A Switch in Policy: US Potential for Stability in the Middle East

By Michael Habib*

One of the most highly debated topics in international relations over the past 60 years has been the conflict between Palestine and Israel.  This conflict has endured, nearly uninterrupted, since its inception even with many attempts to find a peaceful resolution through negotiations. The state of Israel was declared, unilaterally, in 1948 within the British mandate of Palestine.  Ever since then, the conflict has lead to countless innocent lives lost, the world’s largest registered refugee population, war, and a very unstable Middle East.  The Palestinians claim they have been forced from their own land for decades and have been at the mercy of Israeli aggression and occupation. The Israelis claim that they have been under threat from their Arab neighbors since the state of Israel came into existence, and that all of their actions are justified in the name of self-defense.  The Israelis and the Palestinians both claim to want peace but have not been able to make much ground due to conflicting interests and lack of pressure from the international community.

The United States has traditionally been Israel’s greatest ally and defender.  Any pressure from the international community against Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights have been blocked by the United States.  In the eyes of the United States, Israel is its greatest ally in the region and in order to secure US interests, in line with realist theory, the US would not want to risk losing its greatest asset in the region.  However, in light of recent events, and a changing tide in the international community, the US should seriously reconsider its often blind support for Israel’s actions.

On November 29th, 2012 the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine’s status from a non-member observer entity to a non-member observer state[1].  This move gives Palestine several new advantages: the ability to participate in UN debates, the ability to join UN agencies such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and grants them the title of a state.  Though these gains are important, the most significant aspect is the changing tide of opinion in the international community.  This resolution was passed in by 138 yes votes, 41 abstentions, and only 9 votes against[2].  Of the 9 nations which voted against the upgrade of Palestine’s status, most were smaller states which receive significant funding from the United States. This highlights US attempts to sway opinion against the Palestinian cause. This however, seems to only be effective to those states which are greatly in need of US assistance.  Most major powers, such as France and Russia, either voted in favor of this resolution or abstained from the vote, such as the UK and Germany.  As this resolution was passed with the intention of revitalizing the stalled peace talks, it seems inevitable that sooner or later, some form of the two-state solution will be realized.  In accordance with securing US interests in the region, the US should reinvent its foreign policy towards this crisis.

In regards to the Palestinian state, the US has two main options.  The first would be to maintain its current support for Israel and further alienate the Palestinian people.  This however, will not benefit the United States in the long term.  The second option would be to try and find a middle ground which would promote a fair and even negotiation playing field and would respect the rights of both states.  Though the US would not want to lose Israel as an ally, it should not be as one sided in regards to the conflict.  Immediately after the Palestine’s status was upgraded at the United Nations, Israel announced it would withhold 460 million shekels ($120million) in tax revenue from the Palestinians and announced a further 3,000 settlement building[3] in the highly controversial E1 area[4].  The international community has condemned this action, especially the settlement building, as a violation of international law and a real hindrance to the peace process and the future two-state solution.  The United States, which has expressed concern over this action, should take this opportunity to strengthen its ties with the Palestinian people by taking a harsher stance against these Israeli acts[5].  By doing this the United States can see itself take a more active role in how the future Palestinian state is founded, helping to secure its own interests.

According to the democratic peace theory, states which are both democracies do not go to war with each other[6].  By easing relations with the Palestinians, the United States can help facilitate the new state of Palestine to become a liberal democracy[7]. By ensuring that Palestine becomes a democracy, US interests will be advanced in several means.  First, this would ensure peace between the state of Palestine and that of Israel.  As Israel is still a key US ally, its safety and security is important to US interests.  With both states then being democracies, they will be less inclined to go to war and this could finally see an end to a conflict.  By promoting democracy, the US will also see a decrease in the number of terrorist groups, and their sizes, which has been a key foreign policy objective since 9/11.  Through the Democratic Peace Theory, nations that have democracies hold their governments accountable for their actions[8]. This will lead to a decrease in corruption and would see true economic and educational development within the state. The lack of economic opportunity and lack of education are often seen as main reasons why people turn to terrorism.  By promoting democracy and improving these factors, it would weaken terrorist groups’ recruitment base and further help to secure peace in the region.

Another means of securing US interests in the region would be to promote economic interdependence in the region.  Opening Palestine’s markets to the global economy will help raise Palestine out of poverty.  The US should then help increase trade between Palestine and Israel.  By helping forge strong economic ties between Palestine and Israel, it would further promote peace[9].   With both nations relying on each other for key aspects of trade it would further decrease the chance of war between the two states.  Any conflict between the two states would hurt both nations economically, which is not in the interests of any state.  These economic ties do not only help foster peace but over time help the states develop friendlier relations.  This would decrease uncertainty about the others’ actions or intentions, and help quell both nations fears of betrayal or security.

By solidifying peace between Palestine and Israel, the US could see a great change take place in the Middle East.  A majority of the international conflicts in the region have been in the name of Palestinian independence and for an end to Israeli occupation or aggression.  Though some Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, have existing peace deals with Israel, the majority of Arab states still hold hostilities or are still technically at war[10].  If a true peace comes between Palestine and Israel, then a major cause of conflict in the region will be removed.  Though this might not result in an immediate peace, it would be a major stepping stone towards ending decades of war and conflict between Israel and the Arab states.  This would eventually lead to greater stability in the region and would help quell Israel’s security fears.  This could give the US more resources and energy to put towards securing other interests in the region.  The funding once used for Israeli security could be diverted to promoting socioeconomic ventures in other Arabs states.  This would further help the spread of democracy and economic interdependency which will see increased prosperity and peace for the whole region.  This would also diminish terrorism throughout the region fulfilling the main interests of the United States.

 Based on this information, it would seem that it is in the best interest of the US, as well as the greater Middle East, to implement a new method of foreign policy regarding the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. Palestine will see itself as an independent state with or without US support, the question is what this means for the region.  The ability for the US to usher in a new period of peace between these two states is not something that should be taken lightly.  Hopefully those involved in the making of foreign policy decisions in the US realize that they have a real opportunity to help shape the Middle East before it takes a form that leads to further complications for the United States.

Michael Habib is a first year graduate student pursuing his Master’s in International Relations and Diplomacy at Seton Hall University.  After receiving his Bachelor’s degree in History from Rutgers University, Michael focuses on the Middle East, Foreign Policy Analysis, and Global Negotiation & Conflict Management.  Michael has experience working with NGOs and at the United Nations and is striving to work for the US State Department.

[4] E1 area: area which would bisect the West bank, hurting chances of a contiguous Palestinian state

[5] Palestinians, and most of the Arab world, resent US blind support for Israel

[6] John M. Owen, “How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace,” International Security 19 (1994): 87-125.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Economic interdependence is a consequence of specialization, or the division of labor. The participants in an economic system are dependent on others for the products they cannot produce efficiently for themselves. This physical interdependence implies corresponding linkages in the demands for products and the incomes of the participants. By linking the two economies this theory states that these two states are less likely to go to war with one another.

[10] Though fighting is  temporarily over Lebanon and Israel are still technically at war


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