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U.S. Diplomatic Leadership Is Needed to Restore Security and Protect Rights in the Middle East Conflict

Jerusalem's Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and Al-Aqsa mosques, December 2020.

The devastating human costs of the ongoing conflict in Gaza and Israel continue to rise. The Center for American Progress calls on the Biden administration to adopt a more proactive and engaged approach that prioritizes protecting human rights and security and the lives of the most vulnerable, particularly children.

In the first week of this latest episode of violence, dozens of children and women have been killed. The conflict has harmed and undermined press freedom. The violence must stop now. The United States has a special role in upholding international standards of human rights consistently, especially in the most difficult and complicated situations, such as the current conflict between the Israeli government and Hamas.

The United States should launch a diplomatic campaign led by senior U.S. officials aimed at achieving an immediate ceasefire in the conflict between Hamas and Israel. Urgent action in the short-term should focus on ending the violence and putting human security first, with the top priority focused on safeguarding the basic freedoms of the most vulnerable civilians threatened in the conflict.

As it works to achieve a ceasefire, the Biden administration should connect these immediate efforts with a longer-term vision that bolsters Palestinian and Israeli leaders who seek to address the vulnerabilities and inequities exposed once again by the latest crisis, and build a more sustainable future for both peoples. The long-term goal should seek to advance a new type of diplomacy and politics where Palestinian and Israeli leaders are more responsive to their people. The vision should focus on ensuring two democratic, secure, and sustainable states that safeguard the basic freedoms of those living there.

U.S. leadership on this front is essential—this country has uniquely diverse relationships in the region that could produce the conditions necessary for progress. In the immediate, the United States should act on the following two fronts.

  1. Security and immediate conflict resolution. The United States should continue providing appropriate support consistent with U.S. laws to Israel and the Palestinian Authority to bolster the capacity of the legitimate governing authorities to protect all people, especially the most vulnerable exposed to the current conflict. No sustainable resolution is possible as long as people feel threatened by violence. The United States has a role in making the parties feel secure and encouraging actions that support functioning democracies, which will best serve Israelis and the Palestinians alike. It should continue to urge Israeli authorities to respond to the horrifying intercommunal violence within Israel by seeking to apply the rule of law equally to all citizens of Israel. The United States should also continue to support long standing efforts by the Palestinian Authority to maintain security in a manner that respects the basic rights of its people.
  1. Diplomacy to achieve an immediate ceasefire and open channels for urgent humanitarian aid. Security support measures are the essential ingredient for diplomacy working for an immediate ceasefire. But these efforts require an all-hands-on deck diplomatic surge working in close coordination with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other international actors. President Joe Biden’s calls to leaders represent important initial steps. But the United States needs to launch a diplomatic surge working by, with, and through Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, all countries that have their own networks of relationships with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas to achieve a ceasefire. President Biden and the Senate should expedite the nomination and confirmation of a U.S. ambassador to Israel. Active diplomatic engagement and security coordination with all of these actors can serve as a buffer against retrograde elements, including Iran, Hezbollah, and terrorist networks who actively seek to inflame the situation and exploit the insecurity of ordinary Palestinians and Israelis.

These two immediate steps should serve as a starting point for a more engaged long-term approach that addresses conditions that caused the current environment of overwhelming fragility and volatility. A steady and reliable strategic reengagement by the United States on the Arab-Israeli front should lead with diplomacy backed by a regional political and security approach that supports freedom and equality inside a two-state resolution to the conflict.

As the current security crisis is resolved, the United States should invest in a more proactive, constructive approach aimed at achieving three key outcomes:

  1. A more inclusive Palestinian government responsive to its people. The Biden administration should continue the initial steps it took in its first 100 days to rebuild relationships with the Palestinian people and their leaders by reestablishing direct diplomatic contact after years of isolation and restarting essential humanitarian and economic assistance to the Palestinian people. In addition to these measures, the United States should look for ways to reopen an independent U.S. consulate in Jerusalem to serve as the main contact point for working with a broader range of Palestinians. A key vulnerability exposed by the current crisis is the weakness of the Palestinian institutions established decades ago to work for the Palestinian people. Extremist groups using violence have exploited the political deadlock and dysfunction. It is critical for the United States to more actively engage with Palestinians and with key regional partners who have relationships with a broader range of political actors. A new U.S. diplomatic approach should be aimed at helping an emerging generation who seek a forward-looking political environment.
  1. Improved living conditions for Palestinians, in part driven by an international economic stimulus package to respond to humanitarian needs, address economic inequalities, and the ongoing effects of the pandemic. The Biden administration restarted some aid and announced additional assistance to Palestinians, but far more is needed as part of a new diplomatic effort to create the conditions needed for success to achieve a two-state solution. These measures are part of the tools needed to reconnect the United States with an ability to help the Palestinian people gain the greater security, freedoms, and economic opportunities that they deserve. They will also better position Palestinians and their leaders to determine with their Israeli counterparts the best course forward for all those who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
  2. A broader regional stabilization effort driven by a comprehensive regional diplomatic effort and backed by steady security support. The Biden administration should expand or build upon the Quartet and Arab Quartet entities for an inclusive multilateral group of countries working together to create more openings on the Arab-Israeli front while also taking steps to de-escalate tensions with Iran and ending conflicts. The Biden administration should build on the recent normalization accords between Israel and several Arab countries to strengthen the security and economic support to Palestinians and Israelis. This regional diplomacy should include the Palestinians and seek to improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis in tangible ways, with a particular focus on Palestinians, who lag far behind their neighbors on most measures. Improving quality of life and security of Palestinians and Israelis alike is necessary to lay a stronger foundation for a sustainable peace that has legitimacy; meets the national aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians; and secures the rights of all people. It should also seek to use regional diplomacy to address the shared concerns about the security and sanctity of the holy sites in the sacred city of Jerusalem.