Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A New-Old Challenge Faces Bush

The new administration of U.S. president George W. Bush is in the unenviable position of dealing with an ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

But this is nothing new for the world's only remaining superpower.

For nearly fifty years, American presidents have found themselves having to respond to some aspect or other of Arab-Israeli conflict issues for which they were poorly prepared.

The list is depressing. First, there was the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Israel, France and Britain; then the June 1967 "Six Day War." This was followed by the resulting war of attrition in 1969-70; the October 1973 war; the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982-83; the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987-88; and now the second Palestinian (Al Aqsa) Intifada of 2000-01.

Each catastrophe evoked serious debate in Washington, for each seemed to threaten some important American interest in the region. And each, to a greater or lesser extent, caught Washington by surprise.

The American record of managing these Israeli-Arab crises and their various aftermaths is mixed, to say the least.

In 1956, the U.S. pressured Israel to withdraw from Egypt, after which the combined armies of Israel, France and Britain were replaced by a newly formed United Nations peacekeeping force -- a Canadian concept, by the way, which has continued to be implemented in many parts of the world ever since.

From 1968 onward, successive American administrations worked to lay lasting foundations for peace between Israel and Egypt, as well as among their neighbouring Arab states. And in 1979, the two former enemies signed a peace treaty, which they have observed ever since.

Also since 1979, the United States has invested considerable resources into establishing a similarly productive peace framework between Palestinians and Israelis, but here the American influence has not produced desired results. Bill Clinton is the most recent in a two-decade series of U.S. presidents who've failed to secure a lasting peace between them.

Thus, the world now faces an urgent need for new, genuinely innovative policies, as well as for effective implementation and follow-through.

While Clinton's recent ideas do attempt to address the conflict, they are based on what he calls "constructive ambiguity" -- that is, on deliberately abstract and obscure generalities, where principles are sometimes accepted, but where their effects are vitiated by numerous restrictions on implementation.

The Arab nations have often experienced how Israel takes advantage of such ambiguities, most notoriously in the case of UN Security Council Resolution 242, where failure to place the definite article "the" before the phrase, "territories occupied in the recent conflict," allowed the text to be interpreted by Israel as requiring it to withdraw -- not from all, but only from some -- of the territories it occupied back in 1967.

The broad contours of Clinton's proposal strangely become more specific on certain issues, notably in requiring that the framework agreement include an article putting an end to the armed conflict. Thus, once the Palestinians agree to Clinton's proposals, they will lose any leverage they still possess as means to dissipate ambiguities, or correct deliberate misreadings of any proposed agreement.

To deal effectively with the current conflict, therefore, George W. Bush's new administration must work a lot harder and would do well to learn from the past record of mixed success and failure by its Washington precursors. As with medicine, correct diagnosis is essential to creating an effective prescription.

Any successful U.S. approach to the conflict must recognize both Israeli and Palestinian local political factors, as well as issues of international concern, if it is to defuse the ongoing cycle of emerging crises and permanently resolve the conflict. Concentrating on single issues at a time -- such as Israeli security concerns and their implementation -- will almost surely lead to failure.

It is crucial from the outset that American policy-makers recognize fundamental canons of international law which forbid the acquisition of foreign territory by war. There can be no diminution of this principle.

More than ever before, there needs to be a clear, complete, and unambiguous U.S. commitment to the realization of a just and durable peace, as laid down by UN resolutions 242 and 338.

And for any final peace agreement to be successful, the right of the Palestinian refugees and the uprooted to return to their homes must be respected. It is a right which has been granted under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That right is an inalienable right and has been affirmed by the UN Resolution 194 more than 110 times since 1948.

The Right of Return is derived from the sanctity of private ownership, which cannot be extinguished by new sovereignty or occupation and does not have a statute of limitation. It is according to this principle that the European Jews claimed successfully the restitution of their lost property in World War II, without the benefit of a single UN resolution.

That Right of Return is not substituted or affected in any way by the establishment of a Palestinian state in any form.

The U.S. can not advocate, and actively work for the right of return of some refugees (those of Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and Burundi) but not for others (the Palestinians).

For if the U.S. proves incapable of maintaining an even-handed policy, then the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis will only grow wider.

And an effective American approach would mean that every form of non-military pressure available would have to be exercised upon the Israelis, who have traditionally held the upper hand in the conflict.

This would also necessitate the participation of other interested parties in the dispute, notably the United Nations, which can still make a positive contribution to a just and lasting settlement. And for the good of everyone, friends and allies of the U.S., Canada, and European Union must initiate and develop independent policies in harmony with any American initiatives.

The good news is that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians are sincerely committed to the search for genuine peace; neither side is willing to abandon the peace process while there is any hope of positive results.

The bad news is that when it comes to American foreign policy, it seems little experience is accumulated from one administration to the next; continuity is all too rare after a new president takes over.

If Bush's administration wants to demonstrate to the world that it does indeed possess the political will to be a more effective mediator, then the smart decision will be to appoint Bill Clinton as its special Middle East envoy, to conclude what he so promisingly started.

This would certainly give credibility to George W. Bush's declared intention of reconciling with the Democrats after the vote-count scandal of the recent U.S. presidential election.

Jimmy Carter, another former Democratic president, has successfully undertaken a number of such mediation assignments. And Clinton himself has declared readiness, once he is no longer president, to accept any assignment the new adminstration might call upon him to perform.

Time is of the essence -- but not so much because peace must be achieved now, or not at all. Rather, the process is likely to take time, which means that political leaders in the region must be able to show results early and often, if they are to retain the necessary support of their constituents. A prolonged stalemate in the peace process will inevitably frustrate people on both sides of the conflict and set the stage for future crises.


Prof. Mohamed Elmasry, an Egyptian-born Canadian, is professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo. He is national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress. This column was re-published from the Friday Bulletin, a weekly CIC publication.

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