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How should the U.S. handle Israeli-Palestinian relations? Two different views

December 23, 2010 | 12:44 pm


In this week's Opinion pages, we've had two experts weigh in on how the U.S. should handle Israeli-Palestinian relations. Thursday, Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote that the U.S. could make things worse for the Israelis and Palestinians. From Roadblocks to Mideast peace:

Giving up is not an option, but neither is giving in to the illusion that America holds the key to Mideast peace. It doesn't. Only the Israelis and Palestinians do, and right now neither is invested enough in these talks to allow the effort to succeed. Until they are, there's likely to be more wheel-spinning than real progress.

The good news is that the administration has finally focused on the right issue: how to get Israelis and Palestinians to the end game. But that's also the bad news. The gaps on the core issues are wide, and even on the two least hopeless ones -- borders and security -- there are fundamental divisions.


A breakthrough between Israelis and Palestinians requires them to own and invest in their negotiations in a way they currently don't. Real ownership is usually driven by local factors involving prospects of pain or gain, not by Washington's pleadings or desires.


What should the administration do? Abandon the field, as some have suggested? Withdrawal isn't in our interest, and in any event, our "If it's broke, we can fix it" mentality makes that all but impossible.

Instead, the administration must walk the fine line between doing too much and not enough. The current approach — supporting state-building from the bottom up and engaging Israelis and Palestinians quietly on all the core issues from the top -- is worth a try as long as the president doesn't get overly ambitious, as he did on the settlements issue.

Wednesday, in The U.S. needs to get tough with Israel, Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Palestine Center in Washington, argued:

No legitimate Palestinian leader can negotiate with Israel while it continues to colonize Palestinian land.

The U.S. strategy began to fail when it expected the Israelis to freeze settlements upon request. What the Obama administration apparently didn't realize was that Israel would not change its behavior without an incentive. When that finally became clear, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made an offer that amounted to a bribe.

Generally, the incentive to rectify bad behavior in the international community -- behavior like expanding settlements despite road map obligations and international law -- is delivered by sticks, not carrots. But the deal offered to Israel, which included billions of dollars' worth of advanced F-35s in exchange for a 90-day freeze, was all carrot and no stick.

And it didn't work. 


The biggest mistake the United States has made in the last two years was not its focus on settlements but its failure to use leverage to get the Israelis to stop building them.

Has Washington learned the lesson? Perhaps the answer came earlier this month when Clinton delivered a major policy speech at the Brookings Institution. Though she expressed her frustration with the peace process, she didn't signal any change in the U.S. approach. Clinton's message can be summed up succinctly: We will keep doing what we have done and hope for a better outcome.

At a moment when the world needed to hear a change in direction, we instead were told that the United States is committed to repeating the same failed policies of the past.


If there is no change in the U.S. approach to Israeli violations, no one will take this administration seriously: not the Israelis, certainly not the Palestinians, and presumably not the international community. Who can blame them?


Who's stopping the peace process?

Israeli actions jeopardize two-state solution

Blowback: Israel leaves us no choice but to boycott

Blowback: How the Carmel fire further exposes the misplaced policy priorities of Israel

-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy's seventh annual forum Dec. 10 in Washington. Credit: Jose Luis Magana / Reuters

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