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Washington elites embrace rights-based approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict

A prominent DC think tank has offered a way forward that most in the foreign policy establishment have refused to consider.

It’s been seven years since the last round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed. Since then, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has become entrenched, its siege on the Gaza Strip has deepened, and a growing number of observers are acknowledging that the two-state solution has failed.

Palestinians, who only recently had hope that they might be able to elect a new leadership, have seen national elections — not held since 2006 — postponed indefinitely, while Israel, facing the prospect of a fifth national election in little more than two years, is less incentivized than ever to find a resolution to its ongoing occupation.

If anything has characterized the recent policy discourse around Israel and Palestine, it is despair. “What can be done now” has become a tragic refrain, all the more so because, even while the failure of the Oslo peace process has been manifest, the policy world has remained resistant to alternatives.

But now, a new policy paper issued jointly by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and the U.S./Middle East Project has broken out of the confines of the traditional debate in the Washington think tank world and offered a new direction for U.S. policy.

The paper, titled “Breaking the Israel-Palestine Status Quo,” is focused on U.S. policy and how it can play a positive role. Co-authored by Zaha Hassan, Marwan Muasher, Daniel Levy, and Hallaamal Keir, it calls on the Biden administration to “place a rights-based approach at the center of its strategy.”

The paper is simultaneously aspirational and pragmatic. While recommending that equality, rather than territory or Israeli security, form the foundation of U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine, it offers policy recommendations that remain rooted in the realities of the present day.

The authors correctly state that the idea of a rights-based approach is hardly a new one. As they write in their introduction, “academics, activists, and policymakers have previously discussed aspects of a rights-based approach.” But this paper is trailblazing in that it is coming from institutions and, more importantly, authors who are deeply involved in the foreign policy establishment in Washington that, all too often, stubbornly refuses to reorient ideological dispositions that have led to failed policies.

Hassan told an audience at the paper’s presentation that “there has been a de-prioritization of rights and international law when thinking about a solution to the conflict. In fact, policymakers have tended to believe that a focus on rights and international law…would kill the chances for Israel to come to the negotiating table. The result was that settlement building was incentivized. Why should Israel stop building if it knew the issue could be leveraged by promising to engage in a new round of negotiations or if it knew that the U.S. would ultimately accommodate its new facts on the ground by redefining peace parameters while also shielding Israel from accountability in international fora?”

Many of the specific recommendations — such as reopening the PLO Mission in Washington, reversing the Trump administration’s position that Israeli settlements were legal under international law, restoring funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and formally abandoning Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century” plan — are crucial for reviving the two-state solution. But they are also important for alternative approaches, such as confederation or a binational or secular democratic option.

This seems to be an intentional strategy in this paper. Rather than orient U.S. policy toward one solution or another, the authors use the diplomatic vacuum of this moment to recommend policies that suit any solution on the condition that they also support a rights-based approach.

Other recommendations — such as refraining from vetoing U.N. resolutions that enforce international law on Israel; working with international legal and diplomatic bodies to resolve the conflict; working with the Palestinians to reform their methodology in doling out financial support to families of prisoners and Palestinians killed by Israel to comply with U.S. law that currently forbids such payments; and more closely monitoring Israel’s use of U.S. military equipment — are aimed at diminishing the weight of U.S. policy in favor of Israel.

The authors recognize that U.S. policy, stemming from the close relationship between the United States and Israel, increases Israeli impunity, and is therefore a disincentive to take politically difficult steps to address Palestinian rights. Instead, as Levy put it, “what is needed is a policy of [U.S.] non-complicity,” a middle ground “between maximum pressure [on Israel] and maximum impunity.”

Shortly after this paper was released, Human Rights Watch released its own lengthy report which concluded that Israel’s policies amount to “the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

It is worth noting that, at least in its initial response, the Biden administration hardly offered a full-throated defense of Israel. White House spokesperson Jen Pskai referred to the annual State Department report on human rights abuses (which has long been more critical of Israel than most government reports) and stated that, “As to the question of whether Israel’s actions constitute apartheid, that is not the view of this administration.”

When pressed on the HRW report, Psaki still would not condemn it or directly attack it. Rather, she said, “I would say that the United States is committed to promoting respect for human rights in Israel and the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And we’ve been an enduring partner — we also have an enduring partnership with Israel and discuss a wide range of issues with the Israeli government, including those related to human rights.”

That is not the sort of defense of Israel’s human rights record that we have become accustomed to, even before Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s not a major shift, but it is likely indicative of an administration that, while not eager to have a public spat with Israel (and Israel’s supporters in Washington), is, as Quincy Institute Vice President Trita Parsi put it, keeping the government of Benjamin Netanyahu “at arm’s length.”

Ultimately, the test of Levy’s notion of a “policy of non-complicity” will be seen in much more significant actions than how the United States responds to criticism of Israel’s human rights record. Circumstances have already presented Biden with the opportunity to enact one of the authors’ recommendations: supporting the holding of all three rounds of proposed Palestinian elections this year.

Rather than pressing for free and fair elections, the Biden administration gave the green light for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to cancel them. While Abbas blamed Israeli restrictions on Palestinian residents of Jerusalem participating in the election, this was widely viewed as a cover for cancelling an election that would result in significant losses for Abbas’s faction.

Going along with such a scheme is hardly a boon to the Palestinian democracy that will be needed for a realistic agreement to be found, whatever the terms. So there’s a long way to go.

But the very fact that a paper like the one Carnegie and the US/MEP put out is now part of the mainstream discussion in Washington is reason for hope that U.S. policy can move away from its counter-productive and one-sided approach toward one that is more practical and treats Israeli and Palestinian rights and aspirations equally.

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