab-Israel Front

SOURCE: AP/Mary Altaffer

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds a letter requesting recognition of Palestine as a state as he addresses the 66th session of the U.N. General Assembly, Friday, September 23, 2011.

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The many speeches last week at the United Nations about the Palestinians’ application for membership as a state are just the opening acts of a new play of political theater known as the Arab-Israeli conflict. The next part of the drama shifts back to the Middle East, with serious risks for the United States if not handled well.

President Barack Obama may be inclined to remain in the tactical mode that has characterized much of the administration’s handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict. With so many other events vying for his time and attention in the Middle East as well as continued economic problems and a reelection campaign at home, the Obama administration might seek to avoid the minefield of a moribund peace process. But treading water on the Israeli-Palestinian front presents considerable risks for U.S. interests in the region. There is the very real danger of a new conflagration on the Arab-Israeli front and its possible negative spillover effects on political transitions in places such as Egypt.

The Palestinian push for statehood at the United Nations is not likely to produce a strategic transformation that would substantially improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the immediate future. On their own, the diplomatic maneuvers and public speeches are desperate attempts by the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank to reclaim some credibility in the eyes of a frustrated population at home by achieving some appearance of forward momentum. When Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas returned to the West Bank this weekend, he declared a “Palestinian Spring” and likened it to the Arab Spring that has swept across many parts of the Middle East.

Prior to these attempts to achieve statehood unilaterally, the Palestinian leadership was facing a serious legitimacy crisis, with many questioning what the Palestinian Authority had produced. I was in the West Bank city of Ramallah this past February when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. The realization among many top Palestinian officials I met that they would be facing similar popular pressures to produce some change was strong.

The fact that Abbas received something of a hero’s welcome on his return this weekend and praise among many in the Arab world shows that these efforts had some impact in dealing with the legitimacy crisis. At the same time, though, the U.N. effort seems to have done little to bridge the major division among Palestinians—the split between Fatah and Hamas that divides the West Bank and Gaza—which has plagued the Palestinians for the past five years.

What the Palestinian leadership does next to translate this possible revived support in some quarters at home into tangible progress both in the international diplomatic arena and what happens on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are the two key factors to watch next. On the diplomatic front, the most likely scenario seems to be a “slow roll” response that drags out over weeks or months. The Palestinian bid for full U.N. membership as a state is going nowhere as long as it is opposed by permanent members of the Security Council such as the United States, which has promised to veto it. Receiving “observer state” status through a vote in the U.N. General Assembly is closer to the realm of possibility but it is not clear when this might happen or what the Palestinians might do with it.

But the real factor to watch is how the situation on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza Strip unfolds. The initial positive reactions to this U.N. bid among some Palestinians could fade rapidly if it goes nowhere. And if Abbas does not have anything to show for it over the coming weeks, then his position may end up weaker than it was earlier this year.

The Obama administration’s policy response to these efforts came in this statement released by the Middle East Quartet on Friday. The statement was another call to restart negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, another schedule for diplomatic processes, and another deadline for a new agreement—this time by the end of 2012. The statement also restated some of the ongoing efforts to build Palestinian Authority institutions such as the security forces and ministries that help provide social services.

This formula alone seems unlikely on its own to produce any forward momentum given the Palestinians’ insistence that it will not negotiate directly as long as Israel continues to build housing settlements in disputed territories that are supposed to be part of the negotiations. Barring some major surprise breakthrough, U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian front seems to be treading water and hoping things don’t boil over.

On one level, this seems sensible given the difficulties in achieving a major agreement anytime soon. Yet the risks of a continued stalemate remain considerable not only for Israelis and Palestinians but also for U.S. interests in the region. Continued stasis could motivate Israelis and Palestinians to undertake a series of uncoordinated unilateral moves that weaken the security situation. Such moves include Israel’s continued construction in disputed territories.

Further stalemate could also open the door for extremist groups to gain more credibility and spark a return to violence as a means to settle differences. A conflict on the scale of the one in Gaza in 2008 and in Lebanon in 2006 is not out of the question. And given the broader uncertainty in the region, such a conflict could have far-reaching consequences.

What can the Obama administration do beyond its current plan?

First, it should reexamine its overall approach to resolving the conflict and explore other approaches. Since it has decided against the advice of some to get out in front of these efforts at the United Nations and shape a solution, it should look for ways it might reformulate the overall approach. The Middle East Quartet—a consensus group including the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations—has been a main vehicle for managing the largely moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace track for years, yet it has not achieved substantial progress on the negotiations front. The Obama administration should examine whether there are other parties that have the trust and confidence of the Palestinian and Israeli leaders—countries that might serve to bridge the great divides between Israelis and Palestinians.

Second, as President Bill Clinton said last week, the Arab Peace Initiative is a “heck of a deal,” yet the Obama administration never really did anything to link this to its efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front. First introduced nearly a decade ago, the Arab Peace Initiative was an opening offer to discuss a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and all of its neighbors. Some strategic reformulation of the international mechanisms aimed at motivating Israelis and Palestinians to strike a deal will likely be necessary if the parties remain stuck.

At a minimum, the United States should work quietly to ensure security coordination mechanisms are in place within the region to help deescalate tensions that may arise in the coming weeks. This means working with the Egyptian authorities to ensure Israel’s southern border with Egypt and the Gaza Strip remain peaceful.

This also requires the continued support and coordination with Palestinian Authority institutions in the West Bank. My colleague Peter Juul, who just returned from Israel and the West Bank, lays out the substantial downsides to cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority here. Threats to cut assistance to the Palestinian Authority could end up being self-defeating by undermining the overall security situation.

The Obama administration’s complicated multitasking in the Middle East faces a new challenge from the Palestinians’ gambit at the United Nations. The administration needs to take steps to ensure the efforts do not undermine an already fragile security situation. But it also needs to think beyond the current formula presented by the Middle East Quartet. The region is changing, and the way that the United States deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot remain stuck in the past.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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