America, the Arab World, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Samuel W. Lewis, Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Aaron David Miller, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, and Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland and non-resident Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
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The Arab-Israeli conflict has been a focal point of American foreign policy for nearly half a century. Samuel W. Lewis, Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland and Aaron David Miller, Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, present the challenges and prospects of Arab-Israeli peace and the reasons why it is imperative to American interests to resolve this conflict.
Samuel W. Lewis stressed the importance of taking into consideration the fragility of Israeli domestic politics when weighing the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace. Lewis argued that until popular support for Israeli political leadership is solidified domestically, any attempt to engage Israel in negotiations will fail to take hold. Emerging embattled and feeling mislead from the Lebanon war, Israelis have lost confidence in the current political leadership. He said, support for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has severely waned, dropping to 0% with the recent disclosure of the Winograd Commission findings. In addition, the recent string of indictments against political elites has further contributed to the present-day precariousness of Israel's political cohesion. Lewis draws a parallel between the Winograd Commission of the Lebanon War and the Agranat Commission of the 1973 War, which led then Prime Minister Golda Meir to resign. Lewis reiterated that whatever the outcome may be of the recent political upheaval, no peace initiative will succeed until the confidence of the Israeli public in their political leadership is consolidated and stabilized.
Shibley Telhami discussed the present situation of Arab leadership and public opinion regarding the role of the United States in the Middle East. Telhami presented evidence from his recent surveys that the Arab world predominantly views the United States through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Citing evidence that 60% of Arabs stated that their view of the United States would increase if the US were to broker a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel, based on Israeli territorial concessions of land beyond the 1967 Green Line.
Telhami explained that the behavior of the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian governments specifically should be viewed in light of their paradoxical security relationship with the United States emerging from the Iraq war. The Arab governments initially advised against the Iraq war, fearing the spread of violence, an unpredictable outcome, and an increase in Iranian influence and control. Now that the situation in Iraq has proven to realize their worst fears, Arab governments are wary of an immediate US withdrawal, fearing that the power vacuum would be filled by chaos and Iran. While Arab governments are threatened by the spread of Iranian influence, Iran enjoys the public support of the constituencies of these regimes. Telhami argues that the popular support of Iran in the Arab world should also be seen through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Saudi effort to broker a Palestinian unity government can be explained by their desire to dissuade popular support for the Islamist, Iranian-supported alternative, Hamas, he explained. Telhami emphasized that any strategy to replace Hamas with a bolstered Fatah will fail.
He concluded that although a breakthrough is improbable in the coming months, it is wrong to assume one cannot happen. If one looks at the history of the region, change and improvement has commonly sprung out of seemingly impossible circumstances. We then ought not to focus on what is impossible, but instead on what is possible.
Aaron David Miller discussed the significance of the Arab-Israeli conflict within the US security paradigm. Miller noted that the events of September 11, 2001 demonstrated that our security is contingent upon our understanding of the affairs of the Arab and Muslim world, and that we must adjust our foreign policy toward the Middle East in our own self-interest. He proposed that the current problem between the United States and the Arab world is not a "Clash of Civilizations," but in reality, a clash of interests that can be ameliorated through politics, economics and diplomacy.
Miller mentioned that Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice has a chance to organize successfully a meeting and process between the Israelis and Palestinians during her term. However, a resolution to the conflict at this time is highly unlikely. Miller laid out a number of observations for the next administration that would improve the prospects of succeeding in "the next time around." He first suggested that the Arab-Israeli peace process must be a top priority, meaning that the government ought to take ownership of the issue. Second, he recommended that the current partnership between Israel and the United States needs to be special, but cannot be exclusive. Third, US efforts at diplomacy must be sensitive to the situation on the ground. Citing the failure of the Camp David 2000 summit, Miller recalled that Israeli and Palestinian behavior on the ground made solutions at the negotiation table much more difficult. Fourth, the United States must recall that it had its greatest success in Arab-Israeli negotiation during the period from 1973-91, when it possessed a greater capacity to shape and broker direct negotiations. Miller stressed the overall importance that US diplomacy in the Middle East retains its hope for peace, while operating with its eyes open about the challenges that need to be overcome.
Drafted by Elizabeth Detwiler,
Middle East Program
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more
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