Forum on Israel and Palestine

On July 3, 2002, JLE brought together a group of scholars to discuss the role of the United States in Israel and Palestine. Participants exchanged e-mails for two hours, exploring the current U.S. policy and the possibilities for future U.S. action. The invited Palestinian participant was unable to join the forum. The discussion, however, was lively and thoughtful. The text of the forum is this month’s feature in JLE.

JLE: I would like to begin by asking these two questions: What is the appropriate outcome to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and what is the primary obligation of the U.S. in arriving at that outcome? How should that obligation lead the U.S. to address the competing interests that are involved in the formulation of policy?

David Newman: The appropriate outcome is a two-state solution – Israeli and Palestinian states side by side with a clearly defined and demarcated boundary separating the two states. Under such a solution, Israeli settlements on the Palestinian side of the boundary will have to be evacuated. The boundary does not necessarily have to be the same line as the green line (pre-1967 boundary), but one would assume that it would only deviate in small areas, normally because of settlements which would be annexed to Israel. In return, the Palestinian state would receive territorial compensation elsewhere, maybe next to the Gaza Strip.

The U.S. should be a strong third party mediator and, if necessary, implementor of such a solution. Competing interests require compromise on both sides – by both Israelis and Palestinians – and the U.S. should be prepared to influence the respective sides to make those compromises and, where necessary, to help provide guarantees (at least for the first few years) that such compromises will not in any way weaken either of the two states.

Steven Spiegel: There is today less controversy than ever before concerning the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: two states, one Jewish and one Arab Palestinian, living side by side in peace. This objective has been set out in many international forums, including the Clinton parameters of January 11, 2001, the speech by Secretary Powell on November 19, 2001, several statements by President Bush, and most recently in UN Resolution 1397.

The U.S. has a special obligation because it is the strongest power in the world, the critical diplomatic player in the region and the one that all sides agree will have to be the key mediator that helps the parties reach a settlement. Indeed, as we have seen the last eighteen months, when the U.S. is not deeply engaged, the situation on the ground only gets worse.

This critical position in the region gives the U.S. a special responsibility. It must try to utilize its close relationship with Israel, which is in part the reason all parties regard the U.S. as the critical diplomatic factor. After all, Israel trusts the U.S. more than any other country in the world, and most Americans have great admiration for the Jewish state. At the same time, our prestige and power mean that if we exercise diplomatic finesse, are actively engaged, and demonstrate that we are both empathetic to the Palestinian plight and understand Palestinian yearnings as much as we sympathize with Israel, we can make a serious positive contribution. In other words, and it is a constant balancing act, we must maintain the confidence of both sides.

Janice Love: I agree with Steven Spiegel and David Newman on a two-state solution. The time has come and many agree. I am less convinced about other points, however. One is that any settlements must stay. Settlements represent one of the biggest stumbling blocks to peace and should be removed (on the whole).

My second point of potential disagreement is on the role of the U.S.. Because of its close alignment with Israel, a relationship that got much closer under the latest Bush proposal, the U.S. has always had a problem playing the role of an honest broker in this conflict. This role is now more compromised than ever with the latest Bush proposal.

Clearly, however, any agreement reached must have U.S. backing. All sides must compromise and all sides must end the violence, including the violence of current military strategies that keep Palestinians out of work and confined to their homes as well as the violence of suicide bombings. Right now U.S. policies do not help to stop the violence on either side.

Steven Spiegel: I do not agree with Janice Love that all settlements should be removed. Rather, I think that one of the few bright spots in recent negotiations is that the parties have agreed that there will be a swap of land so that the Palestinians will gain territorial compensation for the settlements which Israel keeps. Since it turns out that most of the settlers live on land which is very close to pre-1967 Israel, this is a doable compromise.

