- Policy Options in a Time of Transition:The US and the Israel-Palestine Conflict
After decades of unprecedented national concern and diplomatic mobilization, popular and policy interest in Israel's continuing settlement in the territories occupied in June 1967 has all but disappeared. This inattention is not a consequence of an American policy triumph, but rather the opposite. Observers of all persuasions agree that during its first term, the administration of President Barack Obama was singularly unsuccessful in leading a diplomatic process between the antagonists. It stood by as Israel continued to marginalize the PLO and expand settlements in occupied territories, even as the PLO focused on building a new, and at times troubled, relationship with Islamist forces ruling the Gaza Strip. On Obama's watch, policymakers and the public alike have surrendered to the passions that drive the conflict. Seemingly unable to affect the course of the conflict, and drawn to the more hopeful and dramatic narratives of the Arab Spring, the American public and policymakers alike have become bored with the problem between Israelis and Palestinians.
But while the public may be forgiven for its lack of attention to, and interest in, the finer points of the conflict, policymakers are responsible for adhering to a more exacting standard. When the vital national interests of the United States are at stake, as they are in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, there is no credible excuse for inattention, much less for failure.
President Obama has noted that the United States is in an "era of transition"2 as it seeks to define and preserve its interests in a rapidly changing and sometimes revolutionary international environment. This article is both a response to these uncertain times and a guide for navigating them. It outlines a results-oriented paradigm for resolving the bitter antagonisms between Israelis and Palestinians that have eluded solution for decades. The article rests upon a new, if unremarkable assumption — that the United States, in order to advance its own interests, is obliged to draw a picture of the future of relations between Israel and a new state of Palestine and to lead the parties, as well as the international community, in realizing this vision.
Notwithstanding the current policy malaise, nothing that has transpired in recent years is cause to alter the considered judgment that the resolution of the festering conflict between Israel and Palestine remains a critical and vital national security interest [End Page 249] of the United States and a necessary prerequisite for fully realizing the uncertain promise of the Arab Spring. In order to act, and to convince others to act in concert, leaders need to be credibly committed to this unambiguous objective. As a new but uncertain era dawns in the Middle East and North Africa, the creation of a firm foundation for peace and security that includes the state of Israel living in peace and within recognized boundaries alongside the state of Palestine remains a core US interest.
America's vital security interest in a solution was most cogently advanced by General James Mattis, commander of US Central Command, in March 2011:
I believe the only reliable path to lasting peace in this region is a viable two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. This issue is one of many that is exploited by our adversaries in the region, and it is used as a recruiting tool for extremist groups ... The lack of progress also creates friction with regional partners and creates political challenges for advancing our interests by marginalizing moderate voices in the region. By contrast, substantive progress on the peace process would improve CENTCOM's opportunity to work with our regional partners and to support multilateral security efforts.3
President Obama himself made the same point when he declared:
It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.4
The policy consequences of such sober assessments are clear. The newly reelected American...