Brent Scowcroft served as national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Thomas R. Pickering is a former undersecretary of state and served as ambassador to the United Nations and Israel, among other places. Scowcroft and Pickering are chairman emeritus and the current chairman, respectively, of the U.S./Middle East Project.
In recent days, the Obama administration has undertaken two significant actions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It refrained from vetoing a resolution at the U.N. Security Council that, among other things, detailed the devastating impact that Israeli settlement expansion is having on the prospects for a two-state peace agreement. And in a landmark speech, Secretary of State John F. Kerry warned that the trend toward a one-state reality is becoming increasingly entrenched, and he set out principles for a lasting peace based on a two-state solution.
He rightly pointed out that the demise of the two-state option is to nobody’s benefit — Israeli, Palestinian or American. We share Kerry’s concerns and applaud the Obama administration for having set out the conclusions of its peace efforts in a transparent and compelling manner.
Over decades in and out of government, we have shared with great conviction the United States’ commitment to Israel and its security. We have also followed with increasing concern the inability to secure the kind of peace that Israelis and Palestinians alike so deserve and that would best advance U.S. goals in the region and beyond. No side is blameless for the absence of peace, but the relentless confiscation of Palestinian land and expansion of Israel’s presence in the territories occupied since 1967 have created facts on the ground that are the proximate cause of fear that a two-state deal might soon be impossible to attain.
Kerry’s speech and the U.S. decision to abstain at the United Nations on Resolution 2334 have stirred controversy, at home and abroad. We feel it is important to offer reminders of certain simple truths.
Support for Israeli-Palestinian peace predicated on an Israeli withdrawal to a border based on the 1967 lines and opposition to Israeli civilian settlements in occupied territories have been long-standing bipartisan principles of U.S. policy. The Carter administration’s determination of the illegality of settlements under international law has never been reversed by succeeding Republican or Democratic presidents. No administration has been fond of having the United Nations take the lead on this issue, given its own record on Israel, but all administrations since 1967 on occasion have voted in the Security Council contrary to the wishes of the government of Israel.
As Israelis and Palestinians themselves made progress with U.S. support, a bipartisan consensus emerged in favor of a two-state solution. Just because something is a consensus does not necessarily make it right. But in this instance, the shared pursuit of a two-state peace is based on solid ground. It is not only the best option available to Israel and to those Palestinians seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but also it is the best option for America’s own national interests.
Even in a region so destabilized, flare-ups on the Israeli-Palestinian front strike a particularly radicalizing cord. If a two-state peace accord is permanently off the agenda, and a protracted and increasingly violent conflict develops in the occupied Palestinian territories, the ramifications for U.S. national security interests would be disturbing, particularly given our commitment to Israel’s security.
When U.S. presidents assert their opposition to settlements and reaffirm their support for two states, they are doing what their oath of office requires — serving U.S. national security interests. Our commitment to Israel is right and unshakable, but it cannot extend to committing ourselves to erroneous policies that undermine U.S. interests, well-being and security.
We believe that a rejection of peace and the promotion of settlements are also bad for Israel. If we lose the two-state option, then we may well lose the ability to base the U.S.-Israel relationship on shared values. The permanent disenfranchisement of millions of people on an ethnic-national basis — keeping the Palestinians “separate and unequal,” in Kerry’s words — does not conform with American values. This is not something to be taken lightly.
The Obama administration, in line with its predecessors, is right to be doing its duty to advance dignity for both peoples’ stability and security. It is also right to speak truth, even when it may be inconvenient, to our closest of allies.
We also understand that administrations and their preferences change, and we celebrate that part of our democracy. Experience tells us that campaigning and even transitioning are one thing, but that governing is quite another. The incoming Trump administration, like its predecessors, will face challenges and thorny dilemmas across the globe, not least in the Middle East. We would hope that when it comes to weighing the alternatives, our new leaders will come to see the wisdom in advancing the only viable option for peace: a sovereign and contiguous Palestine alongside a secure and democratic Israel, with an agreed border based on the 1967 lines.