Democratic Think Tanks on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

{Previously published by The JNS}

If you want to know what the incoming Biden administration thinks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, read the analysis of Democratic think tanks. A new report from like-minded center-left think tanks one year in the making, “A New U.S. Strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” recommends a fresh approach, as it does not foresee a resolution in the short term. What makes it particularly noteworthy is that it was written by senior analysts of think tanks that are the most influential and respected by Democrats in Congress and the incoming Biden foreign-policy team. The report was written by Ilan Goldenberg, Michael Koplow and Tamara Cofman-Wittes, longtime Mideast policy pundits from the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) and the Brookings Institute.

IPF policy director Michael Koplow said, “The approach the U.S. has taken for a quarter-century… isn’t going to work until the parties themselves indicate they’re ready to dive in … most of the successful breakthroughs have come when the U.S. comes in at the end, not when we’re initiating.” They correctly conclude that there is almost no chance for final-status talks at this time.

Many non-partisan observers of the conflict argued years ago that American-mediated interventions focused on land for peace was not the path likely to lead to two states for two peoples. In part, this is because it ignores more fundamental problems, especially the Palestinian demand for an unconditional “right of return” of descendants of refugees. This goal is not as some Middle East analysts claim—merely a bargaining chip for future negotiations—but something imprinted on the Palestinian people from the first time they attend a school or pray at a mosque.

In a Haaretz interview, the authors called “for a fundamental rethink of how the United States approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It urges America to avoid actively harmful high-profile diplomatic initiatives in favor of tangible actions that would lead to diplomatic and on-the-ground improvements.” This is welcome if surprising news, as experts who previously recommended a ground-up economic approach were routinely disparaged by many of the writers’ ideological travelers, believing that it favored Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s goal to delay creating a Palestinian state.

The report should be applauded for acknowledging that the current situation is not fertile ground for significant change, recommending slow-walking any new American diplomatic initiatives. However, diving deeper into the report reveals too many assumptions and recommendations to eventually resolve the conflict that ignores its root causes. The writers’ beliefs seem stultified in a strategy created a generation ago that never led to a resolution. It does not fully appreciate how profoundly the region has changed, as much of the Arab world has now ended the Palestinian veto that prevented relations with Israel unless Palestinian demands were met in full. This was most evident when the Arab League in 2020 refused to condemn the Abraham Accords or any nations that normalized relations with Israel.

As JNS editor Jonathon Tobin wrote, “While some American liberals have stubbornly ignored the evidence … (the) Arab and Muslim world understands that the Palestinians have no intention of making the kind of compromises that would enable the implementation of a two-state solution … their political culture is so inextricably linked to their century-old war on the Jews that such flexibility appears to be impossible.”

Koplow underestimates the ground-breaking change of normalization, seeing its primary importance through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It’s appropriate to applaud these agreements, but also to figure out how they can redound back into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on both sides.” He fails to grasp that the best way to resolve the conflict is to marginalize the Palestinians until they give up their unrealistic demands. This includes ending the demand for millions of descendants of refugees to return to Israel, refusing to sign an end of conflict agreement to end all outstanding claims and unambiguously recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. None of these fundamental issues is addressed in their analysis.

The writers follow the Obama playbook, recommending punishing Israel and seeing the Palestinians almost entirely as victims. “The United States should make clear that it will not shield Israel from international consequences,” as when Obama torpedoed the only mutually agreed U.N. resolutions between the parties, UNSC Resolution 242 and 338, orchestrating the passage of UNSC 2334. The resolution undermined Israel’s right to defensible borders as envisioned by the authors of UNSC 242. Israel needs to retain some parts of the West Bank, such as the Jordan River Valley, to remain secure. UNSC 2334 prejudged the conflict’s resolution with a politically motivated anti-Israel reading of international law, making any Israeli presence over the 1949 Armistice line (1967 line) a war crime.

The same faulty reasoning plagued previous administrations—from Clinton to Bush to Obama—seeing Israel’s occupation of the disputed territories as the primary problem without mentioning the Israeli concessions in 1967, 2000, 2001 and 2008 negotiations. The real issue is they fail to address the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in any territorial dimension.

Center-left think tanks too often ignore the generational brainwashing of the Palestinian people into thinking Israel will disappear if they persist, while Jews have no right to a millimeter of the land. It is a prime reason so many attempts have failed to resolve the conflict over the years. The dream of eradicating Israel has become part of the Palestinian DNA emanating from their mosques, government officials, media and school curriculums. Even Norway, a staunch defender of the Palestinians, recently cut funding to an NGO supporting incitement in Palestinian schools. The worst the authors can say about the Palestinian Authority is that it is “opaque and unaccountable” instead of a more accurate description as “corrupt and a financial supporter of terrorism.” Rewriting history and moral equivalence doesn’t advance American interests or create stability in the region.

The authors state that “the United States should take immediate steps to address the humanitarian crisis and economic challenges facing the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Part of this effort should involve the United States restarting its economic assistance programs to the Palestinian people and funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), both of which were cut off in the past four years.” Israel knows it is in their interest to help the Palestinian people, but these recommendations without context mislead readers by omitting the sound reasons for funding suspension.

American law (the Taylor Force Act) passed on a bipartisan basis, compels the United States to cut funding to the P.A. because hundreds of millions of dollars a year of U.S. taxpayer dollars finance the P.A.’s support and incentivization of terrorism by rewarding convicted terrorists in jail and their immediate family. There is similar Israeli legislation.

As for America’s decrease in funding to UNWRA, this was done because its raison d’être is against resettling Palestinian descendants of refugees. This flies in the face of the authors’ stated desire for a two-state solution. Restoring funding to UNWRA should occur only if its position, aiming to bring refugees’ descendants to Israel, ends.

The authors ask America to “renew ties with the Palestinian people and their government and demonstrate its commitment to independent ties with the Palestinian.” This “balanced” approach, treating Palestinians and Israelis on equal footing, undermines American security interests that need a strong and secure Israel. Demanding nothing of consequence from the Palestinians is a prescription for intransigence and violence. America can be a fair mediator even if its sympathies and interests lie with Israel.

Tamara Cofman Wittes told Haaretz, “We wanted to take a step back and look at all the core assumptions of American engagement on this issue.” Yet the report revealed no new understanding of the etiology of the conflict. They said, “Three core principles should drive U.S. policy, and the new president or secretary of state should take an early opportunity to articulate them to the world: first, a recognition that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations based on U.N. resolutions and broadly recognized international terms of reference—most importantly the concept of land for peace—remain the only means to achieve a permanent agreement between the parties.”

They fail to see that for the Palestinians, two states means one in the West Bank absent of Jews and a second binational state in present-day Israel with the Palestinian right to an unconditional return of refugees’ descendants—in other words, the destruction of the Jewish state by non-military means. Although they say their approach is new and the United States should step back from the conflict, their demand for “Immediate Actions to Rebuild U.S. Credibility” is Palestinian-centered. In the end, this is simply a repackaged plan that will not create a path to peace because it fails to acknowledge the obvious; it’s the Palestinians who have to change.

In the first six months of the new administration, expect President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy officials to be careful in their public statements, as they will have bigger fish to fry on the world stage. Still, it is more likely than not that they agree with this report’s thesis and the recommendations of “A New U.S. Strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”

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