By Dr. Tamir Libel and Ms. Emily Boulter
The United States is facing a crisis of credibility. 2013 was a difficult year for the Obama administration as disenchantment grew over the failure of the US to abide by its own “red lines” and take demonstrative action against the forces of the Assad regime in Syria and take a position regarding political upheaval in Egypt. In September the Chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus said in a statement that, “this rudderless diplomacy has embarrassed America on the world stage”. On the eve of the US striking a deal with Iran, former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright said that the “US must overcome a loss of trust from Arab nations that’s developed since the Iraq war”. It is this loss of trust that must be dispelled if the US is to stand any chance of making diplomatic breakthroughs and regaining confidence across the Arab world.
The one issue where Washington has the last word is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In this part of the world, the road to Cairo and Damascus, runs through Tel Aviv. If the United States wants to regain its footing and credibility in key Arab capitals, and perhaps more importantly on the Arab street, it must devote serious efforts over the coming months to achieve a workable framework agreement for a two state solution. It is this old chestnut that holds the key to US and Western interests in the region. The situation at the moment has become precarious. In early November US Secretary of State John Kerry warned that the conditions are ripe for a third Intifada. And it is an open secret that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama dislike each other. However pragmatic voices understand that Israel has to remain on good terms with the US if there is any hope of reaching a final status agreement. Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni believes that tackling the threat of Iran and reaching a deal with the Palestinians is “critical and crucial” for Israel’s future. Without solving these issues, Israel is in danger of becoming an “isolated state”.
The US is also the only country that can resolve the crisis of faith among ordinary Palestinians. According to a poll conducted in late November by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre (JMCC), over fifty percent of Palestinians surveyed said they thought it was a mistake for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to resume US-brokered peace talks with Israel in July. What’s more Israeli officials such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman believe that no agreement can be reached with either the Palestinian Authority or its president. “Trust between the two sides is zero”, he says. In other words expectations are extremely low, but despite the many fits and starts both sides have a real desire for something to change.
Therefore in order to regain the faith of both the Palestinians and Israelis, the US must take the lead in pushing for a breakthrough and refrain from any deviations from the long-agreed solution, offered by the international community, for two sustainable, equal and internationally recognised states. This is outlined in numerous documents and initiatives such as the Clinton Parameters and the Road Map for peace. Former US commander in Afghanistan Gen. John R. Allen, who is now acting as Kerry’s advisor on security arrangements, believes that it is feasible to have a two-state solution that meets Israel’s core security needs.
As we enter 2014, the US must take demonstrative steps in pushing for a workable agreement, that Obama mentioned at the 10th annual Saban Forum, would give the Palestinians a “real and meaningful” state of their own. And in light of political instability afflicting the surrounding region, Israel also wants to ensure its own long term security interests. Cementing US resolve to reach a workable agreement, would go some way in reinstating in the minds of Arabs across the region and also among key European allies that the US has the courage to take the steps necessary that can lead to a positive solution. The complete mistrust between the Israelis and Palestinians, the low expectations, and the readiness on both sides to resort to violence make it necessary for a more proactive use of American power that can reach a desirable conclusion.
Dr. Libel is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Centre for War Studies at University College Dublin (UCD)
Ms. Emily Boulter is a Non-Resident Associate at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), and a columnist for the Dutch business magazine “The International Correspondent”.