Can US be honest broker in Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

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Can US be honest broker in Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
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As the deadly exchanges of rocket fire and airstrikes between Israel and Hamas in Gaza entered their second week Monday, the White House issued a statement in which for the first time President Joe Biden expressed his support for a “cease-fire” in the hostilities.

But Mr. Biden also “reiterated his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate attacks.” That’s according to a readout of a presidential call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Why We Wrote This

The eruption of Israeli-Palestinian violence is raising pressure on the U.S. to return to a traditional role in that conflict – that of powerful mediator. What does the goal of “honest broker” mean today?

Diplomats and regional experts call Mr. Biden’s approach “giving Israel space” to bludgeon Hamas – which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization – and to degrade its offensive capabilities.

Still, once a cease-fire occurs, the Biden administration will likely find it has to adopt a higher profile in seeking to mediate the conflict than it originally intended. The test comes amid a new reality where the U.S. is no longer the dominant power it once was.

“The motto is still very much ‘peace can’t happen without the U.S.,’” says Hugh Lovatt, in the London office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But nor can it happen with only the U.S.”

As the deadly exchanges of rocket fire and airstrikes between Israel and Hamas in Gaza entered their second week Monday, the White House issued a statement in which for the first time President Joe Biden expressed his support for a “cease-fire” in the hostilities.

But as if to rule out any doubts about where Mr. Biden stands, the readout of the president’s second call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three days also “reiterated his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate attacks.”   

The use of the term “cease-fire” indicated a slight evolution in the president’s outlook on the conflict. But the absence of any pressure to actually end hostilities also suggested that Mr. Biden remains firmly planted in his unblinking and careerlong support for Israel.

Why We Wrote This

The eruption of Israeli-Palestinian violence is raising pressure on the U.S. to return to a traditional role in that conflict – that of powerful mediator. What does the goal of “honest broker” mean today?

Diplomats and regional experts call Mr. Biden’s approach “giving Israel space” to bludgeon Hamas – which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization – and to degrade its offensive capabilities and forces before applying any pressure to end the fighting.

This American green light to Israel is not new, even though it may have shined brightest under an unabashedly one-sided President Donald Trump, analysts say. But it is just one element in a steady deterioration of the ability of the United States to play its traditional role of mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The honest broker role has been eroding for a lot longer than we’ve been willing to acknowledge,” says Bruce Jentleson, who was a State Department senior adviser on Middle East issues during the Obama administration and is now a professor of public policy at Duke University in North Carolina.

Noting that the Palestinians didn’t trust President George W. Bush and the Israelis openly undermined President Barack Obama, he says “Trump blew up the ‘honest broker’ role big time, but the truth is, it wasn’t in good shape before him” – and really hasn’t been, he adds, since President Bill Clinton.

In his initial months in office, Mr. Biden has demonstrated a desire to shift attention and resources away from the Middle East – even as the U.S. comes to grips with the reality that it is no longer the unrivaled superpower in a region where it faces the growing influence of lesser powers like Russia and Iran.

Yet despite this evolution, the U.S. remains the sole power with any ability to play an influential leadership role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What all this means, Professor Jentleson says, is that while the U.S. can “orchestrate, convene and coordinate” in a region with lots of players with often conflicting interests, “the U.S. can no longer be calling the shots.”

Moreover, it also means that once a cease-fire in the current fighting is reached, the Biden administration will very likely find it has to invest more political capital than it originally intended in a conflict that has dogged administrations for decades.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (left) talks as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice looks on during a signing ceremony at the State Department in Washington on Jan. 16, 2009. To some experts, the current “space” that President Joe Biden is extending to Israel harks back to the support Ms. Rice, representing the George W. Bush administration, initially offered Israel during its 2009 clashes with Hamas.

For some, the current “space” that President Biden is extending to Israel harks back to the support Condoleezza Rice, as secretary of state under President Bush, initially offered Israel during the 2009 violence between Hamas and Israel.

“This is not the Biden template; this is actually the classic American template” and a “return to the established U.S. policy in these kinds of situations that preceded Trump,” says Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former adviser to Palestinian negotiators at Clinton administration-era peace talks.

What does mediating mean?

Noting that “there’s only so much space the U.S. can give” before pressures mount – particularly over rising civilian casualties – he says “the Jordanians, the Egyptians, Turkey, the Palestinians and others are watching to see: Is the U.S. capable … of taking leadership” while demonstrating an understanding that “leadership doesn’t necessarily mean monopoly, it means the ability to mobilize other actors.”

