U.S. Policy: A Force for Peace?

  • Jamal Nusseibeh

    Dr. Nusseibeh is a Palestinian-American lawyer and investor. He has a M.A. from Sciences Po in Paris, a law degree from City University in London and a LL.M. and PhD (JSD) from Columbia University in New York. He was professor at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem for a number of years, and previously worked at the Palestinian Legislative Council and participated in second-track Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He is currently CEO of a Greenwich, CT investment firm and a Non-Resident Senior Scholar at the Middle East Policy Council.

U.S. policy in the Middle East today is both inconsistent and incoherent. As the killing and destruction continues in the occupied Palestinian territories, and the people of Gaza are deliberately starved to death (cheaper than using bombs, which apparently Israel is running low on despite a continuing supply from the United States), the disastrous results of Israel’s war are starkly visible, and the evidence of its obvious long-term impact on Israel’s, and the United States’ and its allies’, security and regional stability can no longer be avoided. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration, in a slightly desperate attempt to regain the moral high ground—and try to regain support for the upcoming presidential elections—has, at last, not blocked the adoption of a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution that calls for an immediate ceasefire. It is also dropping some humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip by air and working to provide more by sea through a newly constructed pier. Recent reports have also indicated that discussions are finally underway to bring a multilateral peacekeeping force into the occupied territories, although the details remain scarce. 

To succeed in protecting its interests, however, and in steering the world away from the brink of the looming abyss in the region, the United States must ensure that its efforts are both consistent and coherent. Consistency is relevant to its credibility and has broader international systemic consequences, while coherence is required to ensure that its efforts are not wasted. It must have the clear goal of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at its heart. While U.S. policy has been sliding in this direction over the past few weeks, it is crucial that this goal be set and all policies and actions are then clearly directed towards it. This is the only way to ensure a lasting peace, security and stability for Israel and the region, and to protect U.S. interests there and around the world.  

In terms of consistency, two principal items stand out. One, the need to adhere to international law and the legal relevance and consequences of Security Council Resolutions; and two, the need to adhere to U.S. law and the legal consequences of providing arms to a country that is in breach of its obligations under numerous domestic and international laws, most importantly those regarding the targeting of civilians, preventing access to basic and urgent humanitarian aid and assistance, and the treatment of an occupied people under its control.  

The legally binding nature of UNSC resolutions is a bedrock of international law. That is not to say that all Security Council resolutions are implemented—in the case of Israel, the glaring example is Resolution 242 of 1967, which requires Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. It is the law nonetheless—and it is the basis on which other countries, such as Russia, can be condemned for occupying parts of Ukraine by force, and China dissuaded from taking Taiwan. And yet, the current U.S. administration seems to be going out of its way to undermine this bedrock principle, stating that, in its view, the latest ceasefire resolution passed by the UNSC is not binding. This is not an attitude that bodes well for the international order, nor does it show the United States in the best light. 

On the second issue, much has been written about the need to apply existing US laws to restrict the provision of arms to Israel, whether it be the Leahy Law or the Biden administration’s Conventional Arms Transfer Policy. The resignation of Josh Paul, and more recently of Annelle Sheline, both from the U.S. State Department, have done much to bring this into the open. Recent criticism by Representative Jason Crow (D-CO) of the unprecedented intelligence access provided by the United States to Israel since October 7 has also brought the issue to the forefront.  

But there is also a policy consequence to this continued and unrestrained supply of arms and munitions, namely that anything else Washington does will be viewed as window dressing while it continues to participate in the mass murder of civilians in Gaza. This is the case with the current humanitarian air drops, and the proposed pier off the Gaza coast: it is abundantly clear to all concerned that Gaza can receive all the aid it needs by land through Israel and Egypt. Instead, the United States could and should, along with its allies, ensure that Israel lives up to the minimum of its obligations, whether under international law or basic human morality, and allows sufficient aid through the crossings to prevent the starvation of the 2.2 million human beings slowly but surely being killed by imposed famine.  

In terms of coherence: In the short term, an immediate ceasefire is essential, as is the provision of urgent aid, and the release of all hostages and political prisoners. It is evident, however, that this will not be nearly enough. Even the Israelis have now actually requested the presence of Arab troops in Gaza to try to maintain security; and the U.S. Department of Defense is in early talks to fund a multilateral peacekeeping force there. This was foreseeable—in fact, I pointed out that humanitarian aid would need to be accompanied by security in an article published over three months ago.  

However, as I noted then, any multilateral intervention will not only fail, but backfire—with negative consequences for the United States, its allies, and the region—unless a definite goal is set, and the following conditions are met:  

First, there must be a clear political framework and time-limited horizon for the intervention. The Arab countries have consistently made clear that they will not be involved, whether in the reconstruction of Gaza or in any peacekeeping operation, without a clear commitment to a fair and equitable two-state outcome that finally resolves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From the Palestinian perspective, it is also essential that the multilateral peacekeeping force enters the territory as part of a fundamental change in the status quo, and not as a replacement for Israeli occupation forces. The absence of hope is extremely dangerous and insidious: it feeds extremism and will undermine any effort to stabilize the situation. Thus, there is a need to structure this intervention as temporary—it would end within, say, three years—with a viable, safe Palestinian state next to a safe and secure Israeli one. A true end to the conflict, in other words.  

