The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Applying U.S. Smart Power to Facilitate Peace

In 2010, the Israeli comedy show Eretz Nehederet made a parody of Angry Birds. In the video, the birds and pigs conduct heated negotiations and they nearly break apart several times, but the moderator manages to hold them together. Peace is nearly reached when the yellow bird comes out of nowhere, refuses to yield, and suicide bombs the two negotiating pigs.

Intentionally or not, the inability of the Birdsraelis and Piglestinians to achieve peace is verysimilar to the current deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Palestinian intransigence caused negotiations to break down during the Clinton administration and triggered the first intifada, today the breakdown in negotiations is mostly Israel’s fault. The construction of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank continues unabated despite strong condemnation from the international community. The occupation in the West Bank, also internationally condemned, is a severe grievance for the Palestinians who reside there.

Meanwhile, Palestinians residing within Israel, which comprises 20 percent of the population and is rapidly rising, have been treated with hostility, which breeds mistrust. Palestinian municipalities within Israel have far less funding and resources, and Palestinians within Israel have drastically lower standards of living compared to their Israeli counterparts. To make matters worse, laws have been considered that will demote Arabic to second-class status and force all new immigrants to swear an oath of allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state.

Palestinians are not faultless either. Abbas sat on his hands until the settlement moratorium almost expired, severely reducing the flexibility necessary to hold successful negotiations. In September last year, Abbas, out of desperation, made a bid for Statehood in the UN that appeared to spite Israel’s lack of progress.

To treat the two parties as equally obstructionist, however, reeks of the false equivalency syndrome. First, an increase in Palestinian unrest, some due to the stalled peace process and some due to the Arab Spring, has dramatically reduced the flexibility of Abbas. His negotiations with Hamas and bid for Statehood in the UN demonstrate his desperation; his statehood bid in particular was intended to pressure Israel back to the table rather than take unilateral action. Second, Israeli intransigence came despite generous U.S. aid and our near-unconditional support for Israel’s actions. Meanwhile, Palestine’s admission into UNESCO freaked the U.S. out so badly that we cut off support even though it spends money on projects that support U.S. interests. Third, Israel’s faults are far graver than Palestine’s use of the settlement moratorium as a precondition for peace talks because the construction of settlements represents a substantial headache to substantive peace, while Israel hasn’t been playing a fair game period.

Using hard power to tame Israel

It is high time for the U.S. to get tougher on Israel and put U.S. interests ahead of Israeli interests. Right now, shameless pandering by Israel’s far-right in their echo chamber AIPAC forces politicians to kowtow to the demands in Israel, lest they lose the Jewish swing voters.

One key problem within Israel is its skewed electoral system. Israel’s current system of proportional representation and low thresholds required to enter parliament guarantee that no one party will gain anywhere close to a majority. In order to form a coalition, odd bedfellows and alliances will form and disproportionate influence is given to far-right religious parties, who abuse their roles as kingpins to dole patronage to the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox Haredi. In one case, the centrist Kadima won the plurality of the votes, but was completely shut out of the government because Likud was better able to forge a coalition by including these far-right groups.

This system breeds political instability. Over the past 6 decades, 32 different governments have been in power; this alone ensures that extended peace negotiations will be interrupted abruptly. Both Olmert and Abbas stated that they would have been able to achieve peace if Israel’s government didn’t break down. Even Netanyahu complained that he couldn’t extend the settlement moratorium because the far-right within his coalition didn’t allow him. Moreover, this current arrangement empowers the groups least likely to pursue peace with Palestine (and, evidently, most likely to warmonger with Iran).

Other than severely cutting the influence of special interests in Washington (that post will come, I swear!), the U.S. should hold military aid and free trade on the line unless Israel makes several key reforms:

  • Israel’s Presidential Commission Report also recommends electing half of the Knesset through regional elections. This would “increase the accountability of elected officials to their constituents” and further support the creation of larger political alliances.
  • Cease patronage doled to religious schools. Under the current electoral system, Israel accedes to the far-right’s demand to fund orthodox schools in exchange for political stability. Religious teachings are often a prominent part of these schools’ curriculum and these schools contribute to the illiberality of Israel. The ultra-orthodox haredi are the main beneficiaries of this policy.
  • Reduce per-child welfare payments and extend the draft to young haredi military. The haredi are also a severe burden on the Israeli economy. They make up 20 percent of the Israeli poor: 56 percent of the haredim live in poverty. Fewer than 40 percent of haredi men were employed in 2009. They are exempt from military service as long as they commit to religious studies. Their population is projected to double by 2020 to 15 percent; by 2028, 25 percent of all children in Israel will come from haredi families. The spending necessary to sustain this group has prompted a slow brain drain from Israel. These reforms will encourage the haredi to become productive members of society.
  • Impose a permanent settlement moratorium until peace is reached and the fate of the current settlements in place is decided. Because this is politically impossible, a moratorium of 5+ years should sufficiently serve the purposes of peace negotiations. This should be accompanied with strict oversight and substantial penalties for violators, conditions that were sadly absent in the original moratorium.
  • Provide equal funding to municipalities that have many Palestinians within Israel. In addition, they should enact a series of programs that would dramatically decrease the inequality many Palestinian Israelis face compared to their Israeli counterpart. This might entail providing better education and removing burdensome restrictions on the freedom of movement of these Palestinians.

You might wonder if waving around a big stick would be effective if it has produced mixed results in other States. Israel has a unique condition that makes it vulnerable to such hard power: the U.S. is its principal (and arguably only) ally and is the only country preventing the passage of UNSC resolutions condemning Israel; if the U.S. were to back away from Israel, it would become as internationally isolated as Iran. Moreover, the U.S. is not necessarily ending its alliance or tilt favoring Israel: civilian aid would continue, and Americans as a whole would identify more with Jewish Israel than Muslim Arabs. However, demanding accountability is an effective way to balance the alliance. This stick might also be accompanied by the carrot to ramp up civilian aid to help Israel meet these reforms.

Let’s not exaggerate the simplicity of the solution. Ultra-orthodox parties will fight tooth and nail against electoral reform and for subsidies to orthodox schools because their power would be threatened. Strong U.S. leadership and the public outrage of moderate Israelis might not create the momentum needed to push through these reforms. The U.S. needs to extensively campaign for these reforms and articulate the benefits to the Israeli people, particularly the Palestinians residing within Israel. Nonetheless, it is a much better course of action than continuing the indefensible.

One final thought partially relevant to the conflict with Palestine: perhaps it is time to set some red lines on Bibi with regards to Iran. Even if the U.S. is not directly involved, Iran is likely to assume U.S. complicity and launch retaliatory attacks on Israel and U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Perhaps more importantly, it is counterproductive: it will strengthen the hardliners at the expense of moderates and will grant the Iranian leadership extra legitimacy precisely when the Arab Spring has created an opportunity to introduce democracy to Iran via soft power. Because Iran will see itself as vulnerable, its resolve to build a nuclear weapon will increase. Public support for the nuclear program is already high and seen as a fundamental part of Iranian national identity; an attack would drive this support through the roof. Moreover, Israel cannot feasibly make future attacks because the Iranians will complete the process already in place to establish nuclear facilities underground and at the sides of mountains, where it is all but impossible to make a successful future strike even with the precision of Israeli or U.S. air forces. Finally, consensus in the UNSC in applying sanctions will be completely destroyed as China and Russia assume U.S. complicity and use it as an excuse to stop the sanctions they already have qualms with. In the worst case scenario, even strict controls on nuclear technology, which alone has bought years of time to pursue alternative action, might be dropped.

As a result, the U.S. must send the proper message to Israel: it would unconditionally drop all trade, set up economic sanctions, and start voting for UNSC resolutions condemning Israel. That Bibi is intentionally saber rattling with Iran to distract Israelis from the peace process should notbe tolerated by the U.S. and must be strongly condemned.

Using soft power to create conditions conducive to peace in Palestine

At the same time, the United States needs to stop assuming that “the so-called Palestinians,” as Mr. Gingrich put it, can do no right. The U.S. should not threaten Palestine because it already treats the aspiring state far from equally and because Abbas has little flexibility when his legitimacy is threatened by continued deadlock, stagnant economic conditions, and the Arab Spring.

Instead, the U.S. and the international community should redouble support towards Palestine to create the conditions necessary for peace. They should do two things in both parts of Palestine (this includes Hamas!):

  • Provide generous economic aid to build infrastructure and schools. Not only would it provide relief Palestine’s cash-strapped government, but it would also promote the long-term economic development of Palestine and grant Palestine’s government increased tax revenues in the future. In addition, allowing Palestinians to find work and enjoy a basic social safety net would discourage them from engaging in extremist and anti-Israeli activities, particularly when Palestinian unrest has reached a critical point.

