United States and the Israel-Palestinian conflict

The U.S. is no longer the ideal broker for the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and no longer in a position to bring the two sides towards an acceptable resolution. The role of a mediator requires a degree of neutrality; the role of guarantor supposes a willingness to hold both parties to their commitments. Whether the U.S. was ever the best choice for these roles is questionable, but the last 15 years has seen a deterioration in the prospects for peace as the circumstances in Palestine have changed, the relationship between Israel and the United States has evolved and – perhaps more importantly – a reduced sense of urgency has prevailed among the Israeli and American voters who have traditionally pressured their respective leaders towards peace. The security situation in Israel, the political conditions among the Palestinians and the focus of the United States on other areas of the Middle East are factors which, combined, portend an uncertain future for the two-state solution and suggest that a long-term diminution of an American role in achieving a negotiated settlement is appropriate.


To understand the contours of the current conflict, the obstacles to a final status negotiation and the role the United States plays we have to examine the history of the relationship between Palestinian Arabs and the modern state of Israel. In 1947, the region of Palestine was under British control and known as Mandate (or British Mandate) Palestine. A vestige of the first World War, Mandate Palestine was a violent region constantly beset by tension and conflict between Zionist Jews and anti-Zionist Arabs. 1 Support for a permanent Jewish state, a home for displaced Jews from around the world, had grown among Western powers and in the United Nations. A plan for the partition of Mandate Palestinian was developed by the United Nations which would establish separate Jewish and Arab states in Palestine and create an international system for governing Jerusalem. 2 Immediately after the resolution was issued, Arab groups in Palestine, with the support of Arab states, began an armed effort to prevent its implementation. They were opposed by Israeli paramilitary groups that had developed during the armed conflict that characterized Mandate Palestine, particularly the Haganah and its covert units Irgun and Lehi. In May of 1948, the civilian leadership of the Jewish Yishuv declared the establishment of the State of Israel, triggering the invasion of Israel by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Over the following year, Israel and the Arab states fought repeated battles over territory in the former Palestine and in Lebanon. By the spring and summer of 1949, Israel signed armistice agreements with each invading nation that resulted in the permanent Israeli annexation of approximately 2/3rds of the former Mandate Palestine. During the war, significant numbers of both Israelis and Arabs were displaced, temporarily or permanently. The status of Palestinian Arabs in Israeli territory varied; many fled, many others were expelled, and a remaining portion stayed and became citizens of Israel. This migration, perceived as forced by the Arab populace and referred to as “al-Naqba” or the Catastrophe, became the focal point of future conflicts and peace negotiations. In a decision that would be crucial for decades to come, the United Nations issued Resolution 194, endorsing (among other things) the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.3 4 5

The armistice-defined border of the “Green Line”, separating Israel from the Arab-controlled parts of Mandate Palestine, remained relatively stable for the next 18 years. In this time, support for Israel by the United States government gradually increased. Israel began to rely on the United States for arms shipments, particularly for aircraft and related munitions. In 1967, responding to the massing of troops and military assets in Egypt and Jordan by those nations and several Arab states as well as periodic raids into its territory, Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria and opened the Six Day War. Following the defeat of the Arab forces in 1967, the new borders (which for Israel included the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West Bank and the Sinai peninsula) were again stable for several years.6 Before and after the '67 conflict the two sides had become proxies in the competition for influence in the Middle East and North Africa between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. supplied arms and aid to Israel, and the Soviet Union provided intelligence, weapons and diplomatic support to Israel's Arab neighbors. The status of the conflict as a proxy for the Cold War was made abundantly clear during the Yom Kippur War, launched in 1973 by Egypt and Syria, where the war on both sides was fueled by massive shipments of munitions from the Soviet Union and the United States. 7 8


The end of the Yom Kippur War, in which Israel successfully repelled the invasion, saw an uptick in American efforts to broker peace in the Middle East. Henry Kissinger engineered several agreements, between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria, which later came to be seen as interim measures leading up to the Camp David Accords of 1978. The Accords, personally brokered by Jimmy Carter, resulted in a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel that formally closed a period of several wars and decades of hostilities. 9 10 In 1989 the collapse of the Soviet Union set the stage for a realignment of influence in the Middle East, as Arab regimes formerly supported by the USSR found that support less secure. The absence of Soviet influence, and tension in the Arab world following the Iraq-Kuwait war and the U.S. Gulf War, altered conditions sufficiently to allow direct negotiations between the Palestinian Arabs and Israel. In 1993 the Oslo Accord was negotiated in London and Oslo between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization and resulted in official recognition of the State of Israel by the PLO and its leader Yasser Arafat. The Accords were the beginning of an intensive effort, lasting throughout the tenure of the Clinton administration, to reach a settlement on the final status questions of the right of return for refugees, the security responsibility for Palestinian territory and control over Jerusalem. This effort was bolstered by enormous aid, and offers of aid, to both sides of the dispute from the United States. The Clinton effort at negotiations ultimately failed in 2000, when Yasser Arafat rejected a compromise solution supported by the White House and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. 11 12


