Averting a Deeper Crisis in the Middle East

The violence in Gaza this past week creates new facts on the ground and generates new laments about increasingly limited options for the United States in the Middle East. For all those concerned about security, stability, and the values we hold dear, what happened in Gaza is a harsh wakeup call—one that should spark action going forward, not just words of regret for what brought us here.

We can’t say we weren’t warned. Last fall on the ABC News program “This Week,” King Abdullah of Jordan warned of three possible civil wars in the Middle East in 2007. The first civil war was already underway in Iraq and two others were quite possible among the Palestinians and Lebanese. A staunch ally of the United States, Abdullah repeated his core message of the need for increased U.S. leadership to stabilize the Middle East in a Joint Session of Congress in March.

Long before he raised these concerns, however, careful observers of events in the West Bank and Gaza had already noted the dangerous divisions and predicted the ugliness that the world saw spilling in Gaza’s streets this week. Leaders in Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization had recognized Israel and readily participated in negotiating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But many of these leaders were notoriously corrupt and provided little opportunity for new approaches and new leaders to emerge.

The Fatah-led government also had too few tangible results to show the Palestinian people on the key issues most directly affecting their lives: not enough jobs or quality education; constraints put in place to protect Israeli settlements that impeded Palestinians’ movement; and limits on the movement and access for goods and services that held back Palestinian businesses’ ability to export products, sustain, and grow jobs.

In sum, this absence of leadership resulted in the failure to deliver what the Palestinian people so desperately seek: a government that offers the hope that Palestinian children can aspire to a better future than their parents in a society that respects the rule of law and rewards those who respect it.

Hamas exploited the gap between Palestinians’ expectations and their daily lives. They won an election last year on the Palestinian leadership’s failure to deliver. Arguably, they’ve now won a costly battle for control of Gaza. We cannot allow them to win any more.

So how to steer a better course? The president of the Palestinian Territories, Mahmous Abbas, his nominee for new prime minister Salaam Fayyad, and other key Palestinian leaders cannot go it alone. Israel must now work with Palestinians in the West Bank to achieve near-term results with increased intensity. But that alone is not sufficient.

The United States must step to the front, working closely with our European allies to bring together all the countries with a direct stake in ensuring that the Palestinian people have a future considerably better than their recent past. In addition, not just Israel, but the entire Arab League must be brought into the conversation.

Through bilateral discussions with key countries and an immediate international conference, the United States and its allies can lay out a framework for pulling back from the brink of further chaos. Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank should start by working toward a political resolution to their conflict and take steps to build a Palestinian state anchored in the West Bank. Specific measures include:

  • Israel allowing an increased flow of people and goods throughout the West Bank.
  • Joint Israeli-Palestinian efforts to address shared concerns about law and order.
  • Israel’s dismantlement of some settlements immediately as a sign of good faith and to eliminate impediments to basic transit problems settlements pose.
  • Pressure and increased incentives by the international community led by the Middle East Quartet (the United States, Russia, the United Nations) and the European Union, to motivate Palestinian leaders to undertake significant reforms.
  • Efforts by the Arab League to support the Palestinian economy in the West Bank.

One vital goal of all of these efforts is to help Palestinians construct a governing authority that delivers to the people, in words attributed to another seemingly intractable conflict in Northern Ireland that has recently moved closer to resolution: “Justice must be seen to be done.”

While making political progress in the West Bank the primary focus, we cannot abandon Gaza. First and foremost, members of the Arab League should take the lead in facilitating humanitarian operations in Gaza to address the growing crisis there. Ignoring or isolating Gaza puts Israel, Egypt, and the region at greater risk and ignores an international obligation to the 1.4 million people living in a small enclosed area of 360 square kilometers who did not choose this fate—regardless of how they may have voted in the 2006 elections.

Israel continues to maintain control over the Gaza Strip’s lifeline energy and water needs. Terrorist groups have smuggled weapons through the border with Egypt, and all countries in the region are threatened by what Islamist militants could send back across Gaza’s borders. What happens in Gaza will not stay in Gaza. How Hamas chooses to exercise its newly gained authority—what it delivers to its people and to its neighbors—will affect us all.

The key ingredient necessary to put all of these pieces together is U.S. leadership. In the aftershocks of such a grim setback, some argued that the United States should do nothing because the situation is so complicated. This is exactly the wrong approach.

U.S. leaders should have the confidence to tackle a difficult situation that just got more complicated. The United States has experienced similar crises before, and it has capably managed similar shocks to advance its interests. In a short year-and-a-half period from 1989-1991, the United States under a different President Bush managed the aftershocks from the Soviet Union’s break up, German reunification, and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The first Bush administration did so through a series of interlinked, multi-track diplomatic efforts. The United States has managed tough challenges before, and it can do so again.

In the near term, the Middle East Quartet should work jointly with Israel and the Arab League to negotiate a cease-fire. Part of this arrangement must include humanitarian and medical assistance to the Palestinian people of Gaza. To help these efforts, Israel might consider offering up the remaining tax revenues proportionately due to Gaza in the forms of international relief most likely to reach Palestinian Gazans quickly. Coordinated international efforts implemented by the Arab League can help ensure greater humanitarian needs are met so that the people of Gaza are able to see out to the West Bank and look beyond the immediate crisis to another horizon.

We cannot allow the political horizon—two states, Israel, and a future Palestinian state that includes both the West Bank and Gaza, with sustainable viable borders outlined by President Bush nearly five years ago in the Rose Garden—to fade from view in light of this dangerous setback in Gaza. Instead, all eyes need to remain fixed on that horizon through an international call of “all hands on deck.”

With the Quartet in the lead, the United States making clear its commitment to peace, and the Arab League as key players working with Israel, the current crisis offers an opportunity to test the propositions of the recent Saudi Initiative to jumpstart a failing peace process and keep hope alive for a two-state solution that brings stability to the Middle East one day.

Mara Rudman and Brian Katulis are senior fellows who work on Middle East Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress.