Israel And The Palestinians: Where Does The United States Go From Here?


John F. Phillips

Once again, conflict has erupted between Israel and the Palestinians, the latest episode in a spasm of violence and counterviolence that has defined the history of the region. It is a mess that defies solution. The issues are complex, the hatred is deep, and neither side seems to be willing to give an inch.

Before embarking on a deeper discussion of the current situation, I would like to make a couple of points.

First, I am incredibly sensitive to the issues surrounding the founding and continued existence of the Jewish state. I have studied, and continue to study, the history, especially the history the Holocaust and the greater Jewish Diaspora. While stationed in Germany in the 1970s, I had the opportunity to visit Dachau, the infamous Nazi concentration camp outside of Munich. I was sickened and outraged when the tour was over. I mourn on Holocaust Remembrance Day. I have met Holocaust survivors and have been deeply moved by their courage and faith. I follow the Twitter account and donate to the Auschwitz Museum, a site that posts daily profiles and photos, as well as date of death, of prisoners who populated the camp . I condemn the indifference of the allies during World War II, who knew about the camps and chose to do nothing. I appreciate the history of Israel and its struggle to exist in the face of extreme hatred. The rise of anti Semitism in the United States and Europe deeply concerns me and should deeply concern everyone who has a conscience.

Second, the nation of Israel has the right to exist and protect its borders and population from attack. This is reality. This is not negotiable. End of discussion.

That being said, the authoritarian approach taken by Israel with respect to the rights of Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians, with the implicit, and sometimes explicit, support of the United States, is counterproductive and does more to threaten Israeli security than it does to secure Israel’s borders and protect its citizens.

More specifically, Israeli restrictions on access to Islamic religious sites in East Jerusalem, the continued seizure of Palestinian homes and property, the building of Jewish settlements in areas taken from the Palestinians, the cramming of millions of Palestinians into Gaza, the Israeli land and sea blockade that contributes to the difficult economic and social conditions there, all the while reinforcing and legitimizing the continuing authoritarianism of Hamas, the concrete walls and checkpoints that control the movement and separation of Palestinians in the West Bank, and, perhaps most importantly, the 2018 Israeli Nation/State Law that codified the identity of Israel as the home of the Jewish people, Hebrew as the official language, and the validation of the national value of Jewish settlements, has created a climate that fosters political instability and catalyzes the continuing cycle of armed conflict.

While a deeper discussion of the historical, political, and social factors is perhaps better left for another day, suffice it to say that none of the parties, Israel, the Palestinian governing authorities (Hamas and the Palestinian Authority), and the United States, as the greatest supporter of Israel on the planet, have a monopoly on virtue in this situation. In addition, Israeli and Palestinian political instability, especially over the past few years, has contributed to the deep cynicism, mistrust, and inflexibility that characterizes the conflict.

The policy approach of the United States hasn’t helped and, in many ways, has contributed to the current situation. The United States has been a staunch, almost unconditional supporter of Israel since its inception in 1948. Israel receives significant military and economic aid from the United States. Unconditional support of Israel is one of the “rails” of American domestic politics and the Israeli government and its American supporters hold politicians accountable at the ballot box.

It could also be said that this unconditional support has encouraged Israel to act, at times, with reckless abandon, without fear of consequences, with the United States providing cover and protecting is flanks.

To its credit, the United States has historically supported a two state solution, negotiated in good faith on both sides, and has worked hard to make it happen, unfortunately, without much success. From the shuttle diplomacy of Henry Kissinger, to the Camp David Accords negotiated by President Jimmy Carter, to the efforts of President Bill Clinton to negotiate a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization led by the late Yassir Arafat, to the efforts of the Obama Administration and former Secretary of State John Kerry, American has tried. Unfortunately, one can lead a horse to water, but one can’t make it drink.

After the failure of the Obama Administration to negotiate a two state settlement following the 2014 Israeli incursion into Gaza, there was shift in American foreign policy away from the two state solution. The fact that Mr. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a very contentious relationship didn’t help the situation. (there is an excellent article by Khalil Shikaki that explains this history on the Foreign Affairs website “Fighting in Gaza Marks the Start of a More Violent Era: The Search for a Two State Solution is Over,”, 20 May 2021).

This movement away from a two state solution gained momentum under President Donald Trump when the United States deepened its support for Israel and, more specifically, the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, by moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a de facto recognition of that city as the capital of Israel and a major shift in American policy. In addition, the United States formally recognized the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the 1967 Arab/Israeli War, and “looked the other way” as Israel expanded its resettlement program. This provided legitimacy to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, contributed to the passage of the Israel Nation/State Law, and has led to even greater influence for conservative/ nationalist Jewish political parties in Israel, making it almost impossible to form a new government after four elections in two years.