The efforts by the Clinton administration represented the apex of United States involvement as a host and broker for peace efforts between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The failure of the Camp David proposal, and the subsequent Taba negotiations, influenced the newly incoming governments of George W. Bush in the United States and Ariel Sharon in Israel. Sharon, who was considered by some to have contributed to sparking the Second Intifada (or uprising) by the Palestinians against Israeli occupation, disavowed the compromises which Barak had been willing to make. President Bush distanced himself from Clinton's policies and deep personal involvement in settlement talks. Early in the Bush administration, the U.S. and the United Nations articulated the “road map for peace”, the Bush template to replace the Oslo Accords as the framework for eventual final status negotiations. While the road map was accepted by both the Israeli and Palestinian representatives, and had the support of the United Nations, the European Union and other nations, it never led to significant progress in negotiations – instead often becoming a source of contention, as Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and other disputed territories continued and as the Palestinians failed to quell violence by Arab militants. Meanwhile, the September 11th attacks and the subsequent invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq consumed the majority of American attention in the Middle East and Muslim world and became the focal point for American diplomatic activity during the Bush administration and the first two years of the Obama administration.13 14

In the four years following the elections of Ariel Sharon and Bush, the continued violent uprising contributed to a distinct rightward movement in Israeli politics. Sharon, the leader of the right-wing Likud party, built a governing coalition that included several small extreme rightist parties (c.f. Shas, Yisrael Beitenu) that were adamantly opposed to negotiations with Arafat or any concessions on security arrangements or settlement construction. In 2005 Sharon articulated a plan to unilaterally disengage from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. By the end of 2005, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza had been dismantled, settlers relocated (some by force), and Israeli soldiers and security forces withdrawn from the Palestinian territories. This withdrawal had several effects: it made it easier for Israel to contain the Palestinians and Palestinian militants, shifted responsibility for the territory and its internal security to the Palestinian Authority, demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice land in exchange for security on the part of Israel, and contributed to a steep decline in successful militant attacks within Israel. The new status quo was a situation far more acceptable to an Israeli populace disillusioned with what was widely viewed (in Israel) as Arab unwillingness to make any compromises for a final settlement in the wake of the failed Camp David talks in 2000. 15 In the years since the unilateral disengagement, the Likud party was succeeded for a short time by the centrist Kadima Party Sharon founded, Sharon himself was incapacitated by a stroke and subsequent coma and Sharon's deputy Ehud Olmert replaced him until he was defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party. Despite the 2008 Gaza War and the Israeli-Lebanon war in 2006, the overall level of violence within Israel has never returned to that seen during the first or second intifadas.

Within the Palestinian territories, November 2004 saw the brief illness and death of Yasser Arafat. His death fractured Palestinian politics and deprived the Palestinian people of a single representative behind whom they could unite. The Fatah faction, formerly led by Arafat, and the Hamas faction, led by Khaled Meshal, disagreed over the use of violence against Israel and on whether to recognize Israel as a state. The two organizations fought for control over the PLO in the 2006 elections, which saw Hamas earn the largest share of seats in the Palestinian legislature. With the Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas remaining as President, the two groups engaged in a violent struggle for authority in Gaza and the West Bank. Meanwhile, the factional divide softened the effect of the intifada on Israel and allowed time for Israel to construct a network of checkpoints and an extensive security fence. These measures drastically reduced Arab access to Israel and limited Palestinian resistance tactics to lobbing rockets from refugee camps or over the Lebanese border into Israel. 16 17 18

