I’ve remarked here several times that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the attempt to resolve it is the wickedest of problems. The core reason for this is that everyone pretty much has a broad understanding of what the solution should look like, but no one has been able to effectively sell it to the Israelis, the Palestinians, and anyone else interested in resolving the over 70 year dispute that predates the formation of the modern state of Israel. On Monday Jared Kushner gave some remarks to Congressional interns that, of course, immediately leaked. Including audio. Wired got their hands on the audio and you can find it at this link, as well as a transcript. Kushner addressed the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and peace process in part of his remarks. These were contradictory. At the outset he said:
So first of all, this is one of the ones I was asked to take on, and I did with this something that I do with every problem set you get. Which is you try to study the historical context to understand how something got to where it is, who was successful, and who wasn’t successful. And you try to [unintelligible] is research it and look at the conventional sources but also try to get some unconventional sources as well. And what I’ve determined from looking at it is that not a whole lot has been accomplished over the last 40 or 50 years we’ve been doing this.
The third one is that I have tried to look at why people haven’t been successful in the negotiations, so I looked and studied all the different negotiations. I spoke to a lot of people who have have been part of them, and I think the reason why is that this is a very emotionally charged situation.
This is actually a good start and makes sense. However, Kushner eventually made his way to espousing a seeming contradictory and opposite position on how to approach the problem set:
You know everyone finds an issue, that “You have to understand what they did then” and “You have to understand that they did this.” But how does that help us get peace? Let’s not focus on that. We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books. Let’s focus on, How do you come up with a conclusion to the situation. That was one thing that we achieved, which we were quite happy about—which is, you know, small thing, but it’s actually a pretty big thing over there. But something that we thought was a pretty big step.
So, what do we offer that’s unique? I don’t know … I’m sure everyone that’s tried this has been unique in some ways, but again we’re trying to follow very logically. We’re thinking about what the right end state is, and we’re trying to work with the parties very quietly to see if there’s a solution. And there may be no solution, but it’s one of the problem sets that the president asked us to focus on. So we’re going to focus on it and try to come to the right conclusion in the near future.
You can click across and read and/or listen to the whole thing. He does bounce around a lot, but much, if not most of the criticism has been around him contradicting himself on not wanting a history lesson and not knowing if the new administration’s approach is offering anything unique. I think the former issue, the criticism, may be a bit overblown. He clearly contradicted his earlier remarks, but he did state that he’d done a lot of prep. Obviously I have no idea if that is or is not true as I’m not involved in this process this time.*
As to the latter point I don’t think it is that big a deal. In 2017 there aren’t really a lot of unconsidered options for how to solve this problem. In fact I’d argue that there are really only four possibilities. The first is the status quo, which is unsustainable in the long term. The second is the long pursued two state solution. The third is a one state solution, which, depending on how it was designed and implemented, might be a viable alternative. The fourth option is quite simply to let the Israelis and the Palestinians go at each other, which, with the exception of the extremists on all sides, is clearly not an acceptable alternative.
The real issue, as I’ve stated before and I’m sure I’ll state again, is actually being able to market and sell whatever solution is put forward. It was partially Arafat’s fear that he couldn’t sell what Ehud Barak was offering at the end of the Clinton Administration to the Palestinians that led him to say no. I have that directly from the retired senior foreign service executive who had been hired by the Palestinian Authority to advise them during the negotiations. Arafat’s other concern was that after the majority of Palestinians rejected the offer that he’d be killed (same source).
What, if anything, can we learn from Kushner’s remarks on Monday? That reading the history, the politics, the marketing, and the minutiae of past efforts is fundamental. In December of 2013 I was asked by the then Chief of Plans at US Army Europe (USAREUR) if I could provide assistance to them in their upcoming assignment handling the DOD’s portion of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that was then ongoing under Secretary of State Kerry and the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, Gen. (ret) Allen. Among the assistance I provided was a report on the socio-cultural drivers of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Including those considerations that worked against successfully resolving the dispute. When I got onsite in January for about a week to ten days of Interagency work at USAREUR headquarters in Germany I took over the basic open source research duties for the Chief of Plans and the working group. And here is where the minutiae comes in. US Army Europe’s assignment was to assess the Palestinian security sector’s functions, including the rule of law, emergency services, administration of justice, etc, in light of Israel’s in order to determine if there was enough capability to function if an independent Palestine were to come into being. This open source research included running down the assessments of the half dozen or so states who had been working with the Palestinians to develop these functions for the senior members of the working group and the staffers they brought with them. Without being able to read, analyze, and understand what had been done and how effective it had been, it would have been impossible for the Interagency teams under USAREUR direction to complete the assignment.
Understanding this granularity is absolutely necessary to understand where the Palestinians are, how far they’ve come, and how far they might still have to go in building their internal capacity regarding these issues. But doing the reading, so to speak, goes beyond this. It includes getting a grip on all the subtle nuances around how to establish a new state that would be non-contiguous. Both in terms of having the larger portion in the West Bank and the smaller portion in Gaza and in regard to land swaps that minimize the loss of land to Israeli settlements. If final negotiations allow some of those to remain, then even the portion of the potential Palestinian state in the West Bank would not be internally contiguous as their would be a settlement archipelago that will have to be connected back to Israel proper. This would subdivide whatever state the Palestinians establish in the West Bank.
