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Can Lessons From the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Help Solve Washington's Deadlock?

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With Mitt Romney just completing a visit to Israel as part of his foreign tour, and numerous Obama Administration officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also visiting over the past several weeks, the politics of Arab-Israeli peacemaking is returning to the center of America's attention. As it does, many Americans may find the deadlock in the Middle East eerily familiar. Indeed, Washington's recent failure to negotiate a "Grand Bargain" over its fiscal policy and the failure of negotiations to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict share a similar underlying cause: In both cases, those on the political extreme have easily blocked a weakened political center from making a difficult compromise.

Of course, these two negotiations could not take place in more different circumstances. Palestinians and Israelis are involved in an often existential conflict between two peoples, each of whom has suffered horribly. Their conflict, moreover, has been exacerbated by stark ideological, religious, and economic differences both between and within the two sides, as well as by cynical third parties, such as the current Iranian regime. In contrast, American politics is peaceful and democratic and all sides in Washington have the legitimate right to represent their viewpoint.

Yet, despite these enormous differences, both negotiations remain trapped in the same fundamental paradox: continued stalemate, despite near agreement on the broad parameters of a solution.

In the Israeli-Palestinian context, the basic outline of a two-state solution has been known for a decade. In exchange for full peace, Israel would withdraw from nearly all territories beyond the pre-1967 lines (with mutually agreed land swaps to cover the major settlement blocs). Both sides would need to compromise on what's holy: for Israelis, dividing Jerusalem to be the capital of two states and dismantling most settlements; and for Palestinians, accepting only a symbolic return of Palestinian refugees to Israel and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. And they would need mechanisms to keep the peace on everything from security to resource-sharing.

In the American context, the essential outline of a Grand Bargain is also well known to many policy-makers on both sides of the aisle. To stabilize the economy, we need renewed short-term stimulus combined with medium-term debt reduction, even as we still increase long-term investments in key areas like infrastructure, science and technology, and education. As with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two sides must compromise on what's holy to their bases: for Republicans, tax increases on the wealthy and military spending; for Democrats, reforms to keep Social Security solvent and to reduce costs in Medicare and Medicaid.

Republicans and Democrats can squabble endlessly over the percentages of territory each will cede, but this is the broad framework that we are likely headed towards.

And yet, no agreement has been reached. Why?

It's not for lack of trying. Indeed, over the past two years Washington has, perhaps unintentionally, replicated many of the same negotiating tactics that Israelis and Palestinians have used. We've put together an independent commission, Simpson-Bowles, to come to an "expert" consensus -- the Israeli-Palestinian version is the similarly unimplemented Geneva Initiative. We've tried Track II diplomacy through the Gang of Six and the Super Committee. We've tried our equivalent of a Camp David Summit -- the failed Obama-Boehner negotiations of last summer. We're now even trying secret diplomacy in an attempt to stave off the impending fiscal cliff.

It's also not for lack of consequences. Political deadlock was cited as a major reason for last year's downgrade of America's credit-rating, and the House's refusal to take more decisive action to create jobs has hurt our economic recovery. And as in the Mideast, the consequences of continued stalemate may only grow worse if our deadlock is not resolved.

Rather, Washington has not reached an agreement because, like in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, those on the political extreme can easily derail a possible agreement. Indeed, in both Washington and the Mideast, the proposed agreements are so politically difficult that in the absence of leadership from both sides simultaneously willing to compromise, any faction from either side has effective veto power. Thus, in both cases, control over events has passed from those who favor compromise to those in empowered extremes who benefit from a deadlocked status quo.

Now, I don't want to make a false equivalency.

In the Israeli-Palestinian context, extreme elements on both sides easily dominate supposedly centrist governments that are either unwilling or unable to make peace. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though claiming he seeks to implement a two-state solution, has made only minimal effort to engage in peace talks, even during the now-demised period when he had an expanded governing coalition. For his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to enter into negotiations without preconditions. Even if we grant either leader the most favorable interpretation of their motives -- that they could be seeking to test the other's intentions before laying out difficult concessions-- each has still lost the initiative to those on both extremes who advance their agendas without hesitation.

