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By James J. Barney
Associate Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
Jared Kushner, a senior advisor and son-in-law of President Trump, has been tasked with brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Most foreign policy experts and commentators have panned Kushner’s efforts thus far, citing his inexperience and the intractability of both parties.
However, much of the commentary ignores how many of the current roadblocks to a resolution stem in large measure from the peace process itself and the precedents established by President George H.W. Bush at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991.
The end of the Cold War provided an opportunity to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Bush and his advisors set out to organize a multi-party conference in Madrid that included Israeli, Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian delegations, plus Palestinian representatives from the West Bank and Gaza. But there were no representatives from the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israel refused to meet with.
Bush and his advisors made the purposeful decision that the negotiations would include only those parties deemed acceptable to Israel and excluded those whose position conflicted with U.S. foreign policy. Iran was also excluded, as well as various Islamic fundamentalist organizations active at the time in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
Moreover, following the Madrid conference, the United States created a peace process that has not provided Israel with any meaningful incentive to negotiate with the Palestinians. The precedents established in Madrid have resulted mostly in decades of failure and disappointment.
The time has come for the United States to adopt a different strategy. Kushner’s recent trip to the Mideast to meet with leaders of certain Arab nations hints at a possible favorable change in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Madrid Conference Guaranteed the Failure of an Israeli-Palestinian Peace
Instead of pursuing a comprehensive peace plan among all interested parties, the Madrid conference established the framework for discussions of a bilateral deal between Israel and one segment of the Palestinians. As a result, successive U.S. presidents have pursued the same course without success.
While there were legitimate reasons for excluding certain groups and countries from the peace process and imposing preconditions on the talks, the decision to pursue a bilateral deal between the Israelis and only one segment of the Palestinian population has resulted in serious long-term consequences. The exclusions undermined both the legitimacy and the enforceability of any agreements negotiated by the parties in the bilateral conference system.
United States Policy Failed to Incentivize Changes in Israeli Actions
In addition to limiting the scope of the peace talks, all U.S. presidents in the post-Cold War era have mostly failed to follow up their tough talk directed at Israel with a meaningful change in U.S.-Israeli foreign policy.
For example, George H.W. Bush threatened to withhold billions of dollars of loan guarantees that Israel used to build settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, unless the Israelis agreed to stop or slow down construction of the settlements.
In various speeches in 1991 and 1992, Bush and then-Secretary of State James Baker argued that the continuation of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank represented a barrier to the peace process. Despite Bush’s repeated promises that he would follow through with his threat to withhold the loan guarantees, he ultimately agreed to extend the loan guarantee program.
That experience, along with many similar actions by subsequent presidents, sent a clear message to Israel that despite rhetoric to the contrary, the U.S. was unlikely to follow through on its threats to impose meaningful consequences.
The failure of the United States to follow through with a change in foreign policy toward Israel has also undermined the claim that the United States is an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Without the fear of a real change in U.S.-Israeli policy, Israel has had little incentive to modify its actions. This lack of incentive has hampered the peace process.
The United States Should Embrace a New Multilateral Path to Peace
While bilateral Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts are well intentioned and have been pursued doggedly by a generation of diplomats, they are a road to nowhere. After more than two decades of failure and frustration, the time has come for the U.S. to abandon its efforts at brokering a deal between Israel and only the Palestinians Authority.
Instead, the United States should take the road not taken in the decades following the Madrid conference. The U.S. should focus its efforts on brokering a much broader deal between Israel and Sunni allies friendly to the United States. Such a deal would eventually benefit both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Once unthinkable, the conditions for such a broader, multilateral peace deal between Israel and several Sunni powers including Saudi Arabia is now a plausible opportunity. Increasing Iranian influence in the Middle East and the Syrian civil war have already created an informal alliance between Israel and several of the most important Sunni powers in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
This informal alliance could provide the necessary framework for a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians that was lacking in the past. For example, former President Barack Obama’s focus on the promotion of democracy and human rights, his tacit support for Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and his desire to balance Iran and its Sunni rivals prevented him from fully embracing the leaders in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
However, President Trump’s foreign policy reflects an embrace of both Israel and the Sunni powers, as well as the strong influence of foreign policy realism. This distinguishes him from his predecessor and sets the stage for a possible deal between Israel and the Sunni leaders.
