When the Oslo peace process appeared to be reaching its final days in 2016, the idea of centering Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking on achieving equal rights for two peoples, rather than on territorial separation into two unequal states, was almost entirely absent from the mainstream political discourse. Even as the two-state solution died under the Barack Obama administration and was buried under the reign of Donald Trump, it seemed the policy world, especially in Washington, could not even consider anything outside of the state-centric paradigm.
But now, a new policy paper issued jointly by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the U.S./Middle East Project has broken out of the confines of the traditional debate in the world of Washington think tanks. Co-authored by analysts Zaha Hassan, Marwan Muasher, Daniel Levy, and Hallaamal Keir, the landmark paper calls on the Biden administration to make a drastic overhaul in U.S. policy by placing “a rights-based approach at the center of its strategy.”
This approach, as defined by the authors, “prioritize[s] protecting the rights and human security of Palestinians and Israelis over maintaining a peace process and attempting short-term fixes,” and with it, “necessitates accountability for violations of people’s rights and of international law,” as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights treaties.
It is shocking to think that, after more than a century of conflict in Palestine and Israel, a policy paper basing its recommendations on people and human rights is considered revolutionary. Indeed, the concept is hardly a new one; Palestinian rights advocates have been making it for years.
Yet this framework does represent a radical break from international peacemaking and longtime U.S. policy. A much larger, sustained effort will be needed to make such a rights-based discourse a central part of that conversation — and this is just the sort of paper to advance that process.
Expanding Washington’s conversation
During an online presentation of the paper on April 20, Zaha Hassan summarized the key problem underlying American engagement with Israel-Palestine:
There has been a de-prioritization of rights and international law when thinking about a solution to the conflict. In fact, policymakers have tended to believe that a focus on rights and international law… would kill the chances for Israel to come to the negotiating table. The result was that settlement building was incentivized. Why should Israel stop building if it knew the issue could be leveraged by promising to engage in a new round of negotiations, or if it knew that the U.S. would ultimately accommodate its new facts on the ground by redefining peace parameters, while also shielding Israel from accountability in international fora?
This framing might seem elementary to many who have advocated for Palestinian rights, but it is a significant departure from the parameters of the mainstream discourse in Washington. It stands in stark contrast, for example, to a December 2020 report issued by well-known experts from the Israel Policy Forum, the Center for a New American Security, and the Brookings Institution, which claimed to offer “A New Strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” but whose proposals would effectively maintain the status quo in the hopes that the failed Oslo process would eventually be revived.
That paper — coming from three of the most prominent centrist think tanks working on U.S. policy toward Israel — demonstrates the inability of traditional Washington institutes to properly reckon with the failure of Oslo, or to question the political parameters that place Israeli interests as the overriding concern of U.S. policy. Even organizations like J Street, the self-described pro-Israel and pro-peace lobby group, have recognized that they must expand their thinking if they are to have any hope of addressing the challenges of a post-Oslo era.
The Carnegie-USMEP paper seeks to expedite this rethinking process. Using a framework of equal rights rather than partition, the paper focuses on four broad areas for U.S. policy change: prioritizing rights and protecting people; rolling back the Trump administration’s actions and reasserting international law; clarifying expectations for Palestinians and Israelis; and supporting new multilateral approaches and accountability.
This holistic approach aims to replace the laser-like focus on Israeli national security that has been the foundation of U.S., and, indeed, great powers’ policy in the post-World War II world. As the authors note in their paper, “security will have to be reimagined so that sufficient attention is given to the rights and well-being of both Palestinians and Israelis. While the security of Israelis will and should remain a U.S. policy goal, it should not come at the expense of, or be used as a pretext for, the denial of rights and security for Palestinians.” Philosophically, this is an important step forward in Washington.
Rolling back Trump policies
The authors outline various policy steps that would be necessary, or at least useful, for any solution, no matter the form or combination of states it might consist of. And for them, correcting the harms of the Donald Trump era would be a start.
For example, they call on the United States to reverse former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration that Israeli settlements are “not inconsistent with international law,” and to reverse policies that treat the occupied West Bank and Gaza as separate territorial units.
They also call on Biden to formally abandon Trump’s ludicrous “Deal of the Century” plan, re-open the PLO mission in Washington, re-establish a U.S. consulate dedicated to working with the Palestinians, restore funding to UNRWA (which Biden has recently done to some degree), and to bring back the distinction, in practice and policy, between Israel and all settlements beyond the Green Line. These are basic staples of a two-state solution, but they are also necessary for creating the conditions of any solution.
