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January 08, 2013

Former US Officials Assess Prospects for Mideast Peace

by Andre de Nesnera

Negotiations for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for more than two years.

The key issues are well-known.  They are the geographic outlines of a new Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements in occupied territories and security arrangements.

Peace talks ground to a halt in September 2010 when Israel resumed the construction of settlements after a moratorium expired.  Palestinian officials say they will not resume negotiations until settlement building is stopped.  Israel refuses to freeze settlements and is calling for talks to begin again without preconditions.

Palestinians must unite

Experts said one stumbling block to the peace process is the division in Palestinian leadership between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  The West Bank is run by Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority while the Gaza Strip is under the control of the militant organization Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel and the U.S. State Department.

Former U.S. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who served under Presidents Gerald Ford and George Herbert Walker Bush, said the Palestinians must show a united front.

“If Hamas can not be induced, if you will, to join with Fatah, and really pursue the peace process,” said Scowcroft, “then a two-state solution might be given up on and that would be a disaster for everyone.  This notion that the two-state solution is just out there forever, may be a mistake.”

Last November, Hamas and Israel fought a week-long conflict.  The militant group bombarded Israel with hundreds of rockets. Israel responded with air strikes in Gaza.  The fighting eventually stopped after Egypt mediated a cease-fire.

Hamas more dominant

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, said Hamas actually emerged from the cease-fire in a stronger position. 

"They defied Israel and lived to tell about it.  And Iran also emerges in a stronger position.  They have demonstrated what many long expected or feared, that they could put missiles into the hands of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, that they could reach Israeli population centers like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv," he said.

As for Fatah, the U.N. General Assembly last November gave President Abbas a rare international diplomatic victory by recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state, the same status as the Vatican.

“It was another exercise in fantasy by the U.N. General Assembly,” said Bolton.  “There is no Palestinian state, so having a majority in the General Assembly say there is one, is not going to create it."

"But despite its disconnect from reality, the resolution will have, could have, significant political effects, given that the Palestinians can take this status as a state in international law, go to the International Court of Justice, go to the International Criminal Court, accede to a number of other treaties and try and use that for political advantage.  I think it will have consequences,” he added.

U.S. role

Experts are divided as to whether Fatah’s diplomatic win and Hamas’s more dominant position will have any effect on the stalled peace process.  They said one thing is certain: the United States must play a more active role in advancing that process.

But William Cohen, former U.S. defense secretary in the Clinton administration, said Washington has a problem.

“The United States, frankly, has not had the perception of being an even-handed broker, because of the United States’ strong commitment to Israel,” said Cohen.  “And I think many of the Palestinians see this as not being fair-handed or even-handed, being an ‘honest broker.’”

Despite that, Cohen said the United States is the only country capable of being an “honest broker.”

“We are the only ones that can, because certainly from the Israeli point of view they have great trust in the United States, which is justified,” said Cohen.  “And I think we have to continue to reach out to the Palestinians to say that we are committed to helping to achieve a two-state solution.  And if we no longer intend to carry out that role, then obviously, we are not going to be able to help bring about a successful negotiation.”

Some experts believe U.S. President Barack Obama will have a unique opportunity during his second term in office to revive the Middle East peace process.  But analysts said any action on that front will wait until after the Israeli parliamentary elections scheduled for January 22.