In the long-term, the construction and administration of quality schools would increase Palestine’s international competiveness, reduce the risk of religious fundamentalism, and encourage the influx of the Palestinian diaspora. These schools should come with a sensible curriculum that engages students and fosters critical thinking. Teachers should be compensated well to attract top talent. On the issue of history, the international community should encourage Palestine to provide an accurate picture of history and provide a practical set of solutions for lasting peace (hopefully this blog post is one of them!)

As with all aid, it should come with corruption controls. An international escrow account might be helpful in this regard: a substantial amount aid will be given as a gesture of trust, and more will be available upon the successful and efficient completion of projects. Independent inspectors can come and verify that the quality of the infrastructure is sound and schools aren’t being abused to instill nationalist propaganda. If aid is being abused, it can either be curbed or targeted towards the municipalities with the best track records.

  • Provide political training to a new generation of Palestinians. The U.S. can use the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute to help Palestinian politicians achieve accountable governance. Congressional staff can pay visits to Palestinian legislators and help teach them legislative skills. Meanwhile, the U.S. and the international community can support the efforts of NGOs to create a technocratic bureaucracy and ensure free and fair elections.

In addition, the UN can support programs that would educate voters and encourage them to participate in fundamental civic duties. Though Christine Fair of Georgetown Universitytalks about Pakistan in this particular excerpt, the same concept applies:

Voter education programs may help the public evaluate their politicians on the basis of the policies they deliver rather than on payments, bribes, and other perquisites. For example, many Pakistani voters are unlikely to select candidates dedicated to reforming water and electricity provision as long as they can use political connections to get their own homes serviced.

Both reforms would facilitate the rise of an educated, moderate Palestinian populace that is genuinely interested in lasting peace with Israel and willing to vote for moderate factions such as Fatah over extremist ones such as Hamas.

A word about Hamas, which doesn’t even have a seat at the negotiating table: at present, Hamas is bent on the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of Jews from the Middle East, making it just about impossible to negotiate with. At the same time, Hamas must be incorporated at some point because it wouldn’t recognize any peace agreement lacking its input. Thankfully, the reforms outlined above should gradually moderate the sentiments of residents living at Gaza. However, it is likely that moderating Gaza would take longer than moderating the rest of Palestine.

Again, we must not exaggerate the simplicity of this aid. Full Palestinian cooperation, particularly with regards to the history curriculum and within Gaza, is highly unlikely. The international community might have to keep these schools strictly autonomous from the Palestinian government to keep history independent, which substantially reduces the schools’ legitimacy. This risks drawing the ire of the Palestinian government, which can condemn these schools and discourage Palestinians from attending them. Moreover, any tangible benefits are not likely to be seen until a decade at the earliest. However, it is the best and perhaps only practical course of action; under the status quo, peace will probably not be achieved even after a century.

The importance of Israeli-Palestinian peace

For the past sixty or so years, the conflict between Israel and Palestine has easily been the most prominent in the Middle East. It has absorbed the time of many U.S. presidents who have made peace their signature foreign policy promise. Is this really justified? Is Israeli-Palestinian peace really that important?

Actually, it is. This continued conflict invites a massive amount of anti-Israeli sentiment, which inevitably extends to the U.S.’s inability to resolve the issue. Both Iran and Egypt have used Israel’s imperialist tendencies to distract their people from faltering economies and other urgent domestic problems. Once the leadership of these countries cannot use Israel as a scapegoat, they would be forced to be much more accountable to the economy. This increases the link between political success the ability of the party to restore economic growth and increase standards of living, which bodes well for the underdeveloped Middle East.

In the case of Egypt, this might go too far: its hobbling democracy is besieged by continuing economic weakness and the overshadowing military. Fortunately, this need not lead to political collapse because the U.S. can step up aid and convince a multilateral forgiving of Egypt’s debt that should be blamed on Mubarak and his rubber-stamp parliament.

Overall, a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine is important and would provide an excellent stepping stone towards addressing the serious distortions that The Middle East suffers: anemic economic growth, excessive red tape, spending distortions such as oil subsidies, high income inequality, alarming corporatism, huge unemployment, weak democracies, rising food prices, and a broken education system.

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