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Laying the Groundwork for a Return to Peace Talks

Secretary of State John Kerry

SOURCE: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about his trip to the Middle East during a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday, June 30, 2013.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has just completed his fifth trip to Israel and the West Bank as secretary, holding multiple meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to bring the two leaders back to the negotiating table. Secretary Kerry’s efforts underscore the importance of the two-state goal for U.S. interests, as well as the urgency of the moment.

But the effort to restart direct talks is only one of several key areas of focus for Secretary Kerry. Recognizing that talks are not an end in themselves, Kerry has been moving on several fronts in an effort to create a context more conducive to productive negotiations. These efforts include: $4 billion in economic development assistance for the Palestinian Authority, announced in May at the World Economic Forum conference in Jordan; the appointment of Gen. John Allen as special envoy on security issues; outreach to domestic U.S. constituencies to generate greater support for U.S. peace efforts; and securing changes in the Arab Peace Initiative consistent with Israeli concerns to serve as a regional basis for peace.

In March a team from the Center for American Progress traveled to Israel and the West Bank, meeting with a range of Israeli, Palestinian, and other leaders, as well as analysts and journalists. The report from that trip contains a number of still-relevant recommendations for the administration as it works to reinvigorate the peace process:

  • The United States should continue to expand security cooperation with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Turkey, and seek to integrate this cooperation within wider regional security efforts. At a time of major turmoil and uncertainty in the region, the United States needs to take steps to enhance its security coordination with closer partners.
  • The United States should follow the model it used with Israel over the past two years to enhance the quiet, behind-the-scenes coordination and sharing of information on Iran, and apply it to the emerging security challenges, including Syria’s civil war. The two countries should launch more expansive security dialogues on the regional security threats. The important efforts to utilize the security framework established in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty helped deal with new security threats in places such as the Sinai Peninsula.
  • The Obama administration should continue to make the case to the U.S. Congress for U.S. support to the Palestinian Authority. For nearly two decades the United States has provided assistance to the Palestinian Authority in programs supporting security, rule of law, democracy and good governance, education, health, and private enterprise. The United States has made important investments in building Palestinian security forces, and the Obama administration and Congress should work together to ensure that these investments continue. These investments have paid tangible dividends for Israel, demonstrated by the fact that 2012 was the first year since 1973 that no Israeli civilians were killed by terrorism emanating from the West Bank. Beyond the continued security assistance and cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, the United States has an interest in its economic and political viability.
  • Explore ways for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to take confidence-building steps that help restore the trust lost during the past decade. An immediate restart of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians does not appear likely; many leaders on both sides said an immediate resumption is not at the top of their agendas. Some Palestinian and Israeli leaders suggested that immediately returning to direct talks could even potentially be harmful at this stage given the lack of trust and confidence.

As stated by multiple U.S. presidents and military leaders, finding a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the national security interests of the United States. As Secretary Kerry stated during his Senate confirmation hearing, “So much of what we aspire to achieve and what we need to do globally, what we need to do in the Maghreb and South Asia, South Central Asia, throughout the Gulf, all of this is tied to what can or doesn’t happen with respect to Israel-Palestine.” For Israel, in the words of one Israeli official, “the conflict shadows [our] relationships” with the Arab world, preventing Israel’s integration into the region, acting as a driver of unrest, and offering a useful tool for anti-Israel propagandists. For the Palestinians, the occupation that began in 1967 creates daily hardships and prevents them from realizing a decent and dignified life.

Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, the American people are understandably wary of the costs of continued engagement in the Middle East. The transitions now occurring in the region will continue to challenge policymakers in ways we can’t anticipate. While pessimism over the prospects for a two-state agreement is in fashion in Washington, Secretary Kerry’s efforts should be supported. It’s important to involve as many actors in the region as possible; as Israel’s most trusted ally, only the United States can provide the necessary guarantees for a peace agreement. Recent polling shows that, despite their many differences, Israelis and Palestinians agree that the United States should play a larger role in overcoming the stalemate. As articulated by multiple U.S. administrations, an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is in both the U.S. and Israeli interest, and U.S. leadership and engagement remains essential to achieving that goal.

Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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