Will the US change policy toward the conflict?


United States President George W. Bush and the democratic presidential contender John F. Kerry mostly agree on US goals in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They somewhat disagree on the means to achieve these goals. Both are likely to intensify efforts to end the four-year Palestinian war of terror against Israel and to implement Israeli disengagement from Gaza and limited parts of the West Bank. They want to achieve this outcome primarily in order to focus all efforts on the rebuilding of a free Iraq and the war against global Islamic terrorism.

Bush and Kerry agree that terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are the greatest threats to peace and security in the world. Both have declared an unequivocal commitment to the security and well being of Israel as a Jewish state, and have sharply criticized Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority for failing to stop terrorism. In the last four years, Congress and American public opinion have overwhelmingly supported Israel and blamed the Palestinians for the violence and the absence of a peace process. Any attempt to alter policy will have to take this factor into consideration.

Bush and Kerry strongly support Israel’s disengagement plan and view it as a significant step toward conflict resolution. They are concerned, however, about security and the political and economic situation in Gaza after the Israeli pullback. Chaos or a Hamas terrorist entity in Gaza will nullify all the potential contributions of disengagement to conflict resolution. Therefore the US will make an effort to facilitate cooperation among Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt in implementing the disengagement plan.

Both Bush and Kerry have supported the building of the security fence. They had reservations about the specific route of the fence in certain areas but sharply criticized the advisory judgment of the International Court of Justice in The Hague on this matter for completely ignoring Palestinian terrorism, which necessitated the fence construction. Both are likely to veto one-sided resolution proposals regarding the fence at the United Nations Security Council. Although Kerry is in favor of multilateralism and closer cooperation with the UN and the European Union, his administration is also likely to block Palestinian attempts to obtain grossly one-sided anti-Israel resolutions at the Security Council.

Bush and Kerry view Yasser Arafat as a corrupt, authoritarian and master terrorist who is incapable of reaching a reasonable peace agreement with Israel. Yet they will demand that Israel refrain from any drastic measures against him such as targeted assassination or deportation. Bush and Kerry have stated several times that the Palestinians must stop terrorism, replace Arafat with leaders who are committed to combating terrorism and seek resolution of the conflict by peaceful means, institute democracy, and end corruption. Any American administration will continue to insist on amalgamation of the Palestinian security services, the transfer of authority over these services from Arafat to the Palestinian prime minister, and the disarming and dismantling of all the Palestinian terror organizations, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

In this context, any American administration will more forcefully demand from Israel that it dismantle illegal outposts in the West Bank, freeze settlements, use measured force against Palestinian terrorism, and ease as much as possible controls and restrictions on the daily life of ordinary Palestinians.

Both candidates support the two state solution that mandates the establishment of a peaceful Palestinian state. Both believe that the two sides should negotiate a peace agreement that would facilitate this solution. Bush, however, has added several significant principles that Kerry has endorsed. Bush was the first American president to officially support a Palestinian state, but during a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004, he for the first time also formulated new positions on controversial final status issues.

Bush declared that any agreement should take into consideration realities that have developed on the ground in the last several decades. On final borders he stated that due to the existence of major Israeli population centers in the West Bank, Israel will not be required to completely withdraw to the armistice lines of 1949. On the "right of return" he said that refugees will be permitted to return only to the Palestinian state, not to Israel. Congress approved these statements and it would be extremely difficult for any president to renege on them.

Bush is likely to maintain his unilateral approach to foreign policy, although he may seek greater cooperation with allies in NATO and countries such as Russia and China. Kerry intends to replace unilateralism with multilateralism; this means the placing of greater priority on cooperation with the UN, the EU and other world powers. He is likely to give greater weight to the concerns of these actors about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Traditionally, these bodies have been more lenient toward Palestinian terrorism and more critical of Israel. Kerry’s multilateralism depends however, on cooperation in Iraq and in other conflict areas, and it is not clear whether potential allies would meet his enormous expectations.

Bush has refrained from personal involvement in Palestinian-Israeli mediation. Kerry has said that he would upgrade US involvement in this area through personal engagement and the appointment of a special emissary. Barring any dramatic increase in violence or in mediation opportunities, there should be a fair amount of continuity in American policy, with possible changes in priorities, tactics, personalities, style, and rhetoric.