So where does the United States go from here?

While President Joe Biden deserves credit for negotiating the current cease fire, the policy of disengagement being practiced before the current violence, is politically bankrupt and an abrogation of American leadership. Yes, Mr. Biden entered office facing a vast array of very critical problems, most importantly the pandemic and economy, and had to devote all of his attention to these issues. I give him tremendous credit for not taking his eye off of the ball.

That being said, American leadership is needed and it isn’t in our national character or interests to walk away. Yes, it will be very hard and the road will be long, but America has to step up. The United States cannot just throw up its hands and say “to hell with it.” During the campaign and in his first interactions with American allies, Mr. Biden passionately argued that, after the “America First” disengagement that characterized Mr. Trump’s approach to foreign policy, America was back and open for business in terms of being engaged with the international community, that allies mattered, and the United States would support its allies. Perhaps the success with the negotiating the ceasefire will give Mr. Biden political room to reconsider his nonengagement approach. It would be politically and morally bankrupt for the United States to look away while the current situation continues to deteriorate.

More specifically, it is time to remove the blind spot that the United States has toward Israel, particularly its support of Mr. Netanyahu. For too long, Mr. Netanyahu and Israel have exploited American support as cover, using it to legitimize its policy toward the Palestinians and the two state solution. This unconditional support of Israel and its hyper nationalist approach to this situation has to end. Now.

This doesn’t mean that the United States totally abandons its support of Israel and its legitimate right to exist, a right that was earned with the blood of six million Jews who were butchered by the Nazis. What it does mean is that support for Israel shifts from unconditional to conditional. It is time for the “carrot and the stick” approach to this problem.

What does this mean?

First, all military and economic aid becomes conditional. No movement forward, no efforts to solve the problem, any continuation and enhancement of policies that reduces the status of, and detracts from, the human dignity of Israeli Arabs or Palestinians, or any policy that derails constructive movement toward a two state solution, reduces or eliminates American aid and political support, domestic American politics be damned. It’s time to end the free ride.

Second, the United States needs to get diplomatic “boots on the ground” yesterday. I’m not talking about some political supporter or donor as ambassador, either; I’m talking about finding the most knowledgeable and best qualified person without political ties, whether in or from outside government, and get them on scene as quickly as possible. The same goes for the counsel/general.

Third, the United States needs to exert maximum pressure on the Israeli government, especially Mr. Netanyahu, in order to reverse the current policies on resettlement, Gaza, the blockade, access to Muslim religious sites in East Jerusalem, the movement of Palestinians, and the seizure of private property. It also has to advocate for changes in the 2018 Israel Nation/State Law that restore the equality of Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians who live in the West Bank and other occupied territories.

Fourth, the Palestinian leadership must also be firmly dealt with and held accountable for its role in the continued conflict. The use of violence by Hamas to attain concessions from Israel is counterproductive, unacceptable, and has to stop.

It must be made unambiguously clear to Mr. Abbas and to the leadership of Hamas that, if the U.S. is going to ruthlessly pressure Israel on behalf of the two state solution, it is going to apply the same ruthless pressure on Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to move forward with new free and fair elections, demilitarization of Gaza and southern Lebanon, a shift away from Iran on the part of Hamas, economic development in Gaza and the West Bank, and a pledge to swear off the use of military force to attack Israel.

If the Palestinian leadership is willing to take the risk in doing that, the United States must make it crystal clear that it has that leadership’s back, to the same extent it has Israel’s back.

It is time to start thinking outside of the box on this problem. It’s time for the United States to make “good trouble” in terms of its approach. The traditional approaches of “quiet diplomacy”, while successful in negotiating the current cease fire, no longer work toward driving a permanent solution that leads to the creation of the Palestinian state and security for Israel. Israel is losing support among Democrats and some centrist Republicans. The use by Israel of authoritarianism, disguised in terms national security and protection of Israel’s right to exist as the Jewish homeland, is a dead end and morally bankrupt.

Some are saying that this problem is unsolvable, saying that the best approach is to manage the status quo and accept the reality that the cycle of violence can’t be broken. I say bovine scatology to that. This is a very, very, very difficult problem, but the United States and its allies can’t just walk away. What would have happened if the United States and its allies had walked away from the threat of Germany and Japan during World War II or the Soviet threat during the Cold War?

Israel has earned the right to exist and protect itself with the blood of those who perished in the death camps and under Nazi occupation. The Palestinians, by virtue of being there first, have also earned the right to live peacefully as a nation/state, taking advantage of the political and economic freedom that can be provided by a Palestinian state governed by enlightened leadership It’s time to move on from the past and move toward the two state future.

That’s how I see it from the heartland of America.

How do you see it?

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