As President Obama’s second term begins, making a concerted effort to create a viable and lasting peace in the Middle East is a national and global security imperative. Carnegie hosted a discussion of former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer’s new essay collection, Pathways to Peace: America and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, with Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher, former National Security Council official William Quandt, the International Crisis Group‘s Robert Malley, and former U.S. peace negotiator Aaron David Miller. Ambassador Kurtzer moderated the discussion.

A Call to Action

  • Time is of the Essence: While the authors of Pathways to Peace hold divergent opinions about the appropriate U.S. course of action in the Middle East, most agree that now is the time for the United States to make a serious and concerted effort to activate the peace process, Kurtzer said. Muasher added that facing the “difficult” task of tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict today is clearly preferable to waiting until the two-state solution has become an “impossible” goal. If the peace process is left unattended as the United States waits for the dust to settle, “it will not settle on the side of peace,” he warned. Malley also advocated moving forward before the opportunity for a two state solution “slips away,” despite eroded U.S. power and a reluctance of Arab states to aid in the peace process. Miller took a more negative view, saying that he does not think a “conflict ending agreement” is likely to “materialize any time soon.”
  • U.S. Strategic Interests: Quandt asserted that while Israeli-Palestinian peace is not a panacea for regional problems, it would be an important strategic step forward for the United States. He added that American military commanders have reiterated this sentiment and recognize Middle East peace as an important U.S. foreign policy objective.

Opportunities for Peace

  • Regional Partners: Quandt explained that relatively friendly U.S. relations with Turkey and Egypt may give Obama an important window of opportunity. Turkey and Egypt both hope to moderate Hamas and isolate Iran and may therefore serve as key strategic partners in the region.
  • Taking Ownership of the Peace Process: Taking a different view, Miller asserted that successful negotiations can only occur when both sides make calculations that convince them to take ownership of the peace process. Only when all parties believe that forging a lasting peace is in their strategic interest will they work to do so, he added. 
  • Regional Instability: Quandt explained that the rising tide of populism in the Arab world has put political pressure on Arab leaders to prove their support of the Palestinian cause in order to gain legitimacy. Miller further stated that the Arab Spring will make it hard for Egypt’s Morsi to accept a divided Jerusalem or other politically painful compromises. Malley added that Morsi’s priority is not confronting Israel, but rather consolidating domestic power. This could potentially line up with U.S. interests, he added.

Remaining Challenges

  • Obstacles to a Two State Solution: Malley explained that a host of powerful actors, including refugees, settlers, and Islamists, have complicated the peace process. He stated that unless Washington adjusts to the new sociopolitical reality on the ground, the opportunity for a two state solution will slip away. Kurtzer stated, however, that “there is no alternative to the two state solution,” and said that the U.S. must move to “talk about partition” before the conflict becomes more entrenched. Muasher agreed that both sides will ultimately accept a two state solution. 
  • Political Divisions in Palestine: Miller stated that the Palestinian public and its leadership are profoundly divided. “If you don’t control the guns, you don’t control anything,” he said. Malley explained that the balance of power between Fatah and Hamas has changed. Hamas’ recently brokered ceasefire has made it increasingly difficult for Abbas mobilize Fatah’s supporters behind negotiations. Hamas is seen as increasingly effective, and Washington can no longer pretend that Hamas is marginalized and insignificant, he added.
  • Lack of a Coherent American Policy: Kurtzer stated that in the past the president has not had a coherent policy and has simply relied on “approaches” and “tactics.” In order to effectively move the peace process forward, the president must come up with a clear policy and vision for the outcome of the conflict. He added that the Arab-Israeli conflict consistently intrudes on the agenda of the president and there is a danger that without a clear policy, he will simply become a “firefighter” extinguishing small “brush fires” in the region. However, the United States can and should use “tough diplomacy” to effectively push for a two state solution before the conflict becomes any more intractable, Kurtzer argued. The president must have a clear set of parameters for dealing with security, borders, Jerusalem, refugees, and other issues. This will require an effective secretary of state and foreign policy team, the panelists agreed.
  • Congressional Opposition: While Congress makes American peace efforts more difficult, the president can still make progress without congressional support, Quandt stated. Miller cautioned, however, that Obama’s second term election does not mean he can “pursue foreign policy initiatives with abandon.” Muasher added that “Obama has domestic homework to do with Congress” before he puts forth any parameters for Israeli-Palestinian peace. However, Congress is unlikely to object if the president puts forth a lasting solution to the conflict, he asserted.

The Way Forward

  • Demarcating Borders: Obama must insist that a physical template of Israeli-Palestinian borders be created, Kurtzer said. He added that without putting forth a framework to demarcate borders, negotiations will be ineffective.
  • Security: In order to move forward, the United States must work to assure both sides that their security will be improved by a lasting peace agreement. This will include providing security commitments to Israel and assuring Israelis of “the constancy of the U.S. commitment to Israel,” Kurtzer stated.
  • Palestinian Capacity Building: Kurtzer asserted that in order to have an effective two state solution, efforts must be made to improve the Palestinian economy and its institutions to ensure that an independent Palestine would not become a failed state. The United States should assist with these capacity building measures, he added.
  • Fiscal Cliff Negotiations: All of the panelists agreed that Obama must first successfully navigate fiscal cliff negotiations with enough bipartisan support to confront foreign policy challenges.
  • Endgame Deposits: Muasher stated that the president must talk to Israelis and Palestinians in order to understand the exact parameters of their “endgame deposits,” or the concessions they are willing to make. This will allow the United States to convince Arab countries that there are tangible benefits to participating in the peace process that move beyond “confidence building measures,” Kurtzer added.