The Arab Spring: Implications For US Policy And Interests – Analysis


By Allen L. Keiswetter for MEI

“Democracies make for stronger and stabler partners. They trade more, innovate more, and fight less. They help divided societies to air and hopefully resolve their differences. They hold inept leaders accountable at the polls. They channel people’s energies away from extremism and toward political and civic engagement….

So for all these reasons … opening political systems, societies, and economies is not simply a matter of idealism. It is a strategic necessity.” – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, November 7, 2011


The Obama Administration has rightly insisted that each country involved in the Arab Spring has its own dynamic and that in terms of US policy there is no cookie cutter approach. Still, there is a need for a comprehensive look at how the Arab Spring affects long standing US interests in the Middle East. This paper assesses how events sweeping the Middle East since early 2011 impact on US objectives regarding political and economic reform, prospects for the Middle East peace negotiations, the long term energy balance, security imperatives in the Gulf, and progress in counterterrorism.

Middle East
Middle East

More than 20 Middle East Institute Scholars held a two-day conference in July to address these crosscutting issues and followed up with another session in November. Some sessions included invited guests. Scholars have contributed as well in writing and by commenting on drafts. Still the report is a composite rather than a consensus report because not all Scholars participated in all parts of the discussions; and, needlessly to say, not all Scholars agreed on all the issues. The report seeks to capture points of substantial agreement as well as of divergence.

Key Judgments

The Arab Spring has shown the limits of American power in the Middle East. No longer does the US have the prestige and resources to dominate Middle East affairs to the degree it has since the British withdrew from east of Suez in 1971. Neither the US nor Europe has the great financial resources needed to shape prospects in the Arab Spring countries other than marginally; significant investment will also have to come from elsewhere, particularly the Gulf states and China – countries that do not share to the same extent the Western interest in reinforcement of democratic values. Still the US has its experience, political and economic presence and global leadership to bring to bear.

On political and economic reform, it remains to be seen what the nature of the democratic political systems will be that emerge following elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. However, two near certain developments must be kept in mind. First, elections will empower Islamist parties, as has already been seen in Tunisia, with the victory of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party. Second, democracy will give rise to Arab governments likely to be more independent of US influence but in the long term could also give rise to new areas of shared interests and values.

On the Middle East peace process, the immediate prospects look worse than before. The Arab Spring has sparked Israeli apprehensions that the relatively stable region of the past couple of decades has shifted against them. The Israeli government finds itself more isolated than ever. The Palestinians have found new energy but it is unclear how that can play into progress towards a negotiated settlement with Israel.

On energy, the Saudis and other major producers have been able to compensate for the disruptions caused by the Libyan events. In the long term, however, world energy demand necessitates the development of both Iraqi and Iranian energy reserves – the second and third largest on the planet. For the US, while shale technology and renewable energy offer an opportunity to lessen dependence on oil imports, conservation still remains the best oil-saving tool. A strong US commitment to the security of the Gulf will remain vital to oil market stability for the foreseeable future.

In Gulf security, the US role remains paramount. Though differences with the Saudis and other Gulf states over the uprisings in Bahrain and Egypt in particular have caused tensions, unifying factors — such as the desire to maintain an orderly oil market and common interests regarding Iran, Yemen, Libya and Syria — will nevertheless likely prevail.

On terrorism, the Arab Spring uprisings underscore the bankruptcy of Islamic extremist philosophy sanctioning violence as the only way to attain societal changes. In fact, the Arab Spring movements are oriented toward universal values and rooted in the demand for jobs, justice and dignity – not far in spirit from life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Still the upheavals provide opportunities, exemplified by the situation in Yemen, for Islamic extremists to gain ground.

Overall, the Arab Spring may usher in an era of realignment the outlines of which are only emerging. The immediate prospects are for: continuing instabilities as regional states sort out their governance and economies and recalibrate relations with their neighbors and other countries; rising influence for countries which have the resources to back up their policies; and the continuation of a preponderant but attenuated role for the US.