I also disagree with her on the role of violence. I fully agree that the Palestinians are currently in a totally unacceptable position. Their lives are impossible, and their suffering enormous. This situation should not, must not, and cannot continue. But of course, the Israelis did not decide one day simply to attack (however some of us may disagree with some of their tactics). They were retaliating for attacks on innocent civilians after they had made a major peace offer which was rejected. Now, of course, there are different views of this offer. The way to address disputes would have been to continue negotiations, not to resort to force. To paraphrase Israel’s defense minister, speaking to both parties, this problem will not be resolved by military force.

That’s where the American role comes in. We have to “call it like it is” to both sides. The Israelis are understandably disillusioned with the Palestinians, but they must offer a political process and major concessions as the result of the process or they will not be able to end the violence. The Palestinians, who are also understandably frustrated and disillusioned with the slow progress since 1993, and the failures of their own leadership, must be given the sense that only diplomacy will work, and that violence does and will continue to jeopardize their cause and devastate their lives. We have to be honest but sympathetic with both sides.

And that is why I believe that the Palestinians do continue to seek American involvement. Most Palestinians are not enamored with President Bush’s policies, but they know they will only achieve their aims through American actions. Therefore, they will continue to seek American understanding and we can use their interest in our engagement to help change the current horrendous situation on the ground.

JLE: It seems that ending violence requires a certain degree of trust – what can the U.S. do to build that trust and enforce any agreements, and what does the U.S. do that undermines trust?

David Newman: Clearly, the U.S. role is not clear right now. On the one hand, as Steven Spiegel rightly says, they are the most influential and powerful country and they are probably the only one with the teeth to implement, not just mediate, a solution on the ground. In recent surveys of public opinion, Israelis made it clear that they see the United States as the main outside power who should be involved in resolving the conflict. Israelis don’t want the United Nations or Europe who they perceive as being “pro-Palestinians,” just as the Palestinians view the U.S. as being too pro-Israel. A combination of the various forces (what is now called the Quartet – United States, Russia, United Nations and the European Union) in different areas of activity could be a possibility – so could other countries who are not perceived as being biased in favor of one side or the other (Canada? Australia? New small states of central/eastern Europe?), but none of them can replace the role of the U.S., they can only be a supplement.

Janice Love: I also believe that a more multilateral approach on the part of the United States would help, because I agree with David Newman’s analysis that the Israelis don’t trust the Europeans and the Palestinians don’t trust the U.S.. This lack of trust has a deep history and needs to be addressed. Therefore, if the U.S. could forge partnerships with the European Union and/or Nordic countries and/or Arab states, this would go a long way toward providing the “muscle,” finance, and diplomacy to get some long-term settlement. Current trends in U.S. foreign policy exactly away from multilateralism, however, do not bode well for such a scenario.

JLE: Will the U.S. have to overcompensate, in a sense, to gain the trust of Palestinians, or will the inclusion of another nation be sufficient to gain trust among Palestinians?

Steven Spiegel: I believe that I have already answered this question. The United States does not have to overcompensate. The President on June 24 laid out fairly tough requirements for Israel, which few have noticed. But he maintained that the first problems are the current Palestinian leadership and structural reform. That’s where the controversy arose. But there are many questions about how involved we should be reforming the Palestinian society, whether we should insist on the ouster of Yasser Arafat (and whether that is appropriate). And there is no question that the U.S. will require the engagement of other states in assisting with Palestinian reform. But let me say it again, there is no other country which can play our current role.

Janice Love: Making the use of the Quartet contingent on getting rid of Arafat and further reform of the Palestinian Authority (PA) is to delay any possible settlement and to go back on many years of progress in peace negotiations. Clearly the PA needs to be reformed, as do many authoritarian and corrupt governments to which the U.S. gives full support (both in the region and outside). The U.S. call for unseating a democratically elected head of “government” goes against the grain of rather fundamental principles we claim to support, looks extremely hypocritical in light of our current and historic support for authoritarian (and worse) governments, and undermines the possibilities of peace.

JLE: It wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. has been called hypocritical – but what do you think is best in this particular situation?

