The first anniversary of President Barack Obama’s historic address announcing a “new beginning” to the Muslim world in Cairo comes at the end of one of the most tumultuous weeks in recent memory for the Middle East. Reverberations from Israel’s raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla threaten to scuttle efforts aimed at jumpstarting a peace process already on life support, and opponents of a two-state solution have seized upon the incident as a means to distract from the broader interests at stake.
The United States should continue to demonstrate leadership in ratcheting down regional tensions while simultaneously maintaining focus on the ultimate goal of a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors. This week’s incident should serve as a reminder of the urgency of achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement for the sake of U.S. national security interests. Difficult weeks like this one underscore the importance of achieving a sustainable peace deal. The White House must manage the current crisis and prepare for other obstacles that will arise in the future in order to ensure that such episodes do not serve to completely derail efforts toward a lasting two-state solution.
The tone and broad vision set by President Obama’s historic speech last year in Cairo provides the foundation and right formula necessary to produce the kind of breakthrough that the region—and U.S. national security interests—need. In order to regain momentum toward the goal of a two-state solution, the Obama administration must work to build the trust of the Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states as well as start to communicate what incentives the United States is prepared to offer them to achieve a conflict-ending agreement. Generations of conflict and tensions exist, so this is not an easy task.
If there is one lesson that the Obama administration should have drawn from its first year of Middle East peace efforts, it is that the administration should not get lost in the weeds of its own tactics. A series of unsuccessful efforts launched by the Obama administration during the past year failed to get the parties to take meaningful steps: Israel did not freeze all settlements, Palestinians did not return to direct negotiations, and Arab states did not provide confidence- building measures to the Israelis. As a result, the White House failed to achieve the kind of trust that the Cairo speech was meant to engender. George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East peace process, has made repeated pleas for patience as the administration has moved from tactic to tactic by saying, “We had 700 days of failure in Northern Ireland (where he served as the lead U.S. negotiator) and one day of success.”
Mitchell’s message of perseverance and determination is welcome and important, but the past year has shown that neither the region nor the United States can afford 700 days of “no” from the parties if the United States is to be taken seriously and indeed trusted as a mediator capable of achieving a sustainable two-state solution. The fact that it took the Obama administration several months to negotiate proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, or PA, shows how difficult the challenges are—proximity talks may be the best that could have been practicably achieved at this stage given the divisions within the Palestinian and Israeli camps and the trust deficit between Israelis and Palestinians.
A more comprehensive strategic approach is needed—one grounded in a sober assessment of what is possible given the current political dynamics in the region. The combination of a right-wing-dominated Israeli government, divided Palestinians, and skeptical Arab states complicates efforts to get the parties to say “yes,” as the past year has shown.
So what can we do now? Three steps are essential. First, the United States should continue playing a leadership role in de-escalating tensions. The intense diplomatic efforts with two close allies Israel and Turkey are front and center at this stage. The White House is right to provide a measured response calling for a “clear and transparent” investigation into the flotilla incident rather than escalate the anger and rhetoric that the tragedy has provoked. This crisis has made it clear that Gaza cannot be left out of the Middle East peace equation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also correct to describe the current situation in Gaza as “unsustainable and unacceptable.”
With tensions high, the United States’ leadership role in focusing the parties on the ultimate objective—a lasting two-state solution—is imperative. The Obama administration must work to turn this—and future crises that will undoubtedly arise—into opportunities to make genuine progress toward resolving the conflict.
Second, as the United States addresses the latest crisis, it must continue to seek to rebuild the trust with all parties—a difficult but not impossible mission.
To do so with the Israelis will require improving the working relationship between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations and combating the common perception in Israel that the United States has focused exclusively on Israeli responsibilities to move the peace process forward. The Obama administration’s enhanced military cooperation with Israel, repeated assurances of its strong commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship, and recent outreach efforts to the American Jewish community in an effort to heal the tensions of the past year have all helped. By offering reassurances to Israel, these efforts increase the chances of advancing U.S. security interests including moving forward a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and curbing Iran’s ability to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Earning the trust of the Palestinians and the Arab states will require the United States to focus on political progress, Israeli accountability, and Gaza. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad desperately need results. Now that the PA has entered proximity talks with the endorsement of the Arab League, they are looking to see whether the United States can hold Israel accountable for actions that jeopardize the two-state solution and bring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sign a deal establishing a Palestinian state. So is Turkey, which is increasingly asserting itself in the region. Recent events underscore the importance for the United States to work closely with Turkey in order to maximize its potential to help advance dialogue in the region, rather than unrest.
Third, the United States must be willing to communicate what incentives—and disincentives—we are prepared to provide the parties in order to facilitate a conflict-ending agreement. In short, if achieving a conflict-ending agreement is indeed in our interests, what are we prepared to do about it?
Security assurances, letters of guarantee, public reprimands and praise, interim agreements, and a new U.S. peace plan should all be part of the tools at the United States’ disposal. So should money. Our considerable investments in Israeli security and Palestinian infrastructure are now in jeopardy. How much will we be willing to spend to safeguard those investments—and our interests in the region? The United States should be prepared to place an offer on the table—a specific package of financial incentives and security guarantees to help achieve a sustainable two-state solution.
The entire international community is now turning to the United States for leadership in response to the events of the past week. As such, the United States has a new opportunity to generate the kind of trust, on-the-ground progress, and incentives that are needed if the region is to move closer to a two-state solution. Doing so would be a major step toward advancing U.S. national security interests and fulfilling the promise of a “new beginning” that President Obama brought with him to Cairo one year ago.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and David Halperin works for Israel Policy Forum.