Arab-Israeli Conflict: Let the Diplomatic Games Begin

Anouar Boukhars
Anouar Boukhars
Anouar Boukhars Former Brookings Expert

July 23, 2009

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

In the last six months, the world has watched with interest and at times fascination the rearrangement of practices and strategies of American foreign policy. The new administration has articulated exciting bold principles and laid out new strategic parameters for how to tackle “the urgent, the important and the long-term all at once”. With the conviction of a grandmaster and the humility of an inquisitive statesman, US President Barack Obama has embraced the complexities and uncertainties of geopolitical involvement. But nowhere has such involvement been so dramatic and bold as in the Middle East, where President George W. Bush’s militaristic policies and dogmatic geopolitical thinking only prolonged conflicts and worsened crises, leaving a legacy of continuing devastation in Palestine and unfinished business in Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and elsewhere in the region.

Obama has to grapple with these realities. And grapple he has. Each decision he has taken or diplomatic foray he has made has been strategically calculated to remove what he called that “constant wound” or “constant sore” that infects all of America’s interests in the Middle East. It is within this context that his elevation of the Arab-Israel conflict to a top priority of America’s foreign policy can be understood. The president has stated numerous times that the status-quo in the region is untenable and Israel’s continuing settlement expansion in its colonies in the Palestinian territories is deeply harmful to America’s interests in the region and to Israel’s own long-term security. Freezing those settlements is therefore the first basic step on the road to resolving the conflict. Prospects for such resolution are dauntingly challenging but nevertheless promising.

Obama’s attempts to restore America’s credibility as an honest broker of peace have shaken the usual diplomatic niceties and political dynamics in the Middle East, forcing the main protagonists to the conflict to go scrambling for responses to the new diplomatic game. The hawkish Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is trying to come up with elaborate diplomatic maneuvers and tricks to continue his expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or at the very least, extract as many concessions from Arab states as possible before even committing to the well-known final parameters of a comprehensive settlement to the conflict: a return to the 1967 border with some minor adjustments as agreed to by the parties. Netanyahu’s intention was articulated in the speech he delivered in mid-June in which he reaffirmed his vision for a disjointed Palestinian state that lacks contiguity, viability and all the essential attributes of sovereignty.

For their part, the Arab states are playing the same tiresome diplomatic dance, holding out for timetables and initiatives coming from elsewhere. Instead of uniting their ranks and publicly conveying their determination to see Obama succeed in his mission to bring peace to the region, they content themselves with reiterating their demands for Israel to abide by its international legal obligations. So far, they have resisted calls to engage in a confidence-building process with Israel as long as the latter refuses to positively respond to the comprehensive and historic peace initiative they offered in 2002.

Breaking down this frustrating kabuki dance that the parties are engaged in is the task Obama has taken upon himself. His credibility and the success of his entire new foreign policy paradigm hinge on his ability to broker a just and lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Such goal is achievable but dependent on his ability to pressure all parties to comply with the legitimate requests he has announced so far. Israel must bring to a total halt all its settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the Arabs must take steps to facilitate America’s new role as an honest broker. Such confidence-building measures can include a revival of diplomatic contacts and reopening of Israeli interest sections in countries like Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman. Major concessions should follow once all parties agree on the general parameters of a comprehensive peace plan that guarantees the security of Israel while ending its occupation of all Arab land, including the Syrian Golan Heights.