The diplomatic playbook on Palestine and Israel has been torn up. Can it be rewritten?

By championing a comprehensive, even-handed approach, the US and Arab states have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to breathe new life into the peace process

Reuters / Nick Donaldson
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Picture this: a region engulfed in a seemingly endless cycle of violence, where the dreams of Palestinians for statehood and Israelis for peace remain entangled in a bloody web of violence, incitement and geopolitics. Hamas’s massacre of 1,200 Israelis and the taking of 250 hostages on October 7 followed by a brutal Israeli military operation in Gaza is not just another sad chapter in the long, tumultuous history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the international community scrambles to find a way out, the situation makes one thing clear – the current diplomatic playbook is in desperate need of a rewrite.

Once upon a time, the Middle East Quartet – a grand grouping of the US, Russia, the EU and the UN established in 2002 after the Second Intifada to help mediate Middle East peace and support the Palestinian quest for statehood – stood at the centre of diplomatic efforts. In 2003, it published a three-phase roadmap, based on then US president George W Bush’s call for an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel. In what was effectively its last act in 2016, the Quartet published a report calling for urgent steps to “prevent entrenching a one-state reality of perpetual occupation and conflict”. It highlighted the barriers to achieving a peaceful resolution: violence, terror, incitement, Israel's settlement construction and expansion, and Hamas’s control of Gaza.

Alas, the geopolitical winds have shifted, and the Quartet's carefully orchestrated diplomatic symphony has devolved into a cacophony of discordant voices. As a result, today the stage for diplomatic discussions has been relegated to the polarised halls of the UN Security Council, where the prospects of a breakthrough are as slim as a thread. To add to the plot twist, public spats between the US and Israel have eroded Washington's once-formidable influence over its steadfast ally. The EU, a former key player in the region, has retreated to the safety of making statements, unable to define a mediating role for itself.

Enter the Arab states, the unlikely protagonists in this diplomatic drama. Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain have relations with Israel. Qatar has played a key role in negotiating hostage release and temporary ceasefires. Saudi Arabia holds out the enticing prospect of formally establishing a relationship with Israel as an instrument of inducing policy change. All have strategic relations with the US. Thanks to these various relationships with Israel and Washington, these countries now find themselves uniquely positioned to take on a more proactive role in untangling the Gordian knot of the conflict. The UAE, for instance, because of the Abraham Accords, has been able to lead a gigantic humanitarian effort to help Palestinians, evacuate children in need of treatment, operate a field hospital and desalination facilities in Gaza, mediate an agreement on creating a Gaza aid corridor and broker two Security Council resolutions.

The Arab states' ability to wave their diplomatic wands, however, is hampered by two formidable challenges: the absence of a clear post-conflict governance roadmap for Gaza that brings it under the control of the legitimate Palestinian Authority, and the need for a competent, non-factional Palestinian government that undertakes much-needed reforms. Arab leaders have made it abundantly clear that their full-throated support for the peace process hinges on a well-defined path to Palestinian statehood. Absent a holistic approach that tackles both the immediate humanitarian crisis and Palestinians' long-term political aspirations, any diplomatic endeavour risks being reduced to a plaster on a gaping wound. Moreover, the Palestinian Authority's governance woes and the yawning chasm between the West Bank and Gaza serve as stark reminders of the uphill battle that lies ahead in presenting a united front at the negotiating table.

The path to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a long, winding road fraught with obstacles and setbacks. But the current diplomatic gridlock is a dead-end that serves no one

Still, Arab states today have a golden opportunity to put forward a diplomatic blueprint. Here are some ideas:

They must advocate relentlessly for an ironclad commitment from the international community, Israel and the US to rally behind a two-state solution firmly rooted in existing agreements, international law and the Arab Peace Initiative. This political North Star should be underpinned by a reformed and united Palestinian Authority, capable of governing both Gaza and the West Bank.

Arab states should wield their financial might strategically, making their support for Gaza's reconstruction contingent upon measurable progress towards these goals. While continuing to extend a helping hand through vital humanitarian aid, they should make it unequivocally clear that the tap of long-term development assistance will only flow if there's a credible roadmap to Palestinian statehood.

By crafting a step-by-step plan that ties incremental advances in further regional normalisation with Israel to tangible progress on the two-state solution, Arab states can create a powerful incentive structure that compels all parties to put their best foot forward in the peace process.

The US should waste no time in joining forces with Arab leaders to refine and define joint principles and conditions for the way forward. The US Secretary of State’s elements outlined in Tokyo are a good starting point as any. A joint US-Arab proposal can lay the solid groundwork for post-conflict negotiations that also brings in more stakeholders – the EU, China, Russia and others.

Finally, to infuse the process with a much-needed sense of urgency, Arab states and the US should take the lead on an international peace conference to be held before the end of 2024. It would serve as a clarion call, reaffirming the international community's unwavering commitment to the two-state solution, unveiling the jointly crafted principles and driving home the inextricable link between Gaza's reconstruction and the establishment of a workable political framework.

Let's face it – the path to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a long, winding road fraught with obstacles and setbacks. But the current diplomatic gridlock is a dead-end that serves no one. By championing a comprehensive, even-handed approach that tackles both immediate needs and long-term dreams, the US and the Arab states have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to breathe new life into the peace process. While the suggested steps are no magic bullet, they represent initial ideas for a pragmatic way forward.

At the end of the day, it is Israeli and Palestinian leaders who must find the courage to make painful compromises. But, by laying out a clear roadmap and putting forward the right incentives, Arab states can play a game-changing role in steering the conflict towards a resolution and a just and enduring peace that has long eluded this troubled region.

Published: May 17, 2024, 6:00 PM