I’ve just returned from a weeklong work trip to Israel and the West Bank. It had been more than three years since my last visit. While Israel never disappoints in its ability to delight the senses, inspire, and thrill, it is clear that the pressure of the changes in the Arab world are taking their toll.
And with turmoil just over Israel’s borders in the Arab world, it is also clear that the lack of a clearly defined eastern border with the Palestinians has only exacerbated these tensions.
This is why it is so encouraging to see the return of American shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. For the first time in more than two decades, a U.S. secretary of state is taking an active, hands-on role in leading America’s Middle East peace efforts.
Doing so is directly in America’s interest. A political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians will shift the current dynamic in the region in America’s favor, thereby putting our adversaries on the defensive. It will gain us new moral authority and credibility at a moment when we need it most in a changing Middle East.
Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Israel three times in the past month. He is shaking up the thinking in Israel and amongst Palestinians, encouraging them to brush off the cobwebs of a moribund peace process. He is crisscrossing the region looking for partners in this enterprise, seeking new angles and energy to resolve the seemingly endless impasse.
He is looking to make, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said alongside Kerry at a joint press conference, “…. a serious effort to end this conflict once and for all.”
Timing for this new American initiative could not be better. In my meetings during the past week with government officials, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, political activists, investors, philanthropists, industrialists, villagers, social workers, and young people and women from each of the sides, several core themes emerged.
First, in both Israel and the West Bank, demand for economic opportunity is outpacing the supply of good jobs, capital and resources. The poorest populations in Israel — ultra-Orthodox and Arab-Israeli — are growing the most rapidly, stressing social services beyond their capacity and creating resentments amongst those who have good wages. The same goes for the Palestinians. The majority of their economic output is dependent upon restricted foreign aid, and their ability to develop a private sector economy is constrained by the physical limits of occupation, human capital deficits and weak institutions.
Second, the lack of a political agreement between the two sides is suppressing economic development. The uncertain political environment dampens investor interest in both the Israeli and Palestinian economies. Both sides need to improve their economy, yet a healthy economy needs a stable political environment to flourish.
Third, the importance of the United States to each side is increasing. For
Israel, the instability on its borders and concerns about Iran make it ever more dependent on American security guarantees. For the Palestinians, the changes in the Arab world, where populations are throwing out governments that don’t deliver, make the situation of the Palestinian Authority especially precarious, as they have not yet delivered statehood.
These core takeaways heighten the urgency of resolving the conflict, and directly impact the prospects for Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy. For that diplomacy to be effective, several objectives must be advanced to create a constructive atmosphere around what will be an arduous diplomatic negotiation.
First, Americans must make their voices heard in the halls of Congress and through the political process. Political support for the administration’s efforts, by providing political upsides for members of Congress who support these efforts, will foster a safer policy environment for Kerry’s diplomatic engagement.
Second, Americans must build constituencies for peace in Israel and amongst the Palestinians through business activity. The more that each side, particularly through their business communities, is invested in productive joint activity, the more they will be brought into resolving the conflict — and creating positive pressure on their governments to resolve the conflict.
Third, Americans must bring more Arab and Muslim countries into the discussion to enhance the incentives for peace. Israelis need to see more upsides to peacemaking; they need the broader peace and bigger markets that the Arab and Muslim worlds could provide. And more Arab and Muslim countries need to be recruited to offer capital and growth to the Palestinians, as well as political and economic support for compromise at the negotiating table.
This will not be easy, but the facts are clear. The majority of Israelis and Palestinians want to see a two state solution between their two peoples. And with the United States energized to lead, now is the time for Americans to support John Kerry’s fresh approach.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)