Steven Spiegel: Basically, what the President has done is to say that the Palestinian people have the right to elect their own leader, but he believes that the current leadership is pro-terror, corrupt, authoritarian, and incompetent. If they do reelect Arafat, the U.S. will not – he seems to be saying – pressure Israel for concessions or become actively engaged in diplomacy. This is a very controversial stance, and those of us who believe that only through a political process can this conflict be resolved must be concerned to work with Palestinians and Israelis to promote mutual dialogue and understanding lest the process simply end. But the President’s stand is very different than suggesting that the U.S. will march in and oust Arafat. After all, we do have a right to our own views and that – as I have written earlier – is one of our roles here. And the Palestinian people will hopefully speak shortly on their response.

One other point. I too believe that the U.S. should rely more on a multilateral context, and indeed this administration – for all its unilateralism elsewhere which I do not condone – has been much more effective than its predecessor in involving the Arab states in the peace process and it helped create the Quartet in the first place. But on this dispute, there can be no substitute for the central role of the U.S. because of America’s critical position as the only party that both sides trust.

Janice Love: Thanks for your clarification. I didn’t mean to imply that President Bush is going to oust Arafat. I agree with your characterization of what Bush said, and I think his policy is terribly short-sighted in this regard.

JLE: Through what means do you think the United States should use its influence? Encouragement through funding? Participation in the United Nations? Direct political pressure?

Steven Spiegel: The U.S. has a variety of means by which to use its influence. The first is the weight of its diplomatic role; simply by providing statements and diplomatic guidance to the parties, it can make a major difference. Constant diplomatic intervention is therefore necessary, because we cannot rely on speeches alone. But, as David Newman suggests, the United States can also recommend concessions which are necessary if progress is to succeed. Thus, the Bush administration has been correct to suggest in the strongest possible terms that the ongoing violence is simply unacceptable, and that suicide bombings make progress impossible. On the other hand, obviously – as successive administrations have argued, including this one – there will have to be demarcated borders, Israel will have to give up most settlements, the Palestinians will have to agree to end the conflict with Israel, and the parties will have to address the most difficult issues of Jerusalem and refugees before the conflict can be settled. The parties were in the process of dealing with these issues from Camp David to Taba until the violence made that impossible.

Second, the U.S. should be at the forefront of aiding the Palestinians in the necessary reform and reconstruction process which will be necessary if diplomatic progress is to be possible. Although many other countries, from the Europeans to the Japanese, have indicated their willingness to participate, and in some cases, even to take the lead, it is only the U.S. that can prepare the way. The President’s speech of June 24, 2002, commits the U.S. to intimate involvement and that is appropriate and required if we are to proceed.

Third, in this context the United Nations is less important, although the administration is now working with the so-called Quartet in arranging a regional conference when the situation in Palestine has been sufficiently improved. This idea, inspired in part by the Saudi peace vision of early 2002 offering normalization of relations between Arabs and Israelis, after a peace settlement has been reached would provide an opportunity of mutual confidence building and for exploring the precise details of the plan. It is the type of activity in which the U.S. should definitely be engaged.

JLE: How can this deep history of mistrust be addressed? The two sides seem to have such different historical narratives, that to accept one would be to exclude the other.

Steven Spiegel: I do not think that the deep history of mistrust is impossible to address, although it was a major factor in the 2000 breakdown, and it is even more difficult after the tragedies of the last two years. But trying to bridge the gap is one of the central tasks of diplomacy. It is also essential that contacts between individual Israelis and Palestinians continue. There can be no substitute for official and unofficial interchange between Israelis and Palestinians if we are to have any chance of moving forward. In my experience, prominent individuals from both sides are ready and willing. The key problem surprisingly enough is often insufficient funding for bringing them together.