The long-term prospect includes also the possibility for a freer Middle East. Over a hundred million Arabs (a third of the Arab world) are freer today because they have escaped from long entrenched dictatorial regimes in the past 10 months. The problem is whether this new freedom can be sustained through the creation of liberal institutions and economic problem solving. In the near term, prospects are for instability as Arab Spring states sort out their governance and economic problems and recalibrate their relations with neighbors and others. In the long term, a more democratic, prosperous and accountable Middle East offers the promise of a region with better governance and less abusive of human rights, and thus a net positive outcome for U.S. interests

Driving Factors

The drivers of the Arab Spring events have first and foremost been the mobilized masses enabled by technology and youth, the role played by the military and regime security forces, and the intervention by outside forces. For years, the Arab Spring states have thwarted the development of alternative leadership outside the governing regimes. What has happened is that technology has enabled citizens to challenge repressive security forces: no longer does it take established leaders to organize the masses but only savvy techies who have organizational skills, along with the presence of live media coverage such as al-Jazeera’s. In addition, the longevity of the leadership in all the Arab Spring countries has left no doubt as to who has been responsible for each country’s plight. The result has been revolutions from the street with alternative political leadership struggling to emerge amidst the protests and fighting. These theoretical underpinnings are well established by Jack Goldstone, Muhammad Hafez and Ted Robert Gurr.

In many ways the Arab Spring began in Tehran. The protests following the corrupt elections in June, 2009, braved the way for the Arab protests by pioneering the use of social networking and IT technology and grounding actions in the principles of non-violence. The still unfolding situations in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria as well as in Iran roughly fall into the four categories.

Egypt and Tunisia, where the military’s largely neutral role deprived the regimes of an essential tool of suppression, and opposition protestors did not request or receive outside involvement. In both cases, the restraint of the military is in part a tribute to the soft power effect of the significant US and other Western training and assistance over decades.

Libya and Bahrain, where outside intervention has proved decisive so far. In Libya, NATO and Arab forces committed for the protection of civilians took a broad view of their mission and provided the firepower, and the technological and training assistance that allowed the Libyan-led resistance to succeed. A strongly worded UN Security Council Resolution and Arab League and GCC support gave political legitimacy. In Bahrain, the GCC force evinced the strong support of the GCC states, in particular the Saudis, for the Khalifa regime, even though the troops numbered only a couple thousand and were deployed to remote areas to protect infrastructure.

Syria and Iran, where the military and security establishments have entered the fray on the side of the regime. There has been no significant foreign intervention in support of the opposition, and the two regimes are among the most entrenched in the Middle East. The displacement of either regime promises to be very difficult and truly game-changing events if they were to occur.

Yemen, where the military is deeply divided and there has been no significant foreign involvement despite claims to the contrary. A MEI scholar described Yemen as a failed state but not a failed society because of the pattern of weak central control going back centuries. Now complicating these historical political patterns are such severe unemployment, high birth rates and shrinking water supplies that a failed society is possible.

The common causal threads connecting all the countries are well known: economic hardships and inequities, unaddressed political grievances, and longevity of rulers who resisted evolutionary change and sought to become “hereditary republics.” These drivers have produced the conditions leading to events of the past 10 months: the development of alternative elites, masses available for mobilization and reasonable opportunities for success.

The Arab Spring and US Interests

President Obama addressed at the State Department May 19, 2011, the impact of the Arab Spring on US interests. Not surprisingly, he described US interests well in line with definitions of his last several predecessors:

For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

He added, “Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind … and a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.” Because “the status quo is unsustainable,” he advocated relations based not only on “mutual interests and mutual respect” but also on a set of principles as a means to seize this “historic opportunity.” These principles include opposition to the use of violence and repression against the people of the region; support for “a set of universal rights including free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders;” and support for “political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.”

He concluded that

Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest. Today I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal…. It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy.

Secretary of State Clinton expanded on Obama’s ideas in remarks to the National Democratic Institute November 7 stating, “Fundamentally, there is a right side of history. And we want to be on it. And—without exception—we want our partners in the region to reform so that they are on it as well.” She also recognized the complicated relationship to US national interests remarking:
Our choices also reflect other interests in the region with a real impact on Americans’ lives—including our fight against al-Qaida, defense of our allies, and a secure supply of energy. Over time, a more democratic Middle East and North Africa can provide a more sustainable basis for addressing all three of those challenges. But there will be times when not all of our interests align. We work to align them, but that is just reality…. As a country with many complex interests, we’ll always have to walk and chew gum at the same time.

While no MEI Scholar took great exception to the Administration’s statements about US interests, the shading of views informed much of the discussion on the individual topics: political and economic reforms, the Middle East peace negotiations, energy and economic relations, security in the Gulf, and counterterrorism and the prospects of political Islam. The following summaries cover the Scholars’ perspectives on the effect of the Arab Spring on each of these areas and provide implications for US interests and policy.

Political and Economic Reform

MEI Scholars’ views on this topic permeated all other discussions. The basic questions were:

  • What are the implications for domestic policy of the countries in the region?
  • Is the advent of greater pressure for liberal democracy—or at least more accountable and less repressive government—a positive sign for stability?
  • How hard and how fast should the United States push regional countries to move toward democratization?
  • To what extent should the U.S. contemplate military intervention in bloody and deteriorating situations, such as Yemen?


Implications for Domestic Policy. The Obama administration’s concept that there are no-one-size fits-all answers is apt without doubt to the implications for political and economic reforms. Despite the similarities of long time repressive regimes and energized masses, the political and economic baselines of each country vary widely. Moreover, the countries fall into three groups: those regimes for which the overthrow of the old regime has occurred – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; those where the struggle is uncertain – Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Iran; and those across the Arab world from Morocco to the Arab peninsula where the Arab Spring has caused governments and rulers to adjust course. The basic model that comes nearest to being all encompassing is the “virtuous circle” advocated in the UN’s Arab Human Development Reports (2002-2005 and 2009) of reinforcing democratic political practices and free market economic changes that lead to prosperity. What is obviously true is that the process will take years and perhaps decades, and that progress will be checkered and possibly stymied.

Among the three North African states, the easy part may well prove to be the overthrow of the old regimes. The hard part is the requirement for skilled political leadership to guide reforms and buy the patience of the public while they take effect. Tunisia has the best chance of effecting democratic and liberalizing economic reforms. A small country with 10 million people who are well educated and largely homogeneous with long exposure to the West, Tunisia has come through the Arab Spring’s first electoral test with flying colors in an election October 23 for a constituent assembly tasked with forming an interim government and writing a constitution. Tunisia also has the advantage that its economic problems can be fixed with relatively small amounts of money with a prospective payoff not that far away, and its society has not been severely traumatized by Arab Spring events.

Libya has the advantages of oil wealth and a small population but is burdened by a lack of institutional structure on which to build, complex tribal and regional rivalries, and the challenge of being a “post conflict” state where the revolution has been bloody and destructive. While Libya may achieve a kind of unstable equilibrium post-Qadhafi, the situation will likely remain fluid for some time.

Egypt, the most difficult case of the three, has a large population (83 million), ethnic and minority divisions, and no great oil income on which to rely. The required outside resources to get the Egyptian economy back on its feet — in the hundreds of billions of dollars — must substantially come from countries such as the Gulf states and China that do not have a special interest in promoting democracy. In the words of one MEI Scholar, the situation is “murky.” Unresolved are definitional questions such as the structure of government including especially the role of the military, the rights of minorities and the role of Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The questions form a formidable challenge for the next year or more.

Three states still in conflict – Bahrain, Syria and Iran – have decent prospects once the governance issues are sorted out because they have relatively educated, cosmopolitan populations who could bring their skills to the world market place. The most straightforward case is Bahrain, where skills are already competitive and the issue is largely of governance. It is hard to see any lasting peace that does not involve substantial governmental reform that gives the Shia greater political and economic rights; on the other hand, such reforms now seem difficult to make because of the fear of Iranian intrusion.

