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BY BRIAN PARKER
In November 2003, a 10-year-old Palestinian boy hunting birds with his friends near Gaza city was shot by Israeli troops who thought he was carrying a bomb (The Guardian). In November 2004, a crowded market in Tel Aviv exploded into chaos when a 16-year-old Palestinian blew himself up, leaving three Israelis dead (Erlanger). In December 2008 and January 2009, twenty-two days of fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas combatants left 960 Palestinian civilians dead (United Nations). The countless tragedies are a grim sign that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be the greatest challenge to the American Foreign Service in the 21st century.
Foreign Service members at home and in the Middle East confront obstacles every day in their mission to promote peace in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. As special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell recently stated, “The situation in the Middle East is volatile, complex and dangerous” (State Department). The rise of Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2007 virtually ended diplomatic relations between the United States and the Palestinians of Gaza because of Hamas’s status as a terrorist organization. In the West Bank, American diplomats face the important task of conveying to Arab leaders that even though the United States has a long-standing alliance with Israel, it is also dedicated to the welfare of Palestinians. In Israel, Foreign Service members have to deal with Israeli agendas that sometimes clash with America’s foreign policy objectives. For example, during his campaign, recently elected Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that he would increase development in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. President Obama’s goal of “a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security” (State Department) cannot be realized if Israeli settlements continue to encroach on Palestinian territory. These are but a few of the difficulties that the Foreign Service faces in the Middle East.
In spite of these enormous challenges, the men and women of the Foreign Service have resolutely persisted in diplomacy. The invaluable work of Foreign Service members in Israel and the Palestinian territories plays a fundamental role in promoting peace and advancing the United States’ interests. First, the work of diplomats exemplifies the American value of human rights. This is made evident by State Department spokesman and Foreign Service Officer Robert Wood’s recent call for Israel to stop its unjust practice of demolishing homes to deter terrorists (Olster). Next, the Foreign Service advances American interests by promoting economic development. It accomplishes this through the United States Agency for International Development, which has provided Palestinians with more than 2.2 billion dollars in aid since 1993 (usaid.gov). USAID also provides loans and technical assistance to help Palestinian businesses grow and increase exports. In this way, the Foreign Service Officers in USAID are helping to create a future partner in free trade for the United States. Finally, the diplomatic relations forged by the Foreign Service are invaluable tools against terrorism. By insisting upon America’s desire for peace and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, Foreign Service Officers foster goodwill towards the United States, which translates into a safer world for American citizens.
In 2002, the State Department wrote up the Road Map to Peace plan (Otterman). Its first phase called for an end to Palestinian violence and a freeze on the expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. It is true that this first phase has not been accomplished. Even so, the plan was not created in vain. On April 1st 2009, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman declared that Israel would honor the Road Map plan (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs). The Foreign Service member’s work in 2002 may be the groundwork for future progress.
It is imperative that American diplomats keep striving towards the peace outlined in the Road Map and other agreements. In some cases, this means communicating American approval of positive acts. In other cases, this means exerting pressure to end activities that delay peace. For example, the State Department must persist in opposing the expansion of Israeli settlements and the destruction of Palestinian homes in Eastern Jerusalem. It also must reiterate that Hamas will not gain official recognition if it continues to fire rockets into Israeli towns. Furthermore, recent polls show that a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians favor a two-state solution to the conflict (Yaar and Hermann). The State Department must convince Israeli and Palestinian officials to reflect their peoples’ will in their policy. On April 13th 2009, special envoy George Mitchell arrived in Morocco and commenced his tour of the Middle East to enlist the support of Arab nations in negotiating a two-state solution (State Department). This shows the State Department’s readiness to lead international efforts to form a sovereign Palestinian state.
The Foreign Service’s tireless efforts, both past and present, illustrate a key truth about the Israeli-Palestinian struggle: the peace process demands time, patience, and persistence. The conflict started more than sixty years ago. After the fighting ends, it might be decades before mutual mistrust between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs completely subsides. This is why the Foreign Service’s work is so important. A durable solution requires what Mitchell calls “committed, persevering, and patient diplomacy” (State Department). Success in the Middle East cannot be measured solely by the major breakthroughs that make the front page at home, but also by the unrecognized every day efforts undertaken by United States Foreign Service members to maintain dialogue and understanding between Israeli and Palestinian officials.
At a press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary of State Clinton declared: “There is never reason to give up hope… Persevering, rethinking, regrouping, [and] being committed will eventually result in the goal that we are seeking together” (State Department). This is the message the United States Foreign Service sends to Israelis, Palestinians, and the rest of the world. The 21st century may know many challenging conflicts, but through solidarity and commitment to international partnerships, peace is always possible.