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Ambassador's Roundtable: The Obama Administration and Arab-Israeli Peace

April 12, 2010 // 9:30am11:30am
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President Obama's efforts thus far to engage Israeli and Palestinian leadership in the peace process are generally perceived in opposing lights. Either Obama has brought a fresh approach to the conflict and is potentially changing the paradigm for negotiations – moving from process to a focus on the core issues and the end game – or he has been frustratingly vague in conveying his administration's policy, lacks a strategy, and is, thus, being stymied and manipulated by Israel, the Arabs, and the Palestinians.

This was how moderator and Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar Aaron David Miller initially framed the ensuing discussion, as the Middle East Program hosted five former U.S. ambassadors to the region. Each ambassador spoke in detail about how different Middle Eastern countries are affected by the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as what policies are currently being pursued.

A consensus formed, first articulated by Daniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, that Obama's unwillingness to communicate a clear American policy has hampered the peace process. Kurtzer acknowledged that domestic pressures can influence taking such a stand. However, he noted that if negotiating a settlement between the two parties is as important to U.S. national interests as administration officials have stated, then leading the peace process with an articulation of a clear U.S. policy should be a reasonable action.

Former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Theodore Kattouf explained that, thus far, the Obama administration has been missing both a policy and an approach. First, the policy should not be pre-negotiated with any other partners. It should be an American policy. Second, a strategy must be comprehensive and go beyond simply negotiations. More effort must be made to build up Palestinian institutions, train security forces, and bring Arabs into the peace process, possibly by engaging the Arab League on the Arab Peace Initiative initially proposed in 2002. Lastly, dialogue and exchanges must take place between the two communities destined to be most affected by any outcome: Palestinian refugees and the Israeli settler community.

Every country surrounding Israel and the Palestinian territories has a historical tie and a vested interest in the conflict's outcome. Edward Gnehm, former U.S. ambassador to Jordan, remarked that Jordanians believe that the survival of their state is central to the resolution of the conflict. With that in mind, King Abdullah II of Jordan has repeatedly affirmed his intention to maintain solid diplomatic relations with Israel. Gnehm stated though that he believed a successful conclusion to the negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders would solve more issues for Jordan than the peace treaty they signed with Israel in 1994.

Just as in Jordan, there is no subject in Egypt that generates as much emotion among its citizens as the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner noted that as much as Egypt would like to play a substantial role in the peace process to validate its image of itself as a leader among Arab nations, there are definite limits to how far Egypt's leaders will go. Having fought four wars with Israel, Egypt's political elites realize it would be difficult to stay in power following another military conflict with Israel.

Wisner also spoke earnestly on the need for the U.S. to maintain healthy relations with Egypt and that encouraging democratic reform is most effective through proper diplomatic channels. The leadership in Cairo certainly should not have a veto over U.S. policy in the region, however as an ally, the U.S. should frequently consult their Egyptian counterparts and include them in discussions of important regional issues. Any direct or indirect communication that is perceived as "hectoring" is counterproductive.

Similarly, a softer U.S. approach to Syria would assuage the two-track diplomatic approach they seek that would normalize relations with both the U.S. and Israel. Kurtzer believes that Syria can be "weaned" off of Iran, since their original alliance with the Islamic Republic was to defend itself from Iraq. For Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, the core issue at stake is simply survival. In order for normalization to occur, concessions by all parties will be required including a halt to Syria's relations with Iran, Hizbollah and North Korea, Israel's return to the June 4, 1967 de facto armistice line and the removal of Syria from the U.S.'s list of countries supporting terrorism.

In conclusion, panelists felt that economic growth in the West Bank is a positive contributor to progress in the peace process, as is the effort by Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to create the infrastructure and governing institutions for statehood within the next two years. Jacob Walles, a former Consul General in Jerusalem, stated that the Palestinian leadership deserved credit for their current efforts to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Moreover, Walles felt that it is in Israel's interest to strike a peace deal now, given that they are unlikely to have as credible and determined partners as PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad in the future.

By Joshua Reiman on behalf of the Middle East Program

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