Second, it must be U.S.-led, with European and allied involvement as well as Arab participation. American participation will provide increased comfort to Israel, which is necessary, and bring much-needed expertise in humanitarian operations and logistics, as well as a clear commitment to rules of engagement. It will also defray potential tensions between Arab peacekeepers and Israeli forces in interactions. The risk of such a confrontation escalating into a wider conflagration should not be minimized, especially in the context of Israeli extremists attempting to fan the flames of regional conflict. It will also be to the benefit of the United States, as it will undermine claims of hypocrisy—whether aimed at this administration or at the United States in general—and recast the American presence in the region in a positive light.   

Third, it must have jurisdiction over all the territories occupied in 1967 and must enter on the legal basis of UNSC Resolution 242—and not, for instance, at the behest of Israel. While Israel will obviously resist this as much as it can, it is necessary in order to give primacy once again to the collapsing international order, and provide legitimacy to the multilateral forces both within the territory and internationally. It is worth recalling that the presence of Israel in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip is illegal under international law, and that sovereignty in those occupied territories resides with the Palestinians. The multilateral force must draw its legitimacy from this source, or risk being seen as a sub-contractor for Israeli occupation, which will lead to continued resistance by the Palestinians and undermine the very reason it is there in the first place. 

 There may be disagreement about the recognition of the Palestinian state—declared by the Palestinian National Council in November 1988 in these territories at the same time as its recognition of Israel—but there cannot be disagreement over where the sovereignty resides. That is a matter of international law and, in a nutshell, sovereignty of an occupied territory continues to belong to the occupied people, and not to the occupying forces. (Russian sovereignty over Crimea or the rest of occupied Ukrainian territory is not recognized for the same reason.) 

 Finally, the goal of the multilateral force must be broader than the provision of humanitarian assistance. This was clear from the outset, as any humanitarian force would need to provide and have security. With the dire situation in Gaza today, this has become evident to all concerned. The deteriorating security situation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is equally clear and concerning, and needs to be urgently remedied. But most importantly, the principal mission of these forces must be more than just to patch or rebuild what has been destroyed. It needs to be outcome-focused, with a mission to provide context for a clear end to the conflict, based on a Palestinian state living in peace next to an Israeli one. For this, the mission needs to—overtly or implicitly—take into account the failure of leadership amongst the Israelis and the Palestinians, both of which are plagued by corruption and lack of vision, leading to an increase in radicalization on both sides within the populations. The multilateral force should allow for a breathing space, a context in which anger and tensions can be defused; elections can then take place for a new Palestine and a new Israel, with clear borders and hope for a better future. It should also ensure, with the participation of Palestinian institutions and legal structures, that aid and assistance is managed in such a way as to support the building of stable institutions and does not become a source of corruption in the future, which could undermine the whole process. 

I believe this may be the last chance to achieve peace in the Middle East in our generation. The depth of suffering in Gaza and its long-term ramifications, and the level of anger across the region, cannot be overstated. Israel’s neighboring Arab allies are themselves increasingly precarious as they attempt to mollify and suppress their restive populations. The perception of the United States in the region is dire, and the impact of the closure of the Red Sea shipping lanes and energy instability on the world economy is growing. Unless decisive action is taken now, as proposed, it will be too late. It has been made clear to Israel that it can be welcomed into the Middle East as a peaceful neighbor through long-standing peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, the Abraham Accords with regional partners, and recent outreach from Saudi Arabia. The Palestinians have shown time and again that they are ready for peace on the basis of a fair and equitable two-state solution, which Prime Minister Netanyahu prides himself on having undermined for the last twenty years.  

Two final comments: First, allowing the Palestinians to finally be free and express their basic rights in the context of a state will permit Israel to live safely and securely among friends for generations to come. It is the only way that this will happen. It is not a reward to Hamas, but a long-denied basic right of the Palestinian people. The violence of October 7 was a deplorable consequence of the continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinians. Its only remedy is peace and freedom. Without that, Israelis and Palestinians—and the rest of the region, most likely—will be condemned to another generation of war and suffering. And second, unless the United States firmly and clearly changes course in the Middle East, it risks being drawn by Israel into a long and bloody regional war (see the latest attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria, for instance) with serious long-term damage to its interests, security, and prosperity.   



The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Middle East Policy Council.

(Banner image: Palestinian News & Information Agency)

  • Jamal Nusseibeh

    Dr. Nusseibeh is a Palestinian-American lawyer and investor. He has a M.A. from Sciences Po in Paris, a law degree from City University in London and a LL.M. and PhD (JSD) from Columbia University in New York. He was professor at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem for a number of years, and previously worked at the Palestinian Legislative Council and participated in second-track Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He is currently CEO of a Greenwich, CT investment firm and a Non-Resident Senior Scholar at the Middle East Policy Council.

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