Regime changes in Syria and Iran would be real game changers that would reshape the Middle East from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf. The chances appear greater in Syria than in Iran but in both cases any judgment would hinge on many unknown and unknowable factors. Contemplating the nature of a post-Alawite government in Damascus is not easy. MEI Scholars were of mixed views as to what manner of power constellation might emerge. Panelists recalled that a pre-Alawite Syria was fraught with multiple coups for years, and recurrence of instability and uncertainty would not be comfortable for any of Syria’s neighbors. Continued Turkish engagement could be constructive. (Iran is discussed in “Iran and the Gulf Security” below.)

Yemen is a case apart because it lacks both effective governance and significant resources, and there is no apparent solution to its manifold problems. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has described his rule as “dancing on the heads of snakes.” As one Scholar remarked, “even the Saudis do not have money to fix Yemen.” Yemen will likely continue to deteriorate because of the crushing effects of the youth demographic bulge, dwindling natural resources, the ruinous economy, the incipient secession movement in the South, the on-again off-again Houthi rebellion in the North, the al-Qaeda challenge, and the growing refugee problem from the failed state of Somalia.

In Yemen and Syria the best guess is the leadership will go, and it is just a question of time and circumstances. In Bahrain and Iran, outside factors and divided popular support portend a longer time line for any resolution.

In the GCC, besides Bahrain, the pattern is largesse and reform. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah has decreed programs for housing, jobs and other programs amounting to $136 billion and announced that women can participate in municipal elections and in the Majlas as-Shura (Consultative Council). The so-called Day of Rage protests called for in March failed to provoke much support and the occasional demonstrations among Shia in the Eastern Province have met with a forceful government response. While there may be a rapid change in the Saudi leadership in the next few years, all Scholars agreed that the stability of the Kingdom would not be affected. The Saudi pattern of largesse appertains to Kuwait, UAE and Qatar as well. In Oman, where the Arab Spring found unexpected resonance in the country the UN selected as a model of economic development spanning the past 40 years, Sultan Qaboos has overseen recent elections to the Omani Consultative Council, and announced reforms underwritten in part by a GCC grant of $10 billion to both it and Bahrain. MEI Scholars shared the view that the Arab Spring will likely produce reforms but no game changing upsets in the GCC.

In Morocco and Jordan, the monarchs have instituted some political reforms in response to protests calling for a more democratic and accountable political system rather than a change of regime. Both countries suffer from high unemployment, large youth populations, and scarce resources (particularly in Jordan’s case). Widespread dissatisfaction will likely continue to drive protestors into the streets. As in Egypt or Tunisia, Islamist parties in both countries will probably benefit from a more open political posture by the regimes.

In Algeria, an especially authoritarian, elitist, corrupt and military-backed regime has put down protests and promised reform. Memories of the robust Islamist uprising against this Francophone autocracy in the 1990s have blunted the enthusiasm for regime change among many Algerians; for others, however, grievances now are even greater than those during that period. Stability remains a question.

In Iraq, the Arab Spring provoked demonstrations calling for better government performance. Prime Minister Maliki gave his ministers 100 days to provide better services or face dismissal. When the time expired, he extended the period for another 100 days and the issue has now drifted into obscurity. In the Kurdish north, the Arab Spring gathered more traction with major protests resulting in several deaths and a reinforcement of the appeal of the Goran (Change) party and other groups challenging the established PUK and KDP parties.

More significant than the effect of the Arab Spring domestically in Iraq have been the consequences abroad. In response to popular sentiment, Maliki allied his government with the Shia in Bahrain, antagonizing further the GCC states and the Sunnis in Iraq. Maliki has also supported the Assad regime in Syria on the grounds that threats to its stability provide opportunities for the Israelis to exploit.

Are reforms a sign of stability? On the face of it, the answer to this question would seem to be “no” in the short term and “a hopeful yes” in the longer term. Theoretically, democratizing states are among the most violent both internally and externally as they sort out issues of internal governance and recalibrate external relations; however, established democracies are relatively peaceful and do not go to war with each other easily. The MEI Scholars agreed that the answer would vary greatly across the spectrum of Arab Spring states.

Should the US push democratization or intervene militarily? There was near unanimity on the issue of military intervention. Unless vital US interests were at stake, the US should not take on alone new military ventures; in most cases, given our overburdened military and stretched finances, they would likely have to be coalition enterprises.