David Newman: This is the wrong question (please don’t take offense). It is wrong to assume that either of the two narratives has to be accepted by the other side. Even long after the implementation of a peace agreement and an end to violence, each side will continue to have its own version of history, of who was the guilty party, who were the victims, etc., etc. But it does require a willingness to listen to the narrative of the other side and to accept that neither narrative is black or white but there is a lot of gray in the middle. A recent attempt by a group of well-meaning Israeli and Palestinian academics to write a joint text book for school children was not completed because even they, with all their closeness to each other, could not agree on how to portray joint narratives, which terminologies to use, etc.

Janice Love: I believe that countries like South Africa demonstrate that the circumstances do not have to be fully resolved to be moving helpfully in the right direction. DeKlerk and Mandela provided what political scientists call “ennobling leadership” to move what appeared to be an impossible situation into a negotiated solution, with compromises so deep that many will pay the price for many years. But in return, they got peace and the possibility of moving forward to rebuild the country because both men had come to the conclusion that the situation could not continue as it was at the time.

Unfortunately, Arafat is no Mandela and Sharon is no DeKlerk. Right now, both sides act like their best hope is to eliminate the other side, and the recent Bush policy feeds into this picture. Elimination of the other side is not and never will be possible, and bold leaders both in the region and outside need to come to this conclusion quickly before thousands more die.

JLE: What do you think might be a source of ennobling leadership in Israel and Palestine?

Janice Love: Techniques that often work in other places are for governments and Non-Government Organizations (NGO) to support those groups inside the country (i.e. civil society groups, political parties, NGOs of various sorts both in Israel and Palestine) that themselves function democratically, that promote democratic outcomes, that work for cross-cultural understanding, that presume that non-zero-sum solutions are possible, and that seek to end the extreme polarizing tendencies of almost two years of fairly constant battle.

I work closely with the World Council of Churches and chair its committee that promotes a “Decade to Overcome Violence” (in conjunction with the United Nations Decade for a Culture of Nonviolence) and we have been in touch with many groups in the region that fit this profile. They have a variety of interests and articulations, i.e., they are not of all one type or ideological stripe. They need support.

Steven Spiegel: I believe that the support here must come from outside, because neither side will trust a program which is funded solely by the other’s government, and under current conditions the two could not jointly fund anything.

Janice Love: Again, I would agree. The funding should be from the outside, which I did not say as explicitly as I could have said.

David Newman: Unfortunately, religion in the Middle East does not actively promote peace, but tends to use fundamentalist rhetoric (in both mosques and synagogues) to focus on the exclusivity of their respective claims to territory and supremacy. The many NGOs that exist in the region are very short on religion.

David Newman: We are missing the main point if we fail to see that the two sides are “blessed” with leaders who are more comfortable with conflict than they are with peace or reconciliation. One of the major U.S. roles is to somehow make them, or their representatives, to begin to talk again. Most of the “nitty gritty” details of the negotiations have been determined (within flexible parameters). They are not going to open up the negotiations all over again on every issue (such as borders, settlements, Jerusalem, etc.) – there is a huge amount to be built on. The problem today is in another sphere – getting the two sides and their respective domestic constituencies willing to talk the language of peace again.

Steven Spiegel: I agree with David Newman.

Janice Love: I also agree and tried to say the same thing a bit differently.

Steven Spiegel: I believe there is a great deal of misunderstanding of American policy here. While I do not think it is useful to employ particular analogies such as South Africa (one could be more optimistic about Israelis and Palestinians if the Northern Ireland example were cited on this point), the President is trying to break the logjam. There is a vicious circle currently between Sharon and Arafat. What the administration is saying (and not very subtly or diplomatically) is that Arafat, whose people initiated the current violence and have escalated it on his watch, must step down in favor of someone who will end the violence on the Palestinian side. If that happens, then the Israeli people will have to make major concessions in return. The administration is assuming that if the current Israeli leadership will not make these concessions, then the Israeli people – who opinion polls show us favor a deal if it could be reached – will oust that government in good democratic fashion. One can disagree with the president’s approach, and there are great unanswered questions as to how his plan will be implemented, but he is certainly attempting to seriously address the problems that others in this conversation have identified. I fail to understand why he should be faulted for that. He is at least trying to change the conversation to move toward a new type of progress, and I believe his critics should at a minimum offer counter-proposals for how to proceed.

