The United States of America is the only world power that can help Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace in the Middle East. Few dispute the unique American standing. For the US to be able to help shepherd a serious peace process the trust of both parties to the conflict is critical. The absence of trust, more than settlement announcements, seems to be the real reason behind the current anger of the Obama Administration toward its most important Middle East ally, Israel.
Lessons from failed previous attempts to produce a breakthrough in the peace process often focus on trust The gap between what is said and agreed to behind the walls of the White House or the State Department and what happens on the ground in Israel and Palestine has done more to poison the relationships between the parties and between the parties and the US, than any other factor.
Diplomats and observers have repeatedly called on the US and the other members of the Quartet (Europe, Russia and the United Nations) to publicly identify whoever is in violation of the agreed-upon steps towards peace. Only when the understandings behind closed doors and the reality on the ground are in sync can this elusive trust be restored and the peace process started.
Former US ambassador Dan Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky of the US Institute of Peace have given exactly this advice to the previous and current US administrations based on thorough research of what is needed for American leadership to be effective in the Middle East. Their book, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East, outlines ten lessons (learned and re-learned) from failed US attempts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Lesson five states, "commitments made by the parties and agreements entered into must be respected and implemented. The United States must ensure compliance through monitoring, setting standards of accountability, reporting violations fairly to the parties, and exacting consequences when commitments are broken or agreements not implemented. " This was what President Obama insisted on when he met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas last September. He reminded both of their obligations according to the Road Map and agreed with both leaders on a new path.
Since then Palestinians have continued to apply meticulously their commitments, especially on the security front. Palestinian security forced in the West Bank have worked extremely well to thwart all violent acts against Israel, even during Israel's war on Gaza. US officials and even Israeli army generals have praised the efforts, including the success of Palestinians newly trained in consultation with US General Keith Dayton. Furthermore, the strategy of Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister of implementing a blueprint for a de facto state rather than focusing on Israel has won worldwide support, including positive words from pro-Israeli senators such as Joe Lieberman.
The idea of holding Israeli leaders to their commitments by monitoring the situation on the ground didn't start with the Obama Administration. President George W. Bush named in January 2008 Lt. Gen. William Fraser III, assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to monitor progress that Israelis and Palestinians were making on the "road map."
In a talk at Princeton University back in April 2008, Kurtzer was pleased that the book's idea was picked up by the Bush Administration. However, Ambassador Kurtzer complained that Washington was not sufficiently following through. He explained that it is not enough to send the general two days a month and expect that to count as monitoring.
Kurtzer was not the only person who felt that President Bush was not serious in wanting to hold the parties accountable to their commitments. Successive Israeli governments clearly don't seem to have taken seriously their responsibilities. On May 1, 2008 Fraser was confronted with the reality on the ground. Israel radio reported that a Jewish settler drove his jeep into the convoy accompanying General William Fraser. Subsequently, one of the vehicles in the convoy collided with the jeep. A fracas ensued between the guards and Jewish settlers before the Americans decided to cut the visit short. The upshot? Settlers there were left monitor-free to engage in illicit activities in the occupied Palestinian territories.
While this story was widely reported in the Israeli media, the American people are clearly not aware of this story or many Israeli acts of humiliations towards Americans and American officials. Nearly two years later, it remains remarkable that Americans and American officials are regularly denied to do travel freely or to carry out their monitoring work or any other humanitarian work.
On the first day that Obama took office, he appointed veteran American Senator George Mitchell as the US peace envoy to the Middle East. One of Mitchell's first decisions was to set up office in Jerusalem and hire staff to help him monitor the situation on the ground in order to hold the parties to their commitments. The list of Israeli violations that the Mitchell team documented provided President Obama with enough proof that the promises made to him by the Netanyahu administration on various fronts had not been honored.
The Clinton administration faced a similar frustrating lack of forthrightness from Netanyahu in the 1990s. And Obama's secretary of state is no doubt especially aware of Netanyahu's track record.
As an honest broker to the Middle East peace process, America needs to restore trust with the parties before a serious process can really begin. As president Reagan said, you need to trust but verify. Clearly the Israelis have failed in American verification efforts. Current tension has emerged because of very real disappointments that the Americans have witnessed on the ground by an ally of the US. One of the most important trust tests is whether the parties to the conflict truly want peace. Once this is restored the US and the world will be able to help the parties to translate it on the ground.