MEI Scholars were divided on the discussion of democracy promotion. Some argued US relations should be based squarely on “mutual interests and mutual respect” with little attention to values while others argued along the lines of Obama’s and Clinton’s speeches that democratic reforms were at the heart of US interests. MEI Scholars were asked to rank the importance of promoting democracy on a scale of one to five; the answers averaged 2.5, less than the middle ranking of 3 on the point spread. The discussion also produced more agreement than this result might suggest because many of the differences stemmed from semantics as to what promotion of democracy entailed.


For decades US diplomacy has benefited from what is called the “autonomy gap,” that is, the rulers could largely do what they wanted with only passing regard to public sentiment or even much worry about public exposure. Democratic reforms link policy much more directly to popular opinion. Thus, convincing the head of government will less and less suffice, and more and more the US will have to take into account Arab public opinion when considering its policy options. Of course, this is of greatest consequence to policies relating to Israel.

For younger Arab generations, US association with discredited regimes has often been construed as support for corruption and misuse of power. For long-established leaders, the US call to be on the “right side of history” has been seen as a reason to walk away from friendships and alliances previously understood to be in our mutual interests and unshakeable. In pursuing approaches that varied from country to country, the Administration has been viewed at times as simply not knowing what it wants, or not knowing how to get where it thinks it wants to go. Despite these drawbacks, the fact remains that US policy will have to continue to balance competing interests and values, as Secretary of State Clinton outlined in her November 7 speech to the national Democratic Institute.

While skeptical about the efficacy of many attempts of democracy promotion, MEI Scholars endorsed the tools of soft power—English language instruction, cultural diplomacy, people-to-people exchanges, US-style education (especially in science and technology), and the like—as among our best assets in complementing the work of diplomats and pro-democracy NGOs. Some Scholars in particular singled out the need for diplomats to get out of their Embassies, to enlist the “whole of government” resources including military assets, and to promote respect for human rights, effective law enforcement capacity and a fair, impartial system of justice.


The MEI Scholars who participated in this discussion included several who have participated in policymaking and/or studied the Arab Israel issue for decades. They addressed the following questions:

  • How have the protests and uprisings affected Israel’s strategic situation and policies? How have they affected the circumstances and positions of the Palestinians?
  • Have they hindered or advanced the ability of the Palestinians, Israelis and other key players in the region to make peace?
  • Where should the peace process rank in the list of US priorities?


Israel’s Strategic Position and Policies

The Arab Spring presents Israel with a new strategic environment. It brings to the fore Israel’s propensity to prioritize security concerns over long-term political considerations. In MEI Scholars’ opinion, lamentably lost are strategic political considerations about what to do concerning the Palestinian territories, the whole settlement enterprise, and the compromises necessary to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.

The Arab Spring has called into question Israel’s relative stability of the past several years. In Egypt, the prospect now is for a popular government more critical of Israel. There is no question that the Egyptian public is hostile to Israel, believing that Israel has not maintained its part of the treaty and that Mubarak circles illegally benefitted from the 15-year natural gas agreement they signed in 2005 to sell gas to Israel. Moreover, the possibility that the Muslim Brothers’ rising influence in Egypt might be a boon for Hamas greatly worries Israel.

The situation in Jordan is less troubling since demonstrations aim at reform but not at ending the Hashemite monarchy or Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel. The situation in Syria is a huge question mark. There could be a benefit if a different government there attenuated Syria’s links with Iran, but no one can predict what will happen.

Internally, Israel may be entering a period of flux despite a vibrant economy. Some conditions of the Arab Spring apply: corruption, much of it the result of illegal and extra-legal support for the settlements enterprise; declining education opportunities; weakening democratic institutions; and the widening gap between the rich/super rich and the middle class. Partially sparked by the Arab model, discontented Israelis have established tent cities and held massive demonstrations to demand social justice.

Even with personal approval ratings in the mid-thirties, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not appear in danger. The reason in large part is the weakness of the opposition; the center and left are dispirited and disorganized with no leader in sight. Thus, Netanyahu’s foreign, security and settlements policies are not under serious challenge, despite the fact that public opinion polls in Israel consistently show a clear majority favoring a two-state solution with Jerusalem the capital of both Israel and the new state of Palestine.