2009 - Present

Within the context of the evolving political conditions in Israel and among the Palestinians came a new low point in relations between the United States and Israel. In the summer after his 2009 inauguration, President Obama delivered a major foreign policy address in Cairo that was aimed primarily at the Muslim world. Part of an effort at improving the image of the United States among Islamic nations, the speech emphasized an attempt to repair relations with Arab states and a commitment to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. While the address was well received in the Muslim world, it was criticized in Israel as a departure from the more complete solidarity previous administrations had showed with Israel. Soon after, the Netanyahu government in Israel acceded to the request of the Obama administration for a formal ten-month “freeze” in settlement construction in 2009. Nevertheless, in a sign of misaligned priorities between Israel and the U.S., settlement construction in existing settlements and in East Jerusalem continued unabated. In 2010, the Israeli government announced that construction previously delayed by the freeze would resume, resulting in a series of exchanges between Israel and the Obama administration that reflected significant divisions and mistrust in the diplomatic relationship. The Obama administration has remained critical of the Netanyahu coalition government on the subject of settlement expansion, particularly in regions beyond the '67 borders and in East Jerusalem. While continuing to maintain the existence of an “unshakeable bond” between Israel and the United States, the relationship between the two nations has come to be characterized by criticism and disagreement over both the status of peace negotiations and the appropriate response to the Iranian nuclear program. At the same time, American efforts to support democracy in Iraq, to react to the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt, Syria, Libya and elsewhere and to improve the image of the U.S. among Muslims have displaced the Israel-Palestinian conflict from its role as the core element of American diplomacy in the Middle East. 19 20 21 22 23 24 25

The United States will have an interest in the security of the state of Israel for the foreseeable future. As an ally and a Western-model democracy, and a friendly and liberal nation in a region of the world typically hostile to Western culture, it's hard to imagine a time when the ultimate goals of Israel and the U.S. in the Middle East don't coincide. But this isn't to say that the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians should or will be the main topic of concern in U.S.-Israel relations or U.S. foreign policy in the region. Israel's security position has improved, and world political realities have changed, such that conflicts centered around the Palestinian problem and Israel's immediate neighbors no longer hold the geopolitical ramifications they did during the Cold War. Changed conditions in Israel and among the Palestinians have removed the urgency for Israelis and for their supporters in the U.S. – in a world where the refugee problem presents no particular danger for Israeli citizens, and where there is no likelihood of Palestinian statehood without the assent of the United States, the U.S. is free to focus on more compelling and immediate Middle East problems. The Arab Spring and the subsequent destabilization of a number of Muslim regimes presents both a risk and an opportunity for the U.S., and American leaders will have more flexibility and credibility in responding to these developments if they are not simultaneously enmeshed in a fruitless push for final status negotiations in the occupied territories. The political inconvenience of Israel-Palestinian talks is only reinforced by the reality of American influence at low ebb in the Middle East and the persistent gap in priorities between Israel's leading rightist politicians and elected leaders of the United States. Both Israel and the U.S. have turned their attention to Iran and the Arab uprisings, the U.S. has for decades lacked the leverage to pressure Israel into significant concessions in peace negotiations, and the result of the confluence of these factors is that the U.S. will for a long time be occupied with other more pressing and fruitful issues in the Middle East.

Sources not specifically cited:

http://www.jstor.org/stable/20037818 (“The Arab-Israeli Conflict: An American Policy” John C. Campbell Foreign Affairs , Vol. 49, No. 1 (Oct., 1970), pp. 51-69 Published by: Council on Foreign Relations)
“The Oslo Agreement as an Obstacle to Peace” Ian S. Lustick Journal of Palestine Studies , Vol. 27, No. 1 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 61-66 Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Institute for Palestine Studies Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2537810
“The Palestinian Predicament after Camp David” Avi Plascov The World Today , Vol. 34, No. 12 (Dec., 1978), pp. 467-471 Published by: Royal Institute of International Affairs Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40395027
“The One-State Solution: An Alternative Vision for Israeli-Palestinian Peace”, Ghada Karmi, Journal of Palestine Studies. Vol. 40, No. 2 (Winter 2011) (pp. 62-76)
http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=83 (United States recognition of Israel, in a communication from President Harry Truman. 1948. Source: ourdocuments.gov, published by the United States National Archives).
“Give War a Chance” Edward N. Luttwak Foreign Affairs , Vol. 78, No. 4 (Jul. - Aug., 1999), pp. 36-44 Published by: Council on Foreign Relations Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20049362

1: http://web.archive.org/web/20051215061527/http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/9A489B74-6477-4E67-9C22-0F53A3CC9ADF.htm or http://www.aljazeera.com/archive/2003/12/2008410112850675832.html (“The history of Palestinian revolts” Al Jazeera, 12/9/2003)

2: http://domino.un.org/unispal.nsf/0/7f0af2bd897689b785256c330061d253 (“Plan of Partition with Economic Union”, United Nations General Assembly, 11/29/1948).

3: http://unispal.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/C758572B78D1CD0085256BCF0077E51A (“Resolution 194: Palestine – Progress Report of the United Nations Mediator”, United Nations General Assembly, 12/11/1948.)