Israel and the Sunni Powers Can Potentially Transform the Middle East
Saudi Arabia’s announcement last month that it intends to build a new $500 billion mega-city called Neom on the Red Sea coast spanning Egypt and Jordan could provide the opening for discussions between Israel and its Sunni neighbors. The Neom project would require at least the tacit support of Israel.
Normalization of Israeli-Arab relations could have a host of positive consequences, including further moderation of the Sunni powers, as well as much-needed investment from the oil-rich Sunni countries in the West Bank and Gaza.
Nothing moderates young men and women more than the security of a job and economic stability. A peace deal between the Sunni countries and Israel might bring both to the long-suffering Palestinians. A peace deal would also result in the deradicalization or marginalization of Hamas and other Islamists groups in the West Bank and Gaza. That, in turn, might eventually lead to a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Admittedly, a multilateral deal between Israeli and the region’s Sunni powers would not address all outstanding issues, including the central issues of the status of Palestinians and Palestinian statehood. However, a deal between Israel and the Sunni powers would represent a break with the flawed precedents established by the Madrid conference and radically change the dynamics of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Shattering Madrid Conference Precedents May Yield Benefits for All Involved Parties
While Trump’s critics have derided his recent decision to de-certify the Iranian nuclear deal, the decision reflects Trump’s embrace of policies that are supported by both Israel and many Sunni allies of the United States. The alignment of the United States, Israel and the Sunni powers (including Saudi Arabia) against their common enemies would provide a foundation for stronger and more formalized relations between Israel and its Sunni neighbors.
By focusing first on a peace deal or a formalization of relations between Israel and the Sunni powers based on mutual self-interest, Trump might avoid the disappointments of his predecessors who spent years fruitlessly negotiating a peace deal.
Although imperfect, the multilateral approach addresses a major barrier to Israeli-Palestinian peace that has lasted more than 20 years. Because of the real power imbalance between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the perceived lack of any benefit in making concessions to the Palestinians, many Israeli policymakers view any deal with the Palestinians as a “bad deal.”
However, a deal between Israel and several Sunni powers in the region can provide Israel with real and perceived benefits. In the long term, that might motivate Israel to make concessions that will benefit not only Israel but also the Palestinians.
By thinking “outside the box,” Trump might just succeed and bring lasting peace to the Israelis and the Palestinians However, this will be possible only if Trump decides to finally jettison efforts to broker a bilateral deal between Israel and one segment of the Palestinians began by Bush at the Madrid conference.
After more than two decades of failed talks, it is time to start a new chapter, with a multilateral dialogue among Israel and the Sunni nations in the Middle East. Such a dialogue would benefit all parties involved, including the United States and its allies.
About the Author
James Barney is an Associate Professor of Legal Studies within the School of Security and Global Studies at AMU. In addition to possessing a J.D., James possesses several M.A. degrees, including one in American foreign policy, and is currently in the process of completing his Ph.D. in History.
He is also the co-faculty advisor of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity and teaches numerous undergraduate and graduate legal studies courses. James is a lawyer admitted to practice law in New York, New Jersey, Alabama and the District of Columbia. He has served in various roles at several debating and moot trial competitions in New York and Washington, D.C.
In the summer of 2017, James traveled to the Presidential Library of George H.W. Bush in College Station, Texas, to conduct archival research into the loan guarantee controversy and the Madrid peace conference. He is currently preparing a formal paper that will argue that there are similarities between the policies towards Israel of President George H.W. Bush and President Barack Obama.