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The decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is rooted in competing claims to the Holy Land, and includes disputes over borders, Jerusalem, security, and Palestinian refugees.The United States has long sought a solution to the conflict thatresults in two states, although the Trump administration adopted policies that diverged from that goal. An outbreak of violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian militant groups in 2021 was an early test for the Biden administration’s diplomatic approach to the region.
IntroductionIsraelis and Palestinians have clashed over claims to the Holy Land for decades, a conflict that has long been one of the world’s most intractable. Although the United States is a strong supporter of Israel, it has traditionally tried to advance a diplomatic solution that would reconcile the competing claims of the two parties.
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Multiple U.S. administrations have proposed road maps for a peace process that would result in two states, one Israeli and one Palestinian. However, critics say prospects for a two-state solution dimmed under President Donald Trump, who implemented a slew of controversial policies regarding core components of the conflict. The Joe Biden administration has reversed some of those changes but left others in place, including Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
What is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict about?
Middle East and North Africa
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rooted in a century-long territorial dispute over the Holy Land, a Middle Eastern region with great religious and historical significance to Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
Increasing numbers of Jews began moving to Ottoman Palestine—a predominately Arab region—following the 1896 publication of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State, which promoted the idea of a haven for Jews in their ancient homeland to escape anti-Semitism in Europe. The migration accelerated after the Holocaust of World War II, in which Nazi Germany killed six million Jews.
In 1947, after years of Arab-Jewish violence, the UN General Assembly voted for the establishment of two states in Palestine, one Jewish and the other Arab. Shortly after, the Jewish community in Palestine declared Israel an independent state, prompting hundreds of thousands more Jews to emigrate, and precipitating a war launched by neighboring Arab states.
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For their part, Palestinian Arabs say Jews have usurped their ancestral homeland with help from Western powers, including the United States and the United Kingdom. They refer to Israel’s establishment and its defeat of allied Arab armies in the 1948 war as the Nakba, or catastrophe, which the United Nations estimated uprooted more than seven hundred thousand Palestinians.
In the decades since, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has continually flared into conflict, including multistate wars, armed uprisings (intifadas), and terrorist acts. A major turning point was the 1967 Six-Day War, which culminated in Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. In its aftermath, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which called for Israel to withdraw from occupied lands to secure and recognize borders in exchange for peace. The resolution lacked details, but nonetheless was a milestone, becoming the basis for future diplomacy to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Middle East and North Africa
Today, the region is home to some two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and three million in the West Bank. Although most of Israel’s 9.2 million residents are Jewish, there are around two million Arab citizens. International diplomatic efforts to broker a political settlement have made limited headway. More recent U.S.-led diplomacy has focused on resolving several core issues:
Borders. The notion of having two separate states, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, commonly referred to as the two-state solution, has had significant international support for decades. It would establish a Palestinian state that includes most of the West Bank—with land swaps to compensate it for Israel’s absorption of some Jewish settlements there—and Gaza, which Israel unilaterally withdrew from in 2005. Most international diplomacy promoting a two-state solution favors Israel’s reverting to a version of its pre-1967 borders, but there is no consensus on how doing so could account for Palestinians within those borders and Jewish Israelis living beyond them.
Jerusalem. The disputed city straddles the border of Israel and the West Bank. Israel has annexed the whole city as its capital; the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem for the capital of their state. A two-state solution would require a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
Refugees. The wars in 1948 and 1967 created some one million Palestinian refugees. The survivors and their descendants, mostly living in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, claim the right to return to Israel, as supported by a 1948 UN General Assembly resolution. Debate continues on whether survivors’ descendants should also be considered refugees with that right. Israel sees the right to return as a threat to its existence as a Jewish state, and believes the refugees should go to the Palestinian state that would be created as part of a two-state solution.
Security. Israel views some Palestinian militant groups as existential threats
Mutual recognition. Each side seeks recognition of its state by the other, as well as the international community. Most Israeli Jews want to see Israel recognized as a Jewish state, while Palestinians want Israel to acknowledge their forced displacement under the Nakba.
End of conflict. Both sides seek a peace agreement that would end their conflict and honor the claims of each side, and lead to peace and normalization of Israel’s relations with all Arab states, as provided for in the Arab League’s Arab Peace Initiative.
What are U.S. interests in the dispute?
The Middle East has long been of central importance to the United States as successive administrations pursued a broad set of interrelated goals including securing vital energy resources, staving off Soviet and Iranian influence, ensuring the survival and security of Israel and Arab allies, countering terrorism, promoting democracy, and reducing refugee flows. Correspondingly, the United States has sought to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been a major driver of regional dynamics, with an eye toward obtaining these strategic objectives while balancing its support for Israel and pushing for broader regional stability.
At the same time, the dispute has been a core concern of the American Jewish community and Christian Evangelicals, both strong supporters of Israel.