4: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2538053 (“Reflections on Al-Nakba” Mamdouh Nofal, Fawaz Turki, Haidar Abdel Shafi, Inea Bushnaq, Yezid Sayigh, Shafiq al-Hout, Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Musa Budeiri. Journal of Palestine Studies , Vol. 28, No. 1 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 5-35)

5: (“The Arab Refugee Dilemma” Don Peretz, Foreign Affairs , Vol. 33, No. 1 (Oct., 1954), pp. 134-148 Council on Foreign Relations. ) http://www.jstor.org/stable/20031081

6: http://www.npr.org/news/specials/mideast/history/history4.html (“The Mideast: A Century of Conflict”, Mike Schuster, National Public Radio. 10/3/2002.)

7: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20038045 (The War and the Future of the Arab-Israeli Conflict Nadav Safran Foreign Affairs , Vol. 52, No. 2 (Jan., 1974), pp. 215-236 Published by: Council on Foreign Relations)

8: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30245820 (“The Boundaries of Israel—Palestine Past, Present, and Future: A Critical Geographical View” Gideon Biger Israel Studies , Vol. 13, No. 1, Territory and Space in Israeli Society and Politics (Spring, 2008), pp. 68-93 [See map of the Green Line / armistice borders on page 90] Published by: Indiana University Press)

9: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3486954 (“Sadat's Negotiations with the United States and Israel: Camp David and Blair House” Adel Safty The American Journal of Economics and Sociology , Vol. 50, No. 4 (Oct., 1991), pp. 473-484 Published by: American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Inc. )

10: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20040118 (“Camp David: The Unfinished Business” Abba Eban Foreign Affairs , Vol. 57, No. 2 (Winter, 1978), pp. 343-354 Published by: Council on Foreign Relations)

11: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4330002 (“Paying for Peace: The Oslo Process and the Limits of American Foreign Aid” Scott Lasensky Middle East Journal , Vol. 58, No. 2 (Spring, 2004), pp. 210-234 Published by: Middle East Institute Article)

12: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30037659 (“The Oslo Peace Process and Two Views on Judaism and Zionism, 1992-1996” Danny Ben-Moshe British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies , Vol. 32, No. 1 (May, 2005), pp. 13-27 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.)

13: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/27/world/sharon-defends-peace-plan-against-critics-in-likud.html (“Sharon Defends Peace Plan Against Critics in Likud”, Greg Myre, New York Times, 5/27/2003.)

14: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/01/opinion/01iht-edhenry_ed3_.html (Op-Ed, “The Middle East Peace Process: The road map was doomed from the outset”, Henry Siegman, New York Times, 9/1/2003)

15: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/18/opinion/18iht-edkessel_ed3_.html (“Sharon's 'Gaza Now': Not a peace plan, but not to be dismissed” Jerrold Kessel, Pierre Klochendler. New York Times, 2/18/04)

16: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20032045 (“Israel's New Strategy” Barry Rubin Foreign Affairs , Vol. 85, No. 4 (Jul. - Aug., 2006), pp. 111-125 Published by: Council on Foreign Relations )

17: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jps.2004.33.4.085 (“The Sharon Unilateral Disengagement Plan” Journal of Palestine Studies , Vol. 33, No. 4 (Summer 2004), pp. 85-107 Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Institute for Palestine Studies )

18: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4330419 (“Hamas in Power” Menachem Klein Middle East Journal , Vol. 61, No. 3 (Summer, 2007), pp. 442-459 Published by: Middle East Institute)

19: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8585239.stm (“US-Israel row: Israeli views” BBC, 3/24/2010).

20: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8585239.stm (“Clinton rebukes Israel
over East Jerusalem homes” BBC, 3/12/2010.)

21: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8083171.stm (“Reaction: Obama's Cairo speech”, BBC, 6/4/2009)

22: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31102958/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/israel-split-over-obamas-outreach-muslims/#.UCXv3E1lRX8 (“Israel split over Obama's outreach to Muslims”, the Associated Press via MSNBC, 6/4/2009)

23: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20542762 (“America's Middle East Grand Strategy after Iraq: The Moment for Offshore Balancing Has Arrived” Christopher Layne Review of International Studies , Vol. 35, No. 1 (Jan., 2009), pp. 5-25 Published by: Cambridge University Press

24: http://www.economist.com/node/18442109 (“From Oslo to Benghazi” The Economist, 3/24/2011.)

25: http://www.haaretz.com/news/world/former-u-s-official-explains-obama-s-middle-east-policies.premium-1.432256 (“Former U.S. official explains Obama's Middle East policies” Natasha Mozgovaya, Ha'aretz, 5/24/2012)


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