Palestinian Circumstances and Position

In the West Bank, the economy has been growing (above eight per cent), institution building is at the point that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has announced it could administer a state, and public security is quite good. The PA’s drive for Palestinian membership as a state in the United Nations despite US and Israeli opposition has boosted popular support for President Mahmoud Abbas, which had previously sunk to all time lows due to a lack of progress in ending the occupation.

Emboldened by the Arab Spring, Palestinian popular groups have been organizing peaceful demonstrations against the occupation. So far, little has become of them because the PA, Hamas and the Israelis all fear non-violent protests could get out of hand, resulting in casualties, growing frustration and anger, with the potential danger of a third intifada. Israel would likely consider such challenges as potentially existential and apply force as necessary to suppress them, even risking intensified political isolation. The Arab Spring also served as an impetus for the stillborn Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement in April as celebrants poured into the streets in West Bank and Gaza. So far Palestinians remain deeply divided.

Help or Hinder Peace Talks?

This past May in Washington both Obama and Netanyahu made major public declarations on Israeli-Palestinian peace. The President spelled out his vision of a “viable Palestine and a secure Israel” declaring that the borders of the two states should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. He proposed that negotiations resume based on this and additional principles and focused on borders and security, leaving refugees and Jerusalem for later.

Netanyahu emphasized Israel’s security needs, introduced demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and insisted on continued construction of settlements. He stressed that Israel must have a military presence along the Jordan River; that refugee resettlement must be only in Palestine, not in Israel; and that Jerusalem would never be divided. Netanyahu distorted the President’s position by emphasizing that Israel would never go back to the “indefensible” 1967 borders, a proposal the President had never suggested. (There is debate in Israel over the meaning of “defensible borders” and “strategic depth” in an age of sophisticated ballistic and cruise missiles.)

The differences between the two leaders highlighted why there are no serious peace negotiations despite several proposals on the table. The Arab Spring events add to the reasons it is unlikely that significant movement will occur soon. The controversy over Palestinian membership in the United Nations further isolates Israel and Washington and angers Congress.

The recent Quartet proposals in the wake of the Palestinian application for UN membership seem likely to join the long list of previous timetables that produced no result. They call for a series of steps leading to a two-state solution by the end of 2012. Moreover, the American presidential election season could further hamper progress as it has in the past.

While Netanyahu’s government has accepted the Quartet’s proposal, the prospects are not good because it has steadfastly opposed the types of compromises on all four core issues (borders/settlements, security arrangements, refugees and Jerusalem) necessary to reach a deal. The acceleration of settlement activities in East Jerusalem and surrounding areas makes getting to peace harder and endangers ever reaching an agreement.

While the Palestinians have not accepted the Quartet’s proposal, demanding a suspension on Israeli settlement activity before entering again into negotiations, they still seem open to compromises on the core issues. They, however, have angered the Obama Administration by failing to take advantage of the hard bought temporary Israeli settlement freeze in 2009 and of the Administration’s push to reach an agreement in the year leading up to September 2011. Pressing their initiative to join the United Nations and continued refusal to participate in the proposed Quartet framework exacerbate these tensions.

The Palestinian initiative at the UN is the culmination of three years of effort, including encouragement by President Obama when he addressed the UN General Assembly in 2010. Now opposed by the US and Israel on the grounds that Palestinian statehood should be negotiated between the parties, the PA application could lead to a threatened US veto in the UN Security Council. If so, the result would be a further disruption in the peace negotiations. In the likelihood of failure in the Security Council either because of a veto or for lack of the necessary nine affirmative votes, the Palestinians still have recourse to the UN General Assembly, where they likely would have to settle for “non-member state observer” status along with the Holy See in the General Assembly itself. One effect of the Palestinian initiative at the UN is that the PA has shown it too can “create facts on the ground” that can shape the negotiating context.


