Small steps could ease tensions in Middle East

06/07/2017 10:07 am ET

Achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians appears to be mission impossible. Every recent American president has tried, and every one, essentially, has failed.

President Donald Trump has said it's not as difficult as people think, but neither he nor his staff has put forward a new strategy.

The task is so challenging that many people say we shouldn't even try. They say we no longer need Middle Eastern oil, and we have plenty of problems of our own. Focusing on this region, they argue, is a waste of time, energy and resources. Other areas, like Asia, are much more important.

Most American policymakers believe we still have strong interests in the Middle East. Even though we have increased domestic oil and gas production, the world needs reliable energy supplies that the Arab states can help provide. We cannot allow our adversaries to develop safe havens in the region from which to attack us or our allies. We have a vital stake in containing terrorism and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Increasing stability in the region serves our security and economic interests.

Our engagement with the Middle East goes back decades, and it will continue to be a focus for American foreign policy, although possibly less than in the recent past.

At the same time, most Americans are increasingly skeptical of greater U.S. involvement in the region. They are extremely reluctant to commit forces. Only a few argue that military intervention would be helpful. We provide military and other assistance to Israel, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, but our policy continues on automatic pilot, without re-examination.

The crux of the conflict is that Israelis and Palestinians both want the same land, and they do not want to share it. Neither side is prepared to pull back from disputed territories. The result is an enormously complex map of Israeli and Palestinian occupation. In general, Israel retains security control while the Palestinians have civil authority in limited areas.

This situation exists within a greater Middle East that is marred by violence, a lack of political will, government instability, military stalemates and enormous human suffering, including famine in some areas. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, and many more have been displaced, creating an expanding refugee crisis.

Israel, by contrast, is doing pretty well. The government is stable and the economy is strong. Israel appears comfortable keeping control of most of the disputed land indefinitely, without concerning itself much about Palestinian citizenship or independence.

The U.S. and its allies have long argued for a two-state solution: a sovereign, contiguous Palestine alongside a secure and democratic Israel. Absent that, we believed, there would be protracted and increasingly violent conflict. We have rejected a one-state solution, which would result in a state that would be Jewish or democratic; it would not be both.

But the possibility of a two-state solution has faded as Israel has expanded its presence in the Palestinian territories and created new facts on the ground. Israel's expansion of settlements undermines its standing abroad and its democratic values at home.

The Palestinians, split between supporters of Fatah and Hamas, are too weak and divided to change the dynamics of the situation. There is no reason to believe that Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are willing to move forward to resolve the conflict.

Each side believes that concessions, if offered, would not be reciprocated. The Palestinians and Israeli publics are deeply skeptical about the possibility of peace. Any effort to assess blame for the situation simply intensifies the distrust.

Negotiations have failed, principally because there is a complete lack of trust between Israelis and Palestinians.

Meanwhile, the gap between the parties widens. The risk continues of another Palestinian uprising and increased violence, which Israel could suppress, but at no small cost.

But given the seriousness of the conflict, proposals for a solution are being put forward, and there are steps that could be taken to move the two sides off the dime.

Israel could freeze its settlements. Palestinians could stop making payments to the families of convicted terrorists. Economic incentives could help persuade Palestinians to cooperate, and increased economic contact between Israelis and Palestinians could help build trust. Talks between the parties could be resumed. And new leaders could come forward with new ideas.

Prospects for a long-term settlement remain dim, but taking steps to ease tensions is the place to start.

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