Janice Love: Thanks again for usefully engaging where we might agree and disagree. I do not think the problem in this conversation lies with any substantial misunderstanding of American foreign policy. I completely agree with you that President Bush is trying to break the logjam, but I think we disagree importantly on whether or not his approach helps or hurts. I think it is counterproductive to finding long-term peace.

My comparison to South Africa was simply on the issue of leadership and was another way of saying what David Newman said: leaders on both sides want conflict more than they want peace. Fortunately for South Africa, Mandela and DeKlerk wanted peace. I agree that some useful comparisons can be made with Northern Ireland.

As for counterproposals, I believe I’ve already indicated some.

Steven Spiegel: Thanks for these remarks. I understand your position, and I certainly believe that the president’s proposals must be filled in with specific ideas and actions that facilitate the prospects for peace negotiations.

JLE: I believe the questions we have raised have been pretty well covered in our discussion. Are there other questions you would like to pose to the other participants?

David Newman: I would be interested in knowing what the others think of the role of religion (Judaism and Islam) in being used as a potential source of peace, rather than conflict and heated tensions. I believe that we don’t look at this factor sufficiently and we fail to understand what a powerful role religion has in influencing grass roots opinion – amongst both Israelis and Palestinians.

Janice Love: This is a good question. Outside groups could support, give voice to, lend legitimacy to and promote those religious elements that uphold the principles of interfaith coexistence, peace, secularism, and governmental democracy. There are some, and again, they need support.

Not all of the Jews, Muslims or Christian groups lean toward fundamentalism, but obviously the conflict of the last two years has not helped in this regard.

Steven Spiegel: This is always a delicate topic, which reminds me of the famous comment by an American diplomat shortly after Israel’s birth, “Why can’t the Jews and Arabs act like good Christians?” If done with sympathy and understanding the approach of involving religious leaders could be a powerful factor in ameliorating conflict. But it would require Jews and Muslims who are observant but dovish to dialogue and coordinate a new initiative. Prince Hassan of Jordan has been particularly active in the past in these types of efforts.

Janice Love: I agree with the sentiment here, but just want to add (as a Christian involved in various church and ecumenical organizations) that the Christian family has its share of fundamentalists, just like all other religions!

JLE: I think your point returns us to the question of how and whether the United States should try and foster peacemaking outside of the formal decision-makers.

Steven Spiegel: As I have already indicated, I believe that contacts and dialogues between prominent Israelis and Palestinians are crucial. The more, the better, and so we should definitely be encouraging, sponsoring, and enabling them. These contacts should not be limited by any means to the most dovish elements on both sides.

Janice Love: I agree completely.

Steven Spiegel: That is why the role of outsiders is so significant, especially because people who may live just a few miles from each other often have to go to Europe to talk.

David Newman: And probably also why a role, even a secondary role, needs to be found for the Europeans. There is too much anti-Europeanism going on in Israel right now – politicians and media – and this is very unhealthy.

JLE: Thank you all very much for your time. This was the first time we’ve tried an online forum, and I appreciate your contributions and patience more than I can say.


David Newman chairs the department of politics at Ben Gurion University in Israel and edits the International Journal of Geopolitics. He also writes a fortnightly column on Israeli politics and the peace process for the daily newspaper the Jerusalem Post.

Steven Spiegel teaches in the political science department of UCLA.

Janice Love is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of South Carolina. She taught international studies in a political science department for 21 years.

The Palestinian participant invited by JLE was unable to join the forum. Diana Buttu, legal advisor to the Palestinian peace negotiation team, was not allowed into her office on the day of the forum, and was without power at her home in Ramallah.

Kaari Reierson

Kaari Reierson is the founding editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and is the Chair of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics Advisory Council.