The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply rooted in history and involves highly emotional issues: religion, national identity, territorial competition.
The strife has gone on for so long, it has had such destructive effects, and the level of mistrust and hostility is so high that many in the Middle East and elsewhere regard it as unsolvable.
But the renewed pursuit of peace is important to the region and to the United States for many reasons. As 9/11 demonstrated — and as the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as well as Boko Haram in Nigeria remind us today — there are many evil people and groups in the world. And many of those most hostile to the United States are based in the Middle East.
It’s also a region where several countries are American allies. Regrettably, some of them are also at odds with each other.
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the resulting stability in the region would help to deprive the extremists of the chaos in which they thrive. It would also allow the United States to unite its allies to confront and take preventive action against the extremists on their home turf.
Beyond terrorism, the Middle East is centrally located between Europe, Asia, and Africa. Any conflict there could spill over and bring in other world powers in a way that could threaten American political, economic, and military interests. Consider, for instance, that a large portion of the known oil reserves are in the region, and the continuing supply of that oil remains vital to most of the world’s advanced economies, even amid the transition to a lower carbon future.
Moreover, the United States has long had a strong commitment to Israel’s existence and security as well as, more recently, a firm commitment to the establishment of a viable, independent, and sovereign Palestinian state.
In the highly volatile Middle East, instability in one part of the region feeds instability in another part. Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would dramatically improve America’s credibility in the region and could make it possible for Israel and the Sunni-dominated monarchies to work together to combat their common foe: extremist forces across the region.
Achieving these goals requires the United States’ maximum effort, despite the difficulties and setbacks. The key is easy to state but difficult to achieve: It is the mutual commitment of Israel and the Palestinians to reach agreement, with the active participation of the US government, and the support and assistance of the many other governments and institutions that can and want to help. The international community can be most of help by encouraging both sides to look past their historic grievances and to look instead towards a negotiation that deals with the nuts-and-bolts realities of the situation today.
In a major policy speech in Jerusalem in Jan. 2009, President George W. Bush said: “The point of departure for permanent status negotiations . . . is clear: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent. It is vital that each side understands that satisfying the other’s fundamental objectives is key to a successful agreement. Security for Israel and viability for the Palestinian state are in the mutual interest of both parties.”
The president’s main point bears repeating: The United States supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, but for that to happen, Israel must have reasonable and sustainable security. The establishment of a Palestinian state will help Israel achieve that security. Success is in their mutual interest.
On taking office in 2009, President Obama reaffirmed that policy.
He appointed me as special envoy to the region, further signaling his administration’s desire to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It seemed then that the culture of peace, so carefully nurtured during the Oslo Process in 1993, had largely dissipated, to be replaced by a sense of futility, despair, and, ultimately, the inevitability of conflict. Fighting in Gaza, which had erupted the prior year, had just ended. The Palestinians were deeply divided, and uncertainty around upcoming Israeli elections lay ahead. Few believed that there was any chance for rebooting peace negotiations, let alone achieving a peaceful end to the conflict.
Today, in the aftermath of another, even more destructive round of fighting in Gaza, the morale may be even worse.
Many have given up on the two-state solution as efforts to achieve it have not succeeded. The criticism is justified, but no critic has advanced a more credible or feasible alternative. The fact that a two-state solution has not yet been achieved is not in itself conclusive proof that it can never be achieved. Peacemaking requires patience and perseverance.
In Northern Ireland, centuries of discord and violence — and many failed negotiations — preceded the Good Friday Agreement. Just a few days before it was reached, a public opinion poll revealed that 83 percent of those in Northern Ireland believed that no détente was possible.
Of course, the history and current circumstances in the Middle East are different, so the benefits of comparison are limited. But it is clear that past failures to achieve peace do not make that result inevitable. I believe there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.
A solution, however, cannot be imposed externally. The parties themselves must negotiate directly, with the active and sustained support of the United States. This will require compromise and flexibility from the Israelis and the Palestinians. Most of all it will require leadership.
Although he tried very hard, Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent diplomatic efforts have not been successful, nor the previous effort by former Secretary Hillary Clinton. But I still believe this conflict can be ended, in part because the pain required to negotiate an agreement — while substantial for both sides — will be much less than the pain that will result if these negotiations don’t happen.
If the conflict resumes, both Israelis and Palestinians could face an uncertain future. That, of course, includes the loss of many lives. But there are other potential dangers that both parties must recognize.
For the Israelis, I will mention just some of the many challenges. The first is demography. There are now about 6 million Jews living in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. In the same space, there are about 5.5 million Arabs, including Israeli Arabs and Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza. The Arab birth rate overall is much higher. Within just a few years, Arabs will be in the majority.
As Ehud Barak, the former prime minister and defense minister of Israel, has said, Israel then will have to choose between being a Jewish state or being a democratic state. It cannot be both once the two-state solution is lost. That is a painful choice Israel should not have to make.
