Whenever a new president takes office, speculation abounds about how long it will take for the incoming administration to dive into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and try to solve it. In some cases, administrations put a high priority on the issue from the get-go, as happened under President Obama and his immediate appointment of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as his special envoy, or as happened under President Trump with his frequent musings about overseeing the “ultimate deal.” In some cases, pushing the Israelis and Palestinians together does not happen until later, such as under President George W. Bush. But no matter the administration, the focus when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian issues inevitably turns to the quest for a shiny final status peace agreement between the two sides.
The conventional wisdom with one month to go before Joe Biden takes office is that this time will be different, largely because Biden will be consumed with more pressing issues from combatting COVID-19 to managing the complexities of whether or not to reenter the JCPOA, but also because everyone recognizes that the conflict is not ripe for resolution. The Abraham Accords have confirmed the Israeli right’s view that there is no reason to be concerned about the Palestinian issue since the status quo is not only tenable but no longer actively prevents Israeli relationships with Arab states. The Palestinian leadership looks even more lost than usual, whipsawing between condemning states that normalize ties with Israel and begging those states to back them up while complaints about President Abbas’s insularity and monopoly over decision-making get even louder. The hurdles to negotiations are so high that for the first time in awhile, nobody seems inclined to even try, and given the history of failed efforts that leads both sides to harden their positions and to outbreaks of violence, an American decision to not force the issue is a good thing.
But there is another reason that the U.S. should be abandoning any pretense of acting as a mediator for final status talks in the near future. Yesterday, the Center for a New American Security released a report on a new U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, co-authored by Ilan Goldenberg, Tamara Cofman Wittes, and me. We have a bevy of policy prescriptions for both the short and medium terms and recommendations for how the U.S. should reorient its approach, but they all stem from one central conviction, which is that the focus on high-profile diplomatic initiatives is not only futile but actively harmful. It isn’t simply that it is a waste of time and energy on two parties who are not ready to make anything close to the compromises that would be necessary for the other side to take the effort seriously. It is that doing so has led to papering over pressing issues that may matter even more to the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians, and in constantly grasping for the trees of a future deal, we ignore the forest of promoting positive change in the present.
While a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that establishes a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel should remain the ultimate objective, focusing on the process to get there has been costly. Israelis are safer now than in years past, in large part due to the role of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces in keeping the West Bank relatively quiet and their coordination with the IDF and Shin Bet, but the desire to keep the Palestinians at the negotiating table has often led the U.S. to overlook Palestinian corruption and incitement. The U.S. encouraged the elections that brought Hamas to power in no small measure out of a desire to reinforce the legitimacy of a Palestinian government that it hoped would then negotiate with Israel, and nothing the U.S. has done since has dislodged Hamas’s hold over Gaza. The Israeli government also expresses frustration with constant American exhortations to negotiate, countering that it has not been the stumbling block to negotiations and that the Palestinians have been the party that has either refused to engage or walked away prematurely.
On the Palestinian side, the damage accrued over decades of focusing on the end point rather than the here and now is more evident. When the U.S. tried tactics such as asking for temporary settlement freezes in order to enable negotiations rather than constructing a more coherent and durable policy on Israeli construction in the West Bank, it enabled rapid Israeli expansion across Area C as soon as the temporary freeze expired. As successive administrations prioritized talks, Israelis moved to the West Bank in greater numbers and to an expanding list of locales, resulting in approximately 430,000 Israelis now living in Area C across one hundred thirty legally approved and established settlements and over one hundred illegal ones, destroying any Palestinian contiguity for a future state or even effective self-governance should they all remain. The Palestinian economy has fallen further behind Israel’s, and its governmental institutions have become even less responsive, less democratic, and less transparent as the U.S. priority has been to just make sure there is a Palestinian entity that can participate in peace talks. Over the past six months, the U.S. focus on a different set of talks, those between Israel and Arab states, has been beneficial for Israel and for the wider region but has meant that the comparative indifference to daily Palestinian quality of life has gotten even worse.
This is not to suggest that this is all, or even primarily, the fault of the U.S. But from a U.S. policy angle, it does mean that we have prioritized talks for their own sake over preventing conflict and ensuring stability, and over the freedom, security, and prosperity of Israelis and Palestinians. It is why my co-authors and I argue that U.S. policy should put the goal and prospect of negotiations on the farthest back burner and pay much more direct and sustained attention to accomplishing some tangible good. That includes policies designed to preserve the possibility of two states, and also policies that have nothing to do with the final outcome but will improve the lives of people on both sides.
To take two prominent examples, a strict focus on overseeing negotiations might suggest withdrawing American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and maintaining the defunding of UNRWA. The status of Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees are both traditional final status issues, and either step might make it easier for the other side to agree to U.S. requests to negotiate under American auspices. But recognition of Jerusalem is not only important to Israelis emotionally, it signals important U.S. backing for Israel’s legitimate claims to its actual capital. And UNRWA is the only entity right now that can provide critical education, healthcare, and food assistance to Palestinians in desperate need of these things, since U.S. legislation forbids funding that directly benefits the Palestinian Authority, let alone providing it with direct budget support.
We need to shift focus to be responsive to the needs of both sides and to support U.S. goals in the region. This may ultimately include peace talks, but it does not right now. Hopefully American policy will not continue to view an ultimate deal as the overriding goal, but as something that should happen when the time is ripe without serving as a constant distraction when it is not.