Isolation Moderation and the Mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

States often mediate disputes between belligerent parties. The principles of Isolation Moderation encourage mediation as a tool of international policy. However, this philosophy believes that a state government should not attempt mediation unless both sides welcome it. Mediation is the act of an individual or country working voluntarily with opposing sides in order to resolve a conflict without resorting to military force or legal resolution. Isolation Moderation supports a unilateral approach, as it does not encourage the use of international organizations for mediation in most cases. 

This article will examine how these principles relate to American efforts to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Why do States Mediate?

Why do states engage in mediation? The act of mediation is time-consuming and can often be costly if the mediator offers inducements to the sides. A rational approach to international relations leads to the conclusion that a mediator must benefit significantly from the process or not undertake it. After all, if a state government used its time and resources to mediate a conflict without attaining tangible benefit for their citizens and national interest, the said government would be betraying its responsibilities. 

U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a classic example of insistent high-stakes mediation. It was preceded by heavy participation in the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly from 1967 and onward. 

However, there are countless conflicts and crises throughout the world. What makes a state choose to mediate one conflict rather than another? After all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is tragic and has ruined thousands of lives over the years. Although the overall numbers are in dispute, there have been fewer than 10,000 casualties during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Meanwhile, the Congo crisis in central Africa since the 1990s has resulted in the deaths of well over a million individuals. 

The U.S. had invested far more effort into Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it has interests in the region. Most Presidents have not hidden this fact. 

The Roots of American Mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a remarkably complex one, being interlocked with a broader confrontation between Israel and the Arab states of the region. 

In 1947, the United Nations voted to end the Palestine mandate, which was under British control until that time, and replace it with two states: a Jewish state and an Arab one. The members of the Arab League did not accept this solution, and a war between Israel and several members of the organization soon ensued. Israel was invaded by the countries of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia with the goal of preventing the establishment of the newborn Jewish state in the heart of the Middle East. The end result was a victory for Israel, one in which they gained even more territory than they had originally been allotted under the United Nations partition plan.

Despite Israel’s victory in the short 1948 Arab-Israeli War, its conflict with the Arab states would only get worse over the next few years. Israel would fight its neighbors in several full-scale wars over the next three decades. This included defeating Egyptian forces in 1956, launching a preemptive military defeat over several Arab countries in 1967, and curtailing a joint military attack in 1973.

The specific dynamics of the Cold War dragged both the United States and the Soviet Union into the conflict. Eventually, the Soviet Union became closely allied with some of Israel's enemies, such as Egypt and Syria. Meanwhile, the U.S. allied with Israel and some of the more moderate Arab states, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. 

The Soviet Union used its leverage in the Middle East to destabilize American allies and threaten the regional oil supply. The Kremlin used the hostility between Israel and the Arab states to influence regional actors into adopting an anti-American policy. Therefore, starting with the Eisenhower Administration, the region's American policy was geared towards minimizing Soviet influence in the area. 

U.S. Mediation Strategy in the Arab-Israeli Conflict 

In 1967, Israel achieved an overwhelming military victory over its Arab neighbors. In six days, it defeated Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Israel tripled its size by occupying the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. 

The Israeli military achievement provided the United States with a golden opportunity. The superpower could now use its influence over Israel to win increased influence with the pro-Soviet Arab states. The U.S. supported Israel to help it achieve peace and offered to help the Arab states in regaining their lost territory. By doing this, the U.S. could force out the Soviets and minimize their regional influence. 

This strategy worked amazingly well. Egypt switched sides and cut its close ties with the Soviet Union. The U.S. helped Israel end hostilities with Egypt in 1979, through a peace treaty. By the end of the process, the U.S. was the primary military supplier for both Egypt and Israel, and the Soviet Union was more marginalized than ever before. 

The U.S. Becomes Involved in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 

However, from the Carter Administration onward, it became increasingly clear that regional stability would remain outside of America's reach unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was successfully resolved. 

The Soviet Union soon adjusted to losing Egypt and began to leverage a new anti-American coalition in the region. In the 1980s, Syria, Libya, and Iran worked with the Soviet Union to encourage the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to counter American interest in Lebanon. Later in the decade, an uprising known as the First Intifada (1987-1993) broke out in the Occupied Territories, embarrassing both Israel and the U.S. 

The H.W. Bush administration put a good deal of pressure on Israel and the PLO to negotiate with each other. Israel was hesitant because it viewed the PLO as a terrorist organization. Therefore, the U.S. pressured the PLO into renouncing terrorism and recognizing the existence of Israel. When this was partially achieved in 1989, it cleared the way for the beginning of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. 

There have been some remarkable achievements in American mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—notably the Oslo II agreement and the Wye River Memorandum. However, it is an overall story of failure as seen most clearly with the Oslo Process's abandonment and return to open fighting in the Second Intifada (2000-2005). 

The United States had proven able to get both sides to the table and gain concessions from each, as long as it had a vital national interest in the outcome. With the end of the Cold War, mediation attempts became less prosperous. 

One of the reasons for that is the difficulty of resolving the complicated issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians. However, a second reason is that the American motivation lessened. It continued to mediate out of inertia and to protect other regional interests, but it did not have the same national interest to obtain results as in the past. 

Multilateral Versus State Mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Multilateral attempts to mediate the conflict have failed without exception. There are several outstanding examples of this. In 1967, the United Nations appointed Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring to serve as the mediator in the conflict, but he was not taken seriously by either side. It eventually became exclusive American mediation starting with the Nixon Administration, which led to results.

Later attempts to incorporate international organizations have also failed. In 2002, the international community tried to revive the peace process through an international quartet's assistance. The quartet included the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, and Russia. This mechanism continues to hold the ostensibly leading role in negotiations. However, there has been no progress in the two decades of its operation.

The failure of multilateral mechanisms is not a coincidence. International organizations generally do not possess a unified national interest. They do not invest resources reasonably because they do not have clear foreign policy priorities. 

Also, the opposing sides in conflicts tend to mistrust multilateral organizations because they contain states hostile to their interests. For example, Israel does not trust the United Nations because it has passed hundreds of resolutions hostile to its claims. 

What Does This Mean for Mediation Efforts?

States mediate conflicts when the resolution of the conflict promotes their interests. When the mediator has a strong interest in achieving peace, they will use significant resources and leverage to achieve their goals. An interested party has a greater chance of success, as we can see from the spectacular achievement of peace between Israel and Egypt in 1979. 

However, mediation does not succeed when it is pursued for moral reasons or by multilateral organizations. In those cases, mediators are not invested enough in the process and are not credibly committed to its success. 

As the principles of Isolation Moderation tell us, states should maintain their sovereignty in both entering into mediation and overseeing it. A unilateral policy based on national interest has a better chance of succeeding and leading to genuine peace. 

If you are interested in learning more about these ideas, please order your own copy of Isolation Moderation.


Shai Ben-Ephraim

Shai is a Middle East editor for the Asia Times. In the past he was a fellow at UCLA, and got his PhD at the University of Calgary.