The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Toward an Equitable and Durable Solution

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Key Points

There is an equitable and durable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But such a solution can only be achieved through a long, imperfect process of negotiation. Sadly, Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs in general still see the struggle as an existential conflict over physical security and political identity. U.S. diplomacy must recognize that ending the conflict is a generational proposition.

The fundamental asymmetry between Israeli power and Palestinian weakness undermines any prospect of making the Oslo peace process work.

President Mahmoud Abbas hopes to finish Oslo, but suffers from an absence of legitimacy. Israelis and Americans could enhance his authority by facilitating his ability to deliver politically and economically. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not believe there is a mutually acceptable two-state solution to the conflict. His objective is to improve Israel's tactical, political, and demographic position as best he can for the ensuing struggle.

Through the end of 2005 at least, U.S. policy can only hope to manage the conflict. Following a successful Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, President George W. Bush seems poised to seek Israeli-Palestinian agreement to a state with provisional borders. Success of this initiative would hinge on U.S. willingness to press Israel hard on further settlement building and, subsequently, to draft and sanction a plan for the end game that lays out the parameters for resolving each of the four or five core issues in this conflict.

In any discussion of U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli issue, honest debate and clarity are essential. During my nearly 25 years of advising 6 U.S. secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, 3 basic propositions have been relevant throughout, including during these last 4 years when everything that right-thinking Arabs, Israelis, and Americans worked to achieve seemed to be battered down or broken.

First, there is an equitable and durable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. These words--equitable and durable--are chosen carefully. There is no perfect justice and there never was. Although not necessarily applicable to all conflicts, the one line that needs to be emblazoned over the portal of every negotiating room in the world is that "thou shall not make of the perfect the enemy of the good." Conflicts are resolved when people understand and recognize this.

Second, the only way this conflict will ever be resolved is through the flawed process of negotiation--flawed because it is based on human frailty and weakness, influenced by domestic politics, and requires difficult choices, particularly when these conflicts and the parties who wage them believe they are existential in nature. This is still the perception on the part of Israelis and Palestinians, as well as Arabs in general: that this is really an existential conflict over physical security and political identity.

And finally, the United States has a role to play in this process. In an existential conflict, no great power that is distant to the region can impose or will a solution. The Middle East is littered with the remains of great powers who believed they could impose their will on small tribes. America should not play that kind of role. Iraq is just a cautionary tale. However, the United States has carried out effective diplomacy in the past and is capable of doing so again when certain basic concepts and assumptions are understood. Without a different kind of American role, however, there will be no resolution of this conflict.

A Generational View

The issue of time is a critical variable in any negotiation. Negotiators who misjudge time as a variable are doomed to failure. Arguably, that was probably one of the most critical mistakes made in the last 2 years of the Clinton administration. Policy is usually viewed in terms of Presidential administrations. But there is another view, and that is a generational one. …