Magazine article Brookings Review

The United States and Middle East Peace: The Case for Arbitrating Israeli-Palestinian Disputes

Magazine article Brookings Review

The United States and Middle East Peace: The Case for Arbitrating Israeli-Palestinian Disputes

Article excerpt

The Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principles agreement (DOP) of September 1993 shattered a long-standing axiom of Middle East diplomacy: that Arab-Israeli peace agreements can be achieved only through U.S. leadership. Although President Clinton hosted the signing ceremonies and watched benevolently as PLO leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, the U.S. role in the secret Palestinian-Israeli negotiations leading to the accord was insignificant. That surprising development has spurred reassessments, both in Washington and in Middle East capitals, of what the U.S. role in the Middle East peace process should be. The Clinton administration concluded that the United States should henceforth be much less active. But while the lowered U.S. profile may in some ways have helped move the region toward peace, the ongoing negotiations between Israel and the PLO--and the peace process more generally--may falter without a new U.S. approach: arbitration.

Changing Times

From the 1967 Arab-Israeli war to the 1993 DOP, both Israel and the Arab states sought active U.S. involvement in Arab-Israeli negotiations, but their visions of that role differed sharply. Arab states hoped the United States would press a dependent client; Israel wanted Washington to facilitate bilateral negotiations with Arab states and guarantee emerging agreements. So strong was the U.S. element in Arab-Israeli negotiations that the 1978 Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt reflected a competition between the two states for alliance with the United States as much as a desire to reach a bilateral agreement.

The end of the Cold War and the 1991 Gulf War had already led some Arab leaders to rethink the U.S. role. As they saw it, the diminished threat to American strategic interests, at least in the short term, would leave U.S. Middle East policy increasingly to domestic politics, where Israel had a decisive edge. In part, this belief explains PLO leaders' preference for secretly seeking a bilateral deal with Israel, instead of awaiting U.S. initiative. They calculated that Israeli politicians would be more likely to reconcile themselves to the PLO, for strategic reasons, than would U.S. politicians facing unfavorable opinions of the PLO at home.

The success of the secret Israeli-Palestinian negotiations convinced the Clinton administration to adopt a strategy of detachment. Clinton even claimed credit for the agreement, arguing that his refusal to intervene in prior Arab-Israeli disputes forced the PLO to compromise. Since 1993, the United States has confined itself to acting largely as a facilitator of bilateral Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and as a catalyst for mobilizing international economic support for emerging agreements.

So far, the record of the new approach has been mixed. With U.S. backing, the parties have settled into a bilateral negotiating routine and the process is edging forward, albeit at a snail's pace. During the first stage of the DOP agreement, Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza and Jericho. Washington mobilized international pledges of economic aid to the newly self-governing Palestinian areas--a task deemed essential given the pressing need for tangible economic improvements. Palestinian police have been surprisingly effective in maintaining order within Gaza and Jericho, and despite worsening economic conditions, the radical Islamist opposition is supported by less than a quarter of the Palestinian public, according to polls.

Yet recurring crises have dogged implementation of further stages of the agreement. The two sides have settled almost every crisis by further postponing issues of contention, and every delay has offered new opportunities for determined foes of the agreement to undermine the process. Meanwhile, only a fraction of the promised aid has arrived, and instead of improving, per capita GDP in Gaza has fallen nearly a third while joblessness has risen to more than 50 percent. …

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