Until one has to grapple with just how granular the negotiations have to get to achieve a resolution it is impossible to really appreciate just how difficult this is to resolve. Do the Palestinians get their own airport? If so, where do you put it? How do you deconflict this airport’s airspace from Ben Gurion in Israel and Queen Alia in Amman? How does the water flow? Who oversees it? How do you resolve the inevitable disputes that will arise? Do you have a common economic market zone between Israel and a future Palestinian state? Or do you establish import controls, tariffs, and barriers to economic entry? What kind of border controls for population movement? If there is going to be a settlement archipelago connected to Israel and considered to be Israel, who responds to emergencies? What about a hot pursuit where suspects cross from Palestine to Israel and then, perhaps, back again? Here’s a big one: do the Palestinians, given that Gaza is on the coast, have a claim to the Leviathan gas field in the Mediterranean? Or is this solely Israeli because it is off the coast north of Gaza? How about access to the Holy Sites. Both in and out of Jerusalem. And this is just a few of the outstanding issues that have to be negotiated on the way to a final settlement.
Getting deep into the history of the dispute and the history of the attempts to resolve it is also necessary to frame what the US is trying to help the Israelis and Palestinians to achieve. One of my other tasks was to draft the historical introduction to the report that would go from Commander USAREUR to EUCOM to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Security Dialogue (OSD-SD, Gen. Allen’s office at DOD) to the Secretary of State to the White House. While I’d done academic research work on the Israeli and Palestinian dispute all the way back to my first masters thesis in 1994-1995, and taught a course on it a couple of times, as well as cultural operation research and analysis for the Army, I was unprepared to just crank off a historical introduction. A deep dive was necessary into the Israeli, the Palestinian, and the histories from other perspectives of the problem set. While everyone believes they know how the dispute started and how it has progressed, a great deal of the historical literature – political history, military history, biographies, etc – has been significantly revised over the years. It was just last month that further revision was publicized in Haaretz about what actually happened at Deir Yassin in 1948. Different groups of Israelis don’t agree on the history of the dispute, let alone the Israelis and the Palestinians. Trying to develop a tight historical narrative that captures this nuance would be difficult in a book length format. It is no easy feat for professional historians. A tightly written, brief historical introduction that captured the nuance and detail and richness of this narrative was difficult, especially as it had to be staffed for review and comments. And it is, of course, politically fraught as everyone has their preferred view of who did what and who is to blame for what. The comments I received back from the review process were particularly interesting…
Diving deep into the minutiae also prevents surprises. In June 2014 my civilian mobilization orders under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act where picked up by OSD-SD from US Army War College. I was brought on board and then assigned to work directly with/for US Army Europe as the Quality Assurance/Quality Control Officer and Executive Editor for the final report. It was my job to take each different section from each different group within the Interagency assessment team and not just copyedit them, but make the entire document read as if written with one voice. While doing this work I often had to go and fact check or double check information. As I was doing this, being immersed in all things Israeli and Palestinian, I began to notice something significant: the Netanyahu governing coalition in Israel had begun to change its position on a two state solution. Netanyahu himself, as well as either coalition members of his cabinet or leaders within their parties who were not in the cabinet, had begun arguing that what was really needed was a one state solution. Though there was and still is disagreement among them as to what this would actually entail vis a vis the Palestinians. What was important, however, was that the parties actually running Israel had shifted position on the outcome while the US was trying to negotiate a two state solution. Working in the minutiae allowed me to pick up on this and prepare a policy and strategy analysis addressing this new wrinkle for USAREUR and OSD-SD while I completed my editing duties. But this complication still remains. As of now the US remains committed to a two state solution. The governing coalition of Israel prefers a one state solution. This means that, at the very least, the US has to adjust its strategy to account for this if it has any hope of achieving the stated policy of a two state solution.
When I taught Israeli-Palestinian politics and Middle Eastern politics I used to have my students roll play trying to negotiate a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. I’d break them into teams early in the semester, provide them with a baseline of prep material – they had to research the rest, and after giving them several weeks to prep and get into character we’d spend four or five class sessions at the end of the semester on the mock negotiations. I tried to make sure my Jewish American students didn’t get to be the Israelis, my Arab and/or Palestinian American students didn’t get to be the Palestinians, and I encouraged all of them to get as far into character as they could. Almost all of them did. They always bogged down pretty quickly. Often they never got past agreeing to basic terms. The lesson I wanted them to take away was if fifteen to twenty of them, who were friendly with each other, if not friends, couldn’t get past agreeing to the agenda knowing that it was all just an exercise, just imagine how much harder it is for actual Israelis and Palestinians (and the other parties – Americans, Jordanians, Saudis, Egyptians, etc trying to move the negotiations along) trying to do this for real.
At the core of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is designing and marketing a resolution to a land dispute wrapped in religious, ethnic, and cultural complications. Over the decades it has been far easier to design potential solutions than to sell them to the parties to the conflict. And I expect this marketing problem to rear its ugly head this time too.
* From December 2013 through June 2014 I served as the (temporary assigned control) Cultural Advisor to the Commander of US Army Europe. Specifically to provide socio-cultural subject matter expertise on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. From Jun 2014 through August 2014 I served as the Quality Assurance/Quality Control Officer and Executive Editor at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and US Army Europe in the preparation of US Army Europe’s, on behalf of DOD, report on the Palestinian security sector.