In contrast, in Washington those who prevent the possibility of agreement are skewed more towards one side. As Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein convincingly argue, while polarization has occurred in both parties, it has been asymmetric. As they put it, "the Republicans are the problem."

This skewed polarization is reflected in each Party's leadership. On America's fiscal policy, President Obama has consistently made a good-faith effort to meet Republicans in the middle. In fact, during negotiations over the Grand Bargain, he alienated important segments of his own party who feared he was too eager to compromise, although he ultimately secured their endorsement of a potential agreement. There may be criticisms of President Obama's negotiation tactics, but it is clear that he made a strategic decision to pursue an agreement with Republicans. (Not incidentally, in his policies towards Arab-Israeli peacemaking, President Obama has, likewise, made a strategic decision to attempt to bring both parties to an agreement, and has thus both provided Israel with steadfast military and diplomatic support while enunciating basic principles that will inevitably be part of any peace deal).

The Republican Party's leadership, in contrast, has looked more like both the current Palestinian and Israeli leadership. They may have had a leader in Speaker of the House John Boehner who wanted to cut a deal with President Obama. But contrary to the claim, he wasn't willing to stick his neck out for an agreement for long. Meanwhile, the Tea Party wing of his party easily undercut him and derailed the agreement. Of course, this is not surprising given that for the past two years the Tea Party wing has taken every procedural opportunity to push their faction's dogmatic agenda -- even as the majority of Americans generally favors compromise.

To be clear, the actual tactics and ideology of violent extremists in the Mideast are worlds apart from those who obstruct the legislative process in Washington. But with the Tea Party owning a veto over Congress, American politics, like that of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has deteriorated into an endless debate about symbolism and process without even approaching the fundamental issues. We argue about debt ceilings in place of actually talking about debt just as in the Mideast they argue about settlement freezes instead of actually talking about settlements -- all while the real conversations about economic growth and peace continue to be postponed further into the future.

So can Washington's stalemate be broken? Yes, but we first must acknowledge that the election alone cannot solve our problem. In fact, our Congress may even become more deadlocked as moderates continue to get purged from both parties. This is not to say the election is unimportant. The presidency, in particular, has unique power to shape the national agenda, so it is vital that we elect a leader who believes in compromise and can stand up to his base.

But breaking the stalemate cannot be done by one side alone. Like with the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, it will require a comprehensive solution.

In Washington, this solution must include significant institutional reforms that, while still protecting checks and balances in our system, prevent political minorities from having the power to nearly always veto the majority. Such reforms should include overhauling Congress's arcane budget and procedural processes and reforming the money-corrupted, gerrymandered electoral system that sends ever more polarized politicians to Washington. They must also include transforming our bureaucracies, which suffer both from Washington's political paralysis and from their own institutional sclerosis, so that effective governing can be carried out even in spite of high-level stagnation.

But ultimately, we must remember why a "comprehensive solution" hasn't work in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Those negotiations have repeatedly shown that for an agreement to be reached you must, at the moment of truth, have leadership from both sides that can say "yes" -- even in spite of determined opposition from their own hardliners.

In our case, no systemic fixes will ever be perfect. Institutions will always be dependent on leaders who can act in the broader interest of the country.

Ultimately, even as reform our institutions, Americans must hold accountable those who prevent reasonable solutions from being implemented and demand that leaders from all sides actually exercise leadership.

Until we do that, we're locked in a stalemate. And just as in the Mideast, conditions on the ground continue to deteriorate, the world grows ever more tired of our endless fighting, and hope for a solution grows ever more dim.

Ari Ratner is a former State Department appointee, where he worked on Mideast and international economic policy. You can follow him on twitter: @amratner.