However, some experts say U.S. interest in resolving the conflict has waned in recent years. After the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, other regional conflicts, such as wars in Syria and Yemen; Iran’s push for dominance in the region; and terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State posed more immediate threats to U.S. interests. Additionally, U.S. relations with Iran and the Arab Gulf states no longer seem to hinge on Israeli-Palestinian issues, making the conflict even less of a priority, said former aramuseum.org Fellow Philip H. Gordon, who worked on Middle East peace negotiations at the White House during the Barack Obama administration. (In January 2021, Gordon was appointed deputy national security advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris.) U.S. interest in the greater Middle East also faded as other regions gained priority, as highlighted by the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia.”
The Trump administration reignited controversy over the disputed region by siding with Israel on various matters, breaking with decades of U.S. policy aimed at serving as a neutral broker in negotiations. The Biden administration has so far signaled that it will promote equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians rather than focus on resolving the overarching dispute.
How has the U.S. been involved in the conflict?
The United States has been a central player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more than half a century. It became involved shortly after World War II, joining the United Kingdom in a 1946 inquiry
After the 1967 Six-Day War, the United States attempted to mediate the broader Arab-Israeli conflict along with Britain, France, Russia, and the United Nations. However, it was the 1973 war, in which Israel struggled early on to defend itself against invading Egyptian and Syrian forces, that compelled the United States to take the lead in future diplomacy. Although Israel won the conflict militarily, the Arab powers delivered a major psychological blow.
The war was also a major turning point for U.S. foreign policy in that it prompted Arab oil producers to impose a harmful oil embargo on the United States, and it brought the United States—which supported Israel—and the Soviet Union—which armed Egypt and Syria—close to a nuclear confrontation after a period of détente. The war also proved a boon for the Palestinian cause, with the Arab League recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” in 1974.
In the months after the fighting, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger served as the principal intermediary between the Arab states and Israel. His shuttle diplomacy among Middle East capitals in 1974 and 1975 helped de-escalate the war and disentangle the combatants.
In 1978, U.S. President Jimmy Carter hosted the Camp David peace talks between Israel and Egypt, which produced two frameworks that would lay a foundation for future Mideast diplomacy. The first called for talks involving Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians about Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank. The second called for a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, which the two governments signed in 1979 at the White House. Though Jordan was also a party in the 1973 war, it did not join the talks, fearing condemnation from other Arab nations. A separate Israel-Jordan peace treaty was signed in 1994.
Although the United States was left out of negotiating the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords—under which Palestinian leaders recognized Israel’s right to exist, and Israel recognized Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and the West Bank—the disputing parties signed the final agreement at the White House. The United States and the Bill Clinton administration played a larger role in 1998, when it sponsored negotiations between Israel and the PLO that led to the Clinton Parameters for the establishment of a two-state solution. Since then, successive administrations have proposed their own plans for a two-state solution: George W. Bush’s Road Map to Peace, Secretary of State John Kerry’s Six Principles, and Trump’s Peace to Prosperity.
While trying to broker a deal between the parties, the United States has shielded Israel from international criticism, which some say has hindered diplomacy to resolve the conflict. Since 1970, the United States has used its veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to block resolutions censuring Israel dozens of times because it sees the United Nations as a forum that is biased against Israel. Since 1980, the United States has only once allowed the Security Council to condemn Israel for its settlement construction, in late 2016, when the outgoing Obama administration abstained from a vote on the matter.
Many analysts say Trump abandoned the role of honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians and adopted a firmly pro-Israel stance. In August 2020, the Trump administration mediated an agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, known as the Abraham Accords, in which the two countries pledged to begin normalizing ties. Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco later announced similar U.S.-brokered deals. Opponents of normalization say these moves betray the Palestinian cause, as the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative stipulates that Arab League members will establish relations with Israel only after the creation of a Palestinian state, among other conditions. The Biden administration welcomed the accords and said it will encourage other nations to seek normalization with Israel, but noted such agreements are not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
In 2021, after days of renewed violence in which Israeli air strikes destroyed targets in Gaza and Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups fired rockets at Israel, the Biden administration reportedly worked behind the scenes to help establish a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Biden reiterated U.S. support for Israel’s right to defend itself while vowing humanitarian assistance for Palestinians in Gaza.
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What is the U.S. position on Palestinian statehood?
Biden has said he will continue the nearly two decades of U.S. support for a two-state solution, which calls for separate Israeli and Palestinian states with borders resembling those that existed before the 1967 war; this territory includes the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and parts of East Jerusalem. The Clinton Parameters provided the outlines for the establishment of a Palestinian state and the resolution of the other final status issues. George W. Bush became the first U.S. president to publicly endorse a Palestinian state, which was represented in the 2003 Road Map for Peace plan put forth by the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations. The Obama administration also tried to advance a two-state solution, but talks collapsed in 2014 over disagreements on settlements, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and other issues. In 2016, Secretary Kerry outlined principles for a two-state solution based on those final status talks.