After eight days of fighting, the Palestinian side counted 212 killed – including more than 60 children – and hundreds injured in dozens of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. Israel counted 10 dead, including two children, from more than 3,000 rocket attacks launched from Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The Biden administration last week dispatched Hady Amr, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, to the region to try to encourage a cease-fire that all sides agree will be reached at some point.

But on Monday Mr. Netanyahu insisted that Israel is in no hurry to end its campaign to degrade Hamas’ offensive capabilities.

The question now is when (if ever, some wonder) Mr. Biden will turn up pressure for an end to the fighting, and shift the U.S. to something resembling the traditional arbiter role? 

The U.S. president who once dubbed himself “Israel’s best Catholic friend” is coming under increasing pressure domestically and from abroad to make the move to a more evenhanded position on the conflict.

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell rings a bell during a special video conference of EU foreign ministers to discuss recent developments in the Middle East, in particular the ongoing violent confrontation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, in Brussels on May 18, 2021.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on Israel to act more proportionately as it pursues its bombardment of Gaza – a stance that was viewed by some as tinged with frustration that the U.S. has blocked three United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for an end to the violence.

Citing a U.N. report tallying Israeli strikes on 23 schools, 500 homes, and medical facilities, Mr. Johnson’s spokesman Max Blain said, “Israel must make every effort to avoid civilian casualties and military activity must be proportionate.”

Europe is seen by some to be testing the waters of a new reality where the U.S. is no longer the dominant power it once was. “The motto is still very much ‘peace can’t happen without the U.S.’ But nor can it happen with only the U.S.,” says Hugh Lovatt, Middle East policy fellow at the London office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

While European pressure for a more nuanced U.S. approach is not wholly new, it comes as Mr. Biden faces unusual and mounting pressure from within his own political party to show more support for Palestinians who as usual are suffering disproportionately from the fighting.

“Do Palestinians have a right to survive?” progressive Democratic House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Saturday in what was a direct rejoinder to President Biden’s focus on Israel’s right to defend itself in the current conflict. “If so,” she added, “we have a responsibility to that as well.”

The tweet came on the heels of a letter to Mr. Biden, signed by progressive congressional Democrats, accusing him of “taking the side of the [Israeli] occupation” of Palestinian territories.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (center), shown here with reporters on Capitol Hill on May 13, 2021, asked in a recent tweet, “Do Palestinians have a right to survive?” It was a direct rejoinder to President Joe Biden’s focus on Israel’s right to defend itself in the current conflict.

Few observers expect Mr. Biden to bend in his support for Israel in addressing the current conflict. The real question, some say, will be whether the president acknowledges this political pressure by modifying his hands-off approach to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict once a cease-fire is secured.

“Can [the administration] go back to business as usual with calls from the left flank of its own Democratic Party to address and resolve this conflict, and specifically in some quarters to do so by reforms through a human rights lens?” posits Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington.

“We need to be … fireproofing” 

Where a wide spectrum of analysts appear to agree is that the Biden administration won’t be able to simply “go back” to its initial instincts to set aside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as unripe for U.S. engagement.

“Returning to the wider status quo ante will only guarantee future flare-ups,” says the European Council’s Mr. Lovatt, whose call for a “rights-based strategy” to replace the “current reality of unequal rights and occupation” finds echoes in the U.S. Democratic Party and among a growing number of European officials and regional analysts.

Indeed what Duke’s Professor Jentleson sees happening in the Biden administration is an awakening to the reality that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict is never safely ignored.

“They’re going to have to say, ‘We have to stop kidding ourselves. This is a process that is going to take more of our bandwidth than we thought,” says Mr. Jentleson, who says that reevaluation will likely mean naming of a high-level special envoy with access to the Oval Office.

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While no one foresees a full-fledged peace process taking up final-status negotiations any time soon, Ms. Kurtzer-Ellenbogen of USIP says the U.S. is going to have to get back in the business of nudging the parties toward practical solutions to the security, political, and economic issues building up like ominous thunder clouds.

“If we don’t want to find ourselves in that constant pendulum swing from fire-fighting to ignoring … we need to be in the active business of fireproofing,” she says. “That’s going to be the question for the administration as it moves forward.”  

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