The Blog

The US Needs to Increase Its Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, Not Lessen It

Yes the US is an intrinsically biased mediator, but it is this bias and the leverage it provides which is key to influencing Israel into accepting the terms of a two-state solution.

As a consequence of the hostilities in and around the Gaza strip this summer, the debate on the United States' involvement in the peace process (and to some extent its global role in general) have resurfaced. Criticism of US mediation ranges from accusations of bias in Washington to suggestions that US brokering is preventing direct talks between the two parties. There is a growing trend among not just media commentators and the general public that the US should "mind its own business" or take a back seat vis-a-vis the peace process, but also among international relations enthusiasts and indeed within this category my own colleagues and friends. They are wrong. American involvement in the peace process is essential if the conflict is to be resolved.

There are of course those who will retort such a suggestion, those who will highlight the fact that the US has been an active contributor in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for decades, without having actually achieving peace. The creation of the first 'Framework for Peace in the Middle East' during the 1978 Camp David Accords under President Carter, and President Clinton's co-ordination at the White House of the conclusion to the Oslo accords facilitated by Norway in 1993, failed to provide a lasting peace. It is an inconvenient truth that the United States has failed to deliver a permanent solution to the conflict, but the fact is that the US is the only global player with the ability to deliver a two-state solution.

It is generally considered that the most crucial quality of a mediator is impartiality - neutrality to the issue of the dispute and an overarching commitment to peace rather than the desires of a particular party. An impartial mediator is essential for reasons of trust - with parties in the conflict able to work for a solution knowing that their facilitating arbitrator is working to benefit both parties and is also willing to take unbiased action should either party default on an agreement. This is where the US has failed thus far, but for unnecessary reasons and its own domestic failings.

The key factor in the US' inability to act as a truly effective mediator can be found in the sway and influence exerted by its domestic pro-Israel Lobby, specifically elements within this broad and non-homogeneous lobby which push for a US foreign policy of unequivocal and unconditional support of Israeli foreign policy. The US, perhaps through no fault of its own in terms of the desires of its democratically elected Presidents and their respective administrations, is by default of domestic political pressures intrinsically biased. This bias has manifested in the form of historic US foreign policy, and this has precluded any serious talk of, let alone action towards, a two-state solution.

US bias has led for calls for a mediator who is able to both exert influence and act in an impartial fashion to facilitate a two-state solution. But no other state in current existence matches the power and influence of the US. Mediators require an ability to exert leverage on a party to a conflict like Israel which stands to strategically and territorially lose out in the successful establishment of Palestinian state. Some thus tout the European Union as a potential alternative to US mediation. The EU has in recent years gained valuable experience as a global diplomatic player, with High Representative of the Union Catherine Ashton playing a crucial part in securing nuclear agreements with Iran. Ashton has also played a role in the mediation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as part of the Quartet negotiations alongside representatives from the US, Russia, the UN, and Special Envoy former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

However, the EU's ability to deliver a two-state solution is unconvincing. Granted major EU players like Ashton are not subject to the influence of interest groups on the scale of the US pro-Israel Lobby, neither are they directly elected and thus are not influenced by populism and electorates like US Presidents. But the EU as an entity, nor any other actor bar the US, does not possess the key attribute necessary to influence Israel to accept the terms of a two-state solution - leverage. For a successful resolution in the form of a two-state solution, the influence of the US is critical. This is because it is the very nature of the US-Israel 'special relationship' which gives the US and no other actor the leverage required to influence Israel to act in a manner arguably against its immediate strategic interests. But the US is invariably unwilling and unable to exert such leverage as a consequence of domestic pressures. It is clear therefore that it is not American involvement that is essential per se, it is the involvement of a Presidential administration which bucks the trend and acts against the influence of domestic pressure groups. This is perhaps an idealist conclusion, but not an implausible one. Such a situation would likely be most successful in a President's 2nd term when qualms of upsetting electorates, demographics, and interest groups abate. Additionally, actors within such a hypothetical administration would potentially be more effective (or at least less susceptible to the wrath of the pro- Israel Lobby) if they have shown historic support for Israel and perhaps indeed the pro-Israel Lobby itself prior to exercising leverage on Israel. Such precedent of unconditional support could serve as a mechanism to make actors who push Israel into recognising a Palestinian state immune from charges of being "soft" - a la "Only Nixon could go to China".

Yes the US is an intrinsically biased mediator, but it is this bias and the leverage it provides which is key to influencing Israel into accepting the terms of a two-state solution. US bias and its special relationship with Israel provides it with leverage to exploit fears of shifting allegiances (i.e. an Israeli fear of US affinity for Palestine) in order to force solutions and compromises. US bias and closeness with Israel thus enhances its bargaining power. Granted this bias has historically blocked progress towards the means to a successful resolution, but no other suitable mediator with the leverage required exists. It is therefore up to actors within the US, Presidents and their administrations, to overcome such bias by acting against the influence of domestic lobbies, though there is little doubt that this is easier said than done.