However, as Daniel Levy emphasized in the April 20 webinar, these reversals are just the beginning. “[We must] roll back the excesses of Trump era, but the rollback isn’t enough because there is no golden age to return to… The choice on offer is not a binary where one has to choose between maximum pressure (on Israel) and maximum impunity (for Israel).”
Levy added that, while the authors recognize that changing course on Israel incurs a political cost, that cost will only get higher as time goes on. Eventually, Washington’s shielding of Israel while the latter acts counter to stated U.S. policy is going to compel some change. “What is needed,” Levy explained, “is a policy of non-complicity.”
To that end, the paper recommends re-establishing geographic restrictions on joint U.S.-Israeli projects, which Trump had lifted in order to allow such projects to include work beyond the Green Line. They also call on the U.S. to support other countries’ efforts to ensure that funds are not used in the settlements or to further entrench the occupation, and to exclude settlement products from the preferential treatment given to Israeli exports. These are typical international demands that should be acceptable to anyone trying to revive the decaying two-state solution or build alternative solutions.
Contempt for Palestinian democracy
Repairing the breach among the Palestinian leadership is another key goal of the paper’s policies. In addition to urging an end to the siege in Gaza, it crucially calls on the United States to “encourage and support” all three phases of Palestinian elections — for the presidency, the Palestinian Legislative Council, and the Palestinian National Council — that were scheduled to be held this spring and summer, but were indefinitely postponed by President Mahmoud Abbas last week.
It is a mark of the distance between this policy paper and the Biden administration that the White House has effectively communicated that it is comfortable with President Abbas’s decision to call off the polls. An anonymous U.S. official told Al-Quds newspaper last month that the Biden administration “will look with understanding at the possibility of postponing the elections for some time.” While listing a number of possible reasons that Abbas might want to hold off elections, the official said that “all signs indicate that the multiple divisions within Fatah, and the quasi-tribal conflict between the various factions of Fatah, will reduce its ability to mobilize the Palestinians in a way that enables them to defeat Hamas.”
This is a sure sign that painful experience has taught the United States nothing. Fifteen years ago, when the last Palestinian national elections were held, Fatah was at a zenith in its popularity due to its corruption and failure to push back the Israeli occupation. The party mismanaged its election campaign, often running multiple candidates that split the vote. These factors combined helped lead to a significant margin of victory for Hamas, which ran an effective campaign and secured the majority of seats in the legislature while Abbas held the presidency.
The United States, Israel, and Fatah were not content with this outcome. The international community imposed sanctions and isolated the new Palestinian government, and backed Fatah in an attempted coup against Hamas, which resulted in a violent conflict and the territorial and political split that has held between the West Bank and Gaza to this day.
That rupture was fueled in great part by the United States’ refusal to abide by the results of an election that was free and fair, and which even the George W. Bush administration had pressed for. In 2021, the Biden administration is displaying the same contempt for Palestinians’ electoral choices, making it clear that it views Palestinian democracy as acceptable only when the U.S. and Israeli governments approve of the outcomes.
Making U.S. policy less destructive
Even if the Biden administration seems determined to repeat the mistakes of the past, the authors of this paper offer pragmatic and politically feasible — albeit still difficult — steps that this administration could take. It is unrealistic to expect the United States to recuse itself from diplomacy around Israel in the foreseeable future; as such, the authors are focused on making that involvement less destructive. They would be small steps toward the broader reorientation toward a rights-based policy, but they would still be steps in the right direction.
That mix of pragmatism and innovative thinking is similarly reflected in the recommendation that the United States allow for broader involvement in resolving the ongoing occupation. The authors call on the United States to stop using its UN Security Council veto to shield Israel from the consequences of its actions; to reaffirm international law as an authoritative source for guidance; to allow Palestinians to participate in international bodies; and, in a clear rebuke to the Trump administration’s use of arms sales to obtain normalization agreements with Israel, to “Avoid further fueling a regional arms race by not linking U.S. weapons transfers with Israel-Arab state normalization agreements.”
For years, advocates and activists have tried to center human rights and international law as guidelines for ending the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinian people. The Carnegie-USMEP paper therefore represents a welcome and long-awaited acknowledgment of those efforts in the think tank world.
The paper is far from perfect or comprehensive; the thorny issues of Jerusalem and, most notably, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, are left unaddressed. But the concept of basing any diplomacy on universal and equal rights, rather than on territory or, worse, only one side’s security concerns, would represent a major and long overdue shift in thinking. If it is built upon, it can, at long last, provide a productive direction for positive engagement from Washington.