Their second challenge is in technology. A serious military threat to Israel now comes from rockets. Hamas still has thousands of them. They’re crude, lacking in guidance or destructive power. But they do create widespread fear and anxiety in Israel. And can anyone doubt that, in the absence of a peace agreement, over time Hamas will rebuild and improve their arsenal?
In Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah already has thousands of rockets aimed in its direction — the public estimates in Israel are between 30,000 and 50,000. They’re somewhat more effective, although also limited in range, and before fighting in Syria erupted, Hezbollah was engaged in an effort to upgrade their systems.
Most threatening to Israel, however, Iran now has rockets that can reach Israel from inside Iran itself. The Iranians don’t yet have the precision needed to strike specific targets, but they could cause vast destruction in cities.
The United States is fully committed to Israel’s security. We have provided enormous financial and military support to Israel. Most recently President Obama provided hundreds of millions of dollars to accelerate Israel’s development and deployment of the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Although its early use has been promising, it is unknown whether that or any system could intercept the number and quality of missiles that might be launched in an all-out conflict. Israel’s very existence might then be threatened.
Israel’s third challenge is its isolation. It’s true that its support in the United States is strong, especially in Congress, but similar support is declining elsewhere in the world, particularly in the wake of the most recent round of violence in Gaza.
Some in Israel and in the United States are concerned that a Palestinian state might fail and be taken over by Hamas. That’s a valid concern. But many others believe, as I do, that the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and a takeover by Hamas is more likely in the absence of an agreement with Israel than as the result of such an agreement. One of the many adverse consequences of the recent fighting in Gaza is the extent to which it adversely affected the political standing of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority among Palestinians and other Arabs, making a negotiated agreement even more difficult than it was before.
Of course, there is no policy decision that is free of risk. But finding middle ground is the only way to open up the possibility of movement toward normalization of relations between Israel and other countries in the region, many of whom share Israel’s deep concern about the threat from Iran and the extremist groups now menacing the region.
The Palestinians also face serious hurdles, particularly the indefinite continuation of occupation under which they do not have the right to govern themselves and therefore lack the dignity that comes with self-governance. In 1947, the United Nations proposed a plan to partition the area and create two states. Israel accepted it. The Arabs rejected it. And the next year brought the first of several wars, all of them won by an increasingly strong Israel.
Every sensible Arab leader today would gladly accept that 1947 plan if it were still available. But it is not — and it never will be available again. The circumstances on the ground have changed too dramatically. Since then, the plans offered to the Palestinians have been less and less attractive, and likewise have been rejected.
But, as I directly told both Yasser Arafat, the late chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and President Abbas, there is no evidence to suggest that the offers are going to get any better in the future. The interests of the Palestinian people would best be served if their leaders sat down, participated in, and stayed in direct negotiations to get the best deal they can negotiate, even if it’s not 100 percent of what they want. They must bring the occupation to an end. They’ve got to get their own state and build on it.
Salam Fayyad, when he was prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, tried to lay the foundation by building the institutions needed for a viable, independent state. But Fayyad resigned in 2013, and his state-building efforts cannot be sustained in the absence of any progress on the political side. They are inextricably linked — there must be progress on both.
For the Palestinians, their internal divisions are a complicated matter that keeps getting even more complicated. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas recently announced that they agreed to form a unity government and schedule elections. These discussions have been going on for seven years. In 2011 and 2012, similar announcements of reconciliation were made and subsequently collapsed. This current round was interrupted by Israeli opposition and the fighting in Gaza, but the effort may be resumed. That could provide a political opening for Hamas to move away from its prior positions as well as open an avenue for meaningful negotiation.
When Hamas gained control in Gaza in 2007, the United States joined the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia in a statement calling for the group to commit to nonviolence, to recognize the state of Israel, and to accept previous peace agreements. Hamas has so far shown no inclination to accept or even move toward these principles, and there is no assurance it ever will.
Yet, as happened in South Africa and Northern Ireland — and with the PLO itself — persistent efforts to wean such groups away from armed resistance and into a political process has, on occasion, succeeded.
It was noteworthy that the recently proposed interim Palestinian government was composed of technocrats, all of whom accepted President Abbas’s position on nonviolence. Israel has every right to be wary, but it has itself a long history of negotiating with Hamas through intermediaries, including when Israel secured the release of the captured soldier Gilad Shalit and in recent cease-fire negotiations. The situation is complex, and the odds may be long, but the door to peaceful political negotiation should not be forever closed.
Rebuilding trust is a daunting challenge, not only between political leaders but also two peoples with a long and bitter history of conflict. Still, it is in the best interest of both Israelis and Palestinians to renew hope and to see that peace does prevail. And it is in the United States’ best interest to help them succeed.
George J. Mitchell is the former US special envoy to the Middle East and US Senate majority leader. He now serves as the chairman emeritus of the international law firm DLA Piper.