Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel, is a professor at Princeton University and co-author of “The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Faced with the greatest challenge of national recovery since former President Franklin Roosevelt, President Joe Biden has made his top priority fixing America’s broken home. He has subsequently chosen his foreign policy priorities carefully – Iran, China and climate.
Needless to say, the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not the top of the list. And yet the Middle East has a notorious habit of surprising the unprepared and unwary.
It is doubtful whether the current crisis in Jerusalem – which has now grown into a larger battle between Israel and Hamas – will impel the Biden administration to launch a full-throated effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, at a minimum, it should compel the administration to do everything it can to defuse this dimension of the crisis.
The administration reportedly is planning to send a mid-level diplomat to the region to talk to the parties, and that’s a decent start. But past flareups suggest that having a significant and concerted diplomatic effort to mediate between the two parties is critically important – meaning that a higher-level diplomatic intervention by the Biden administration will soon be necessary.
We are now well beyond the hortatory stage. What is required is a multipronged diplomatic effort that is based on a clear division of labor – the US speaking to Israel, and America’s Arab and European partners negotiating with Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (Fatah) in the West Bank. Of course, there must be close cooperation, coordination and communication among and between all parties involved.
Egypt played a critical role in ending the seven-week war in 2014 by negotiating a series of ceasefires that helped to gradually tamp down the violence between Israelis and Palestinians. The Qataris, who have bankrolled Hamas’ government in Gaza in the past, can also be deployed. And if Turkey were looking for a way to ingratiate itself with Washington, it might be willing, in the context of a synchronized stand-down by Israel, to play a constructive role.
The United States and the others must also involve the recent Abraham Accord players, especially the United Arab Emirates and Morocco, to determine what can be done. The four countries that normalized relations with Israel last summer – UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – carry weight, especially with the Israeli public, which greeted the new relationships with great satisfaction.
While another ceasefire may be necessary, it is only a first step. The next is to determine how to cement the stand-down and prevent another action-reaction escalatory spiral. Israel and Hamas have pursued on and off – mostly the latter – a long-term ceasefire coupled with a reduction in Israeli pressure on Gaza. These talks have not fared well, nor have Hamas-Fatah efforts to put an end to bitter internal divisions among Palestinian leadership created a unified government. Following Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ postponement of legislative elections, we suspect that Hamas will neither unify with Fatah nor give up control of Gaza.
A critical second imperative is to prevent any incident in Jerusalem from exploding into a countrywide conflagration. To begin to address this, the Biden administration will need to assess the situation, specifically the degree to which radical settlers and the followers of the late extremist leader, Meir Kahane, have provoked this crisis. Extremists, including some right-wing Israeli politicians, have expanded their efforts to dispossess Palestinian residents of an East Jerusalem neighborhood.
American leaders will have to do more if they want to get the Israeli government to stop the evictions in East Jerusalem, to arrest and prosecute the radical settlers who are fanning the flames and to assert unambiguously that the historical “status quo” on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. At the same time, the Biden administration must make clear to the Palestinian Authority that it too must stop using the Jerusalem issue in its own rhetoric and social media to rile up its constituents.
The real tragedy in the current crisis is that we cannot envision – at the moment or for the foreseeable future – a pathway for Palestinians and Israelis to end their decades-long conflict. We have seen this tragic movie before, and each time it takes a predictable course in which civilian populations suffer because of the failures of their leaders, and in which nothing changes when the rockets stop falling from the sky.
The reality is that almost every breakthrough in this conflict has been preceded by war, violence and insurgency. But it was real leaders – for example, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the 1970s and King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s – who changed course and led their countries on a pathway to peace. That kind of leadership and commitment is missing today.
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The recent crisis has only demonstrated the weakness and irrelevance of Abbas, already under fire for postponing scheduled Palestinian elections, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who having failed to form a new government, is now fighting for political survival.
However, there is time, even as the situation deteriorates, to change the recurring cycles of pain and war that lead nowhere but to more of each. Everyone must act, not just issue statements – the Biden administration, Arabs, Europeans and, most of all, Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, without Israeli and Palestinian buy-in, no amount of external pressure or inducement will end what promises to be an endless conflict.