The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hugely influenced by the respective foreign policies of their main allies, the United States as a supporter of Israel and the surrounding Arab states on the Palestinian side. While some outside intervention may be necessary, it can also lead to an entrenchment of the parties. Therefore, this essay will investigate whether US and Arab policies were beneficial or detrimental to the efforts to arrive at a peace agreement in terms of the major contested issues; land and borders, Jerusalem, recognition and refugees.
‘From the very beginning, the creation of Israel and the subsequent conflict between Arab[s] and Israelis were determined by external factors’ (Dessouki, Korany, 2008: 51)
The Middle East conflict and subsequent peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has been one of the most scrutinized and debated disputes of the last half century. It is a conflict that encompasses the dimensions of ideology, nationality and power. In the midst of this process, US and Arab foreign policy has played a central role in the molding of resolutions, summits and accords. This essay will investigate the influence wielded by the US and Arab states in the context of the four most important and contested issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; land and borders including Israeli settlements, the status of Jerusalem, mutual recognition, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. It will be concluded that while Arab and American mediation is a necessity of the peace process, both US and Arab foreign policy has often been a detriment to the peace process.
Land, Borders and Settlements
One of the central points of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that of the eventual establishment of borders and the allocation of territory a prospective Palestinian state would receive. In this context, both US and Arab foreign policy have not been helpful, but rather quite detrimental. As noted by Neff, Israel’s persistent refusal to return Palestinian land, much of it gained as a consequence of the 1967 war, would not be possible without implicit and explicit US support (1995: 104). Israel has been substantially backed by the US in terms of military and financial support (Findlay, 1993: 111), protection in the UN Security Council (Ibid: 115), and within the framework of the direct peace talks, such as the talks held in Camp David under the Clinton administration (Quandt, 2005: 379). By contrast, aid to Arab states and the Palestinians has been rather small, contributing to the power asymmetry (Findlay: 111).
While there have been occasional critical remarks about the Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and the occupation in general, especially under the Carter administration (Ibid: 181), US attitude and policy has been overwhelmingly permissive. Neff argues that support has gradually increased, as the illegality of the occupation was no longer recognized by the Reagan administration and settlement construction was allowed even during peace talks under George H. W. Bush (1995: 164). Thus, as only very little pressure is exerted by the US on Israel’s territorial claims, Israel is not forced to make the necessary compromises required for a peace agreement. Rather, it is able to continue settlement construction.
Arab foreign policy on the issue of land and borders has greatly contributed to Israel’s continuous concern for security. Barnett and Solingen point out that the efforts of the Arab League to attack Israel militarily mostly resulted in defeat and humiliation for the Palestinians, and contributed to further territorial concessions (2007: 195-6). In a similar vein, inter-Arab competition, especially between Egypt and Syria represented a major catalyst for the 1967 war, which resulted in disaster for Arab states and the Palestinians (Smith, 2005: 220). Thus, the longstanding Arab preference to seek military solutions has made it possible for Israel to detract attention from the moral nature of the conflict.
In general, the differing conceptions over claims of the extent to and sovereignty over Palestinian territory, a process in which the Palestinians themselves were largely excluded, contributed to the incoherence and thus ineffectiveness of Arab policies (Boutros-Ghali, 1982: 770). On the other hand, the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and the subsequent oil embargo set a precedent for the assertion of bargaining power. For the first time, Arab states made use of their resource endowment to force the United States to rethink its unquestioning alignment with Israel and reconsider its economic interests in the region (Shannon, 2003: 70-1). Hence, it is possible for Arab states to play a constructive role in the peace negotiations by putting pressure on the US as well as by holding it accountable for its policies, if necessary.
The status of Jerusalem represents a special challenge because of the religious connotations for both Jews and Muslims. Therefore, an agreement on how to deal with Jerusalem will have to be included in any peace accord. The United States has long pursued a policy of an undivided Jerusalem, which would mean that the city would be shared between Israelis and Palestinians in an eventual two-state solution. According to Sturkey, this has been a problem within the peace process, given the challenge of coexistence with no clear demarcations (2007: 177). Furthermore, Neff suggests that the United States has been heavily involved in the ongoing construction of settlements in Jerusalem, helping to finance these activities as well as giving diplomatic approval (1995: 148). Hussein adds that that the Palestinians were strongly pressured by Bill Clinton to compromise on Jerusalem during the Camp David talks, while the Israeli side was able to secure quite favorable terms yet again (2001: 546).
In terms of the foreign policy of Arab states on Jerusalem, Hussein notes that the issue has not been taken seriously by Arab governments (Ibid: 547). Therefore, during the first Camp David negotiations in 1979, the question of how to deal with Jerusalem was deferred several times and gave the Israelis the opportunity to demonstrate that Arabs had no clear position on the issue (Ibid). In contrast, during the peace talks headed by Clinton, the Palestinians were heavily pressured by Egypt and Saudi Arabia not to compromise on Jerusalem because of its religious status in Islam (Shlaim, 2005: 257).
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- Queen Mary University of London – Department of Politics and International Relations
- International Relations Middle East Conflict Israel Arab League US Foreign Policy Peace Studies Arab Foreign Policy War Security Jerusalem West Bank Syria Saudi Arabia Jordan Camp David Refugees Oslo Process