Ask the Professor
Needed: A Regional Approach to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
A leading scholar says the U.S. should foster a multilateral process—including more investment
Assistant Professor Gabriella Blum LL.M. ’01 S.J.D. ’03, an international law scholar, is a native of Israel, where, as a young officer in the Israel Defense Forces International Law Department, she was involved in Israeli-Arab peace negotiations. She later advised the IDF on counterterrorism operations, and the Israeli national security adviser on the planning and execution of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank. We asked Blum: As the next U.S. president faces the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what should he aspire to?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was never a strictly bilateral dispute; it was always part of the broader Israeli-Arab relationship, and often manipulated to the advantage of many outside parties. By extension, it has become a centerpiece of global politics.
It is therefore surprising that, other than in the brief interval around the Madrid Conference of 1991, attempts at conflict management and resolution have never treated the conflict as anything other than bilateral. The formula is repeated in variation: Israelis and Palestinians are summoned to some confined venue, negotiate in various rooms while American officials, and sometimes the president himself, play hall monitor. The Arab countries either make a token appearance or else are altogether absent.
In this setting, both parties play their self-constructed or assigned parts and their script is confined to what they can offer. For this reason, the script has seen few variations since the Oslo process began 15 years ago.
A new U.S. president should rethink how the stage is set. Neither Israel nor Palestine is a floating island. Both are very much part of a continent that does not, however, fully include them politically or economically, but that nonetheless shows a great interest in their conflict. If the dispute is not entirely bilateral, neither should the envisioned solution be. We must therefore begin to think and act regionally.
In negotiation terms, it means no longer imagining the conflict as a single problem to be “solved” by a deadline, but as part of a series of agreements which will be part of an ongoing deal, in which value is created with the addition of participants, issues, resources and tradeoffs—in essence, turning what is perceived to be a zero-sum game into a promise of regional prosperity.
In practical terms, this means, first, that Israel must be ready to commit to simultaneous negotiations and agreements with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon. In parallel, the Arab countries must be motivated to take a positive, active role in the process and its aftermath. The Saudi initiative in 2002, the first pan-Arab initiative for peace, merely stipulated that once Israel reaches agreement with both the Palestinians and the Syrians, the Arabs would (begrudgingly) recognize Israel’s existence. This is not nearly enough.
The Arab countries must be made accountable to the process. They should be responsible for some shepherding of the negotiation and for accepting some of its practical implications, including, for example, the absorption of Palestinian refugees, and even possible territory swaps. They should also take steps to aggressively overhaul the perception of Israel as a demonic entity.
With assistance from the international community, the region would be promised ambitious economic and development projects that would also lead to its further integration.
It is an ambitious plan, but not an impossible one. It is a plan that offers real change and hope, and that serves to strengthen the counterforces to Iran’s very different vision for the region.