All Scholars agreed there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and generally thought present Israeli policies are taking the country toward a dead end. Since Arabs will inevitably be the majority population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the facts of demography will force choices: (a) a single democratic non-Jewish bi-national state; (b) a single non-democratic Jewish state with an oppressed majority; (c) continuation of Israel (already 20% Arab, not having the same rights as Jews) and of occupation; or (d) two states, Israel with a large majority Jewish and the other state Palestinian with a shared Jerusalem.

America’s long-standing political and security support has been premised on a clear expectation: a prosperous, strong and confident Israel would negotiate peace with benefits for both sides, in the mold of the treaty with Egypt in 1979. Instead, Israel now is using its military strength to pursue its settlement and occupation policies to the extent that they endanger a two-state solution. The US is widely seen as the enabler of Israeli policies and as Israel’s only close friend. This perception contributes to alarmingly low US prestige and approval ratings in the Arab world — just five percent in Egypt and ten percent in Jordan.

An historian among the Scholars argued that Israel’s best chance to remain a democratic and Jewish state is to reach a deal for peace with its neighbors even if it is at some cost to its hyped security concerns. In these circumstances, he challenged whether it is in US interests to give categorical assurances of Israeli security, which ultimately depends on accommodation with the Palestinians. In this view, Israel may indeed have to face an existential moment before a redirection could occur.

For their part, the Palestinians should understand the limits of their efforts to “internationalize” the conflict and to make clearer their willingness to negotiate in response to more tangible US assurances on final status issues or Israeli reciprocity through restraint on settlements. Additionally, it is hard to envision the U.S. or Israel ever supporting Israeli compromises with a unified Palestinian government whose minor partner, Hamas, refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. The US should therefore search for a new approach to Palestinian reunification that would overcome Hamas’ rejectionism. The Palestinian leadership must also start preparing its people for further painful compromises that will have to be made, for example on refugees, as part of an ultimate compromise peace with Israel.

What can the US Do? Netanyahu has publicly chided and opposed the President’s proposals from the start. The Palestinians have concluded that American willingness to use its potential influence on Israel is next to nil, and the PA has chosen another route. Together with the impact of the Arab Spring on Israel’s strategic situation and on intra-Palestinian matters, it is questionable that any solely American initiative could succeed. One positive element of the Quartet proposal is that it is not solely American.

Nevertheless, the MEI Scholars believed the US should not abandon the field and “wait until the situation is right.” Israel and Palestine cannot solve the problem alone and the situation is getting worse and potentially dangerous. Time is not our friend. The United States should lead a major international effort to inform publics, politicians, lawmakers, religious groups and opinion makers about why the present course is not sustainable and why a solution with Israel and a new state of Palestine living side by side in security and peace is the only outcome that would bring an end to their conflict and ensure a Jewish and democratic state. Some scholars advocated that the Administration should explain in the US why a more assertive American leadership, possibly including talking to Hamas, should be considered and why such diplomacy is necessary to protect US interests. While the Middle East Peace Negotiations must remain high among US priorities, it is unlikely to have a top ranking as the US goes into the 2012 elections.

This is a portion of a much longer article written by MEI, which may be found here:

Allen L. Keiswetter

– Senior Advisor to US Delegation to the UN General Assembly (2003)
– Advisor to US Mission on Middle East issues before Security Council and General Assembly (2003)
– Former professor at the National War College (2001-2003)
– Served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (2000-2001), Director of Arabian Peninsula Affairs in the – Near East Bureau (1998-2000), and Director of the Office of Intelligence Liaison in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (1996-1998)
– Director of Arabian Peninsula Affairs in the Near East Bureau of the US Department of State(1998 – 2000)
– NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs (1993-1996)
– Established and chaired Middle East Peace Process Multilateral Working Group on Water Resources at the US Department of State (1990-1993)
– Served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Sana’a, and held various posts at US embassies in Khartoum, Baghdad, and Beirut


Founded in 1946, the Middle East Institute is the oldest Washington-based institution dedicated solely to the study of the Middle East. Its founders, scholar George Camp Keiser and former US Secretary of State Christian Herter, laid out a simple mandate: “to increase knowledge of the Middle East among the citizens of the United States and to promote a better understanding between the people of these two areas.”

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