Editor’s note: Ambassador Miriam Sapiro is a nonresident senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She has served at the National Security Council, at the State Department as a negotiator for the Bosnia Peace Accords, and as Deputy US Trade Representative. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN
The barbaric attack on Israel by Hamas and the violent aftermath are tragic consequences of the failure to find a durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As the humanitarian crisis deepens and the risk of broader escalation grows, it is imperative to identify a way to move beyond the bloodshed towards an overall settlement, as hard as that may be to imagine.
What would that path look like, and what issues need to be addressed? As we saw with President Biden’s visit to Israel last week, US leadership will be vital, even if the chances for success may seem slim.
There’s a template for the way toward Mideast peace: The US played a key role in brokering the peace agreement that ended the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, amid battles over control of territory and evidence of atrocities. I was part of the US team that helped lead those talks. At the time, we did not know if we would succeed, but we knew we had to try.
The situation in the Balkans in 1995 was bleak. Years of ethnic conflict and sectarian violence among Croatians, Serbs and Bosnians roiled the region following the breakup of Yugoslavia, leaving nearly 100,000 people dead and displacing thousands more.
Repeated European efforts to forge a peace settlement had failed. UN peacekeepers had been deployed but were reluctant to use force to protect civilians, even after evidence surfaced that Bosnian Serbs had engaged in ethnic cleansing and genocide against Bosnian Muslims.
The US decided it had to intervene after no other option had worked. Using a combination of aggressive diplomacy and the threat of additional NATO airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs, Washington coordinated agreement on guiding principles for peace negotiations that took place in Dayton, Ohio.
The US made sure that each party invited to the talks — Serbia, Croatia and the Bosnian Muslims — understood in no uncertain terms that there would be substantial costs for not cooperating. A similarly firm hand — and robust US leadership — will also be necessary for any peace deal to be forged in the Middle East.
Every peace negotiation presents uniquely challenging circumstances. But there are aspects of the US experience in Bosnia — beyond extreme highs and lows — that can provide guidance to navigating the current crisis. At Dayton, we refused to deal directly with the top Bosnian Serbs given their direct role in atrocities, and their interests were represented by Belgrade. Similarly, Hamas’ current leadership would certainly not be welcome at the table should Mideast peace talks resume.
In Bosnia, we developed strong incentives for each party to reach a deal, as well as disincentives for failure. The same will be necessary for any future negotiations in the Middle East. For the Palestinians, for example, encouragement could include real reconstruction of Gaza, laying infrastructure in both Gaza and the West Bank, and greater access within the West Bank as well as road links to Gaza.
We also worked hard to involve European, Arab and other countries that had a stake in stabilizing the Balkans and that would need to provide tangible support for reconstruction, training and integration. For any talks on Mideast peace, it will be just as crucial to identify important roles for Israel’s neighbors and the broader international community. This should include testing the willingness of Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel. Indeed, one major motive for Hamas’ attack appears to have been its aim to derail normalization.
The United States will clearly need to galvanize a regional coalition in the Middle East, much as it did with the Bosnia Contact Group that kept the EU and major European powers in sync with the pace of American-led efforts to end that war.
In addition to the United States and Israel, such a Mideast contact group could include at its core Egypt and Jordan, as well as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Qatar, which is helping to mediate the return of additional hostages and has helped in other ways, could be offered a role provided it acts constructively.
It remains to be seen if the Hamas attack will serve as a warning to the United States as it struggles to address internal tensions and remain a reliable international partner. As preoccupied as America is with growing domestic polarization, it is the country that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others have called the “indispensable nation” — and for good reason, as Bosnia demonstrated.
Concrete prospects for renewing peace efforts in the Middle East will depend on several interrelated issues, including the extent to which Israel can dismantle Hamas’ infrastructure while maintaining support for its actions from its regional partners and the US.
Whether Israel will be able to achieve its objective of destroying Hamas, and in what timeframe, is not yet clear. The longer the war in Gaza lasts, the greater the risk that Israel will lose some of the regional and international support that is essential to isolating Hamas, financially, militarily and politically.
Of course, given the threat that Iran and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood pose to Egyptian and Gulf interests, these countries have as much to fear from a powerful Hamas as Israel. That should compel them to help increase isolation of Hamas as well as play an active and useful role in future peