Still Seeking Strategy

by Robert E. Hunter

For Secretary of State John Kerry, the good news this past week is that he has finally got Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) to agree to talk directly about peace. The bad news is that Kerry now has the thankless task of delivering the goods.

The Secretary of State is wasting no time in getting started. He has asked Ambassador Martin Indyk to coordinate the process for the United States. Indyk was US ambassador to Israel (twice), assistant secretary of state for the region and senior official on the National Security Council (NSC) staff. He knows the issues and the dramatis personae and is committed to a two-state solution. He has the needed confidence of key people on Capitol Hill and in the American Jewish community. His first test, however, will be to establish credibility with the Palestinians as an honest broker.

The negotiations will be unusual because the most viable solution is well-known, as it should be after 34 years’ efforts. (Yours truly was NSC representative when the talks first began in May 1979). Most diplomats who have been involved in the peace process agree that the best parameters for a two-state solution were laid out by President Bill Clinton in December 2000 (found here). A more detailed variation is the so-called Geneva Accord, designed by some former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

By these formulae, Israel would gain sovereignty over portions of the West Bank that include most of the Jewish settlements and swap an equivalent amount of Israeli land to the Palestinian state. Palestine would effectively be demilitarized and security arrangements would be devised. Jerusalem would become the capital of both states. Some compensation would be made for Palestinian refugees from the 1947-48 war. Arab states must bless the arrangements and end all calls of war against Israel.

Other matters of consequence include agreement on a political, economic and physical connection between the West Bank and Gaza, one of which can be found here. The Hamas leadership in Gaza must end the conflict with Israel and recognize it as a Jewish state.

NATO forces could be stationed in Palestine to help provide security, including against terrorism. And outsiders need to provide substantial aid and investments to the Palestinian state, to give it a chance to survive and for the people to have a chance at bettering their lives. NATO countries would agree to provide the former (troops) and the West and hopefully rich Arab countries would provide the latter (money). These are small prices to pay for ending this seemingly endless conflict.

The roadmap to peace-with-security is thus complex but relatively clear. Yet there is so far no indication that either side will make the compromises needed to reach an agreement. The corrosive issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is to be put off until later. Whether Israel will let Palestine share Jerusalem as its capital is far from clear. Nor is it clear that the PNA President, Mahmoud Abbas, can deliver on his part of a bargain, given the politics of the West Bank and Gaza.

Secretary Kerry has thus managed to lead the Israeli and Palestinian horses to water, but they so far lack the political will to drink. Nor is it clear that, if the process reaches the point of deal-cutting, President Barak Obama will assume the political onus of asking Israel to make concessions that will not sit well with some of the important domestic constituencies he needs to help him fulfill his legacy, which is in domestic and not foreign policy. He is not yet publicly invested in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, though he has given Secretary Kerry free rein to see what he can achieve. At some point, however, Obama will have to do some heavy lifting. Without his direct and resolute involvement, peace will not be possible. Ideally, he should table the Clinton Parameters as the bottom-line US proposal.

There are thus enough doubts to buttress skepticism that Secretary Kerry’s efforts will succeed. But there are even deeper concerns; the peace process can not take place in a political vacuum. For the PNA, it will be difficult if not impossible to reach any viable agreement with Israel unless Gaza is included, and that depends not just on Hamas’ cooperation (now non-existent), but also on Israel ending Gaza’s economic isolation which, ironically, strengthens Hamas politically.

Israel’s politics will be even more difficult. It faces three major security challenges that do not derive, at least primarily, from the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian agenda. The linchpin of Israel’s security is its treaty with Egypt, which provides reasonable confidence that Israel will not be successfully attacked by conventional forces of any possible Arab coalition. With Egypt’s current political turmoil, there is some question whether the treaty will hold. That is likely, but not guaranteed.

More important, Syria’s civil war has transformed its frontier with Israel from being one of the most stable in the region, based on a modus vivendi Israel reached with the current Syrian president’s father after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, to being one of the most uncertain.

Then there is Iran, which many Israelis, including the current government, see as posing a mortal threat if it acquires nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is convinced that Tehran wants to do so and is not far from such a capability, as well as developing an Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that could reach the US. As he said a week ago on American television, he views the government  in Iran, even with its new president, Hassan Rouhani (who will be subservient to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) as a “messianic, apocalyptic, extreme regime.”

With the security challenges Israel sees on three fronts, it is hard to believe that it will be politically or psychologically able to make the compromises needed to reach an agreement with the PNA, even though substantial majorities of Israelis and Palestinians want the conflict to be over and done with, so they can get on with their lives in a peace that has eluded them for decades.

This background has led many observers, myself included, to wonder why Secretary Kerry put the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at the top of his Middle East agenda — if not his global agenda. There is a rationale. If it were possible to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, at least some things would improve for the US elsewhere in the region, including limits on Iran’s ability to exploit its relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon and, though the connection is far less substantial, with Hamas in Gaza. The US would be far less likely to be chided by Arab governments over its support for Israel; one recruiting tool used by Islamist terrorists would at least be depreciated; and, not incidentally, America’s much-diminished stature as an effective political force in the region — in the eyes of friend and foe alike — could be refurbished.

But even if the peace process did miraculously lead to an agreement in relatively short order, it would not be enough to meet America’s strategic needs in the region. Leave aside Egypt, which, assuming the treaty with Israel holds, is now less consequential than the Levant or the Persian Gulf. The civil war in Syria is spreading to other parts of the region, where there are deep rivalries between Sunnis and Shiites spurred by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which toppled a minority Sunni government that had long dominated the Shia majority. This has led Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to try redressing the balance by supporting the Syrian rebels’ attempt to end minority Alawite (Shia) rule and bring the Sunni majority to power, even at the price of a worse bloodbath than now and major gains for Islamist extremists.  President Obama, unfortunately, hastily declared two years ago that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go — and the White House repeated this demand this week — without first devising a policy to bring it about or to pursue some other alternative consistent with US interests, either in Syria or more broadly in the region.

Equally consequential for its strategic needs in the Middle East, the US has greeted the election of a new Iranian president with cold indifference, along with pressure from the House Foreign Affairs Committee to increase sanctions rather than make a gesture to the people of Iran. The administration has not signaled readiness to try moving beyond mutual hostility toward mutual accommodation. Nor is it willing to accept an obvious requirement of successful diplomacy: no nuclear deal with Iran is possible unless the US publicly recognizes that Iran, as well as the US, Israel and the Gulf Arabs, have some legitimate security interests.

In short, like Winston Churchill’s famous “pudding” that “lacked a theme”, the US still lacks a strategy in the Middle East that brings all the different elements together and charts a course that can meet America’s national interests throughout the region. Thinking strategically needs to be the first task. The second needs to be setting priorities, where Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking should not be at or even near the top.

Be that as it may, now that Secretary of State Kerry is on the verge of getting the Israelis and Palestinians to at least talk to one another, he and President Obama must turn their attention to the larger canvas. The US cannot profit from moving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a few inches forward if Washington fails to meet more pressing requirements in the region that demand the coherent, committed, intelligent and strategic engagement of the United States, the only power that can even begin to bring some order out of the rising chaos.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. 1500 words and nary a single detailed mention of the concessions that may be required from Israel. The devil is indeed in the detail, and the reluctance to enunciate these concessions is the 800 lb gorilla in the room, and amounts to abdication. Reciting the litany of demilitarized Palestine, renouncing terror, getting Arab States on board is well-trodden turf. I’d have expected better from the likes of Mr. Hunter.

  2. Now that the issue has been dealt with, another U.S.President in the try for a solution, everyone might just as well save the time and money and go home, because the results will be the same in this presentation of “KABUKI”, as all the rest have in the past. Israel will take more of the West Bank, the Palestinians will get short changed. I’ve also noticed how every time Netanyahu cites Iran-nuclear weapons, nobody responds as to how he’s describing Israel. After all,Israel has the nuclear means and the capability of delivering same, anywhere in the world, even to the U.S.A. It would probably be suicidal on Israels part to do so, but considering how they view the world as lessors, then it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Or perhaps that’s just a dirty little secret that no one wants to speak of?

  3. The assertion that “the most “viable” solution is Clinton’s December 2000″ offer is the most vicious part of this essay. It is the Israeli position which is paraded by American media as the only realistic position. In the years since 2000, it has been portrayed as the position that everyone in the world knows to be the only feasible one and the ones who disagree are nuts. Who said that denying the right of return, awarding military conquest , rewarding annexation and daily violation of Geneva conventions is acceptable to the rest of the world, unless you are as US media is, cowed by Zionist propaganda machine? It is comical that Palestinians should not set any preconditions, but the ‘parameters” of solutions are already known. Excuse me?!!

  4. I must agree with Ekhvan Safa. The Clinton proposal was sold (and is being sold here) as something in substance it was not. The Oslo negotiations and Clinton’s solution were a sham- exclusive buffer zones and transit ways, no territorial cohesion to form a state- indeed lack of any intention to create a sovereign independent state- no solution of water rights, a forced deal in secret to sign away EEZ rights for a song, no right of return, and of course a wink and a nod to settlement expansion without any power to force compliance to prevent it, etc., etc. Nor were the U.S. negotiators, Indyk, Ross, et al, ever interested in achieving a deal that would finally free the Palestinians from Israeli control. Sorry, but as the facts on the ground have made clear, the two-state solution is dead and has been for some time. And now think about the fallacy of demanding that the Palestinians a priori accept Israel as a “Jewish State”, when Israel as a “Jewish” State with the tribalism and exceptionalism that derives from that, is not and can never be a democratic state for all of its citizens and residents. There is an inherent contradiction between the two that has already been reflected in the discrimination and/or apartheid that exists in both the Occupied Territories and Israel proper between Israeli Jews and all others, and the rising fascism we are seeing in the Israeli government and society with daily expropriations, and repression of dissent exerted by public and government-related private institutions throughout Israel. All I can see resulting from these negotiations is that they are a way to defer Palestinian efforts to seek statehood through the UN and will fail for lack of substance. And, when they do fail, the blame will be heaped on the Palestinians if they refuse to keep giving away more today for the promise of something illusory in the future. As for the Israelis, does Amb. Hunter think that the Bibi, the Likud and his coalition partners would ever settle for anything less than full absorption of all of the Occupied Territories into an Eretz Israel, especially with the influence he and his Lobby acolytes wield over a Congress and Administration that keep subsidizing and running interference for Israel, or with the arrogance and confidence Israel feels in its ever widening military and trade relations with the rest of the world? With two years to fix more than 65 years of problems, and a new team skewed to favor one side over the other, what chance of success does this one really have?

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