President Obama’s recent major policy speech on the Middle East suggested that, with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security.”
These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.
It isn’t entirely clear to me how you can talk borders without talking Jerusalem, but that wasn’t the reason I raised the speech. Rather, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution recently held a simulation intended to evaluate the durability of a borders- and security-first approach, roughly along the territorial lines suggested by David Makovsky in a report earlier this year by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. According to a summary on the Brookings website by Kenneth Pollack:
Since the collapse of the latest round of Israeli- Palestinian peace talks in the fall of 2010, numerous commentators, and even officials in the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian governments, have suggested that Israel and the Palestinians instead pursue an agreement limited only to border and security considerations as a way to overcome the many problems inherent in both final status talks and further interim agreements. Indeed, in his May 2011 speeches, President Obama himself suggested that Israelis and Palestinians concentrate first on security and borders issues, although he did not go so far as to advocate a pure borders and security agreement.
With this background in mind, the war game sought to test four key variables that would be critical to the success of a borders and security agreement:
1. The extent to which Israel would feel willing to trust the Palestinians and/or the Americans to handle issues it deems critical to its security in the face of clear threats and actual terrorist attacks.
2. The extent to which Palestinian political strife could create problems between Israel and the Palestinians or among Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States.
3. The willingness of the Palestinians to tolerate infringements on their sovereignty to ensure that Israeli security requirements are met.
4. The willingness and ability of the United States to mediate disputes between Israel and the Palestinians while simultaneously addressing the security and sovereignty issues related to both.
You’ll find the full version of the report here. I’m a little unconvinced of the fundamental starting premise that transitional arrangements in a future Palestine would necessarily involve the presence of large numbers of US combat forces to guarantee the arrangements, an element that I think both Palestinians and Israelis could find deeply problematic (the former because of the apparent affront to Palestinian “sovereignty,” the latter because it could constrain Israel’s ability to take unilateral action). However, exploring the possible risks, dynamics, and benefits of such an approach was clearly part of the purpose of the game. It makes for interesting reading.
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For Arab-Israeli simulation junkies: Some readers may remember that I was previously involved in a larger game addressing another aspect of the conflict a few years back, namely the Palestinian refugee issue. You’ll find that 2008 report here. For an account of an April 2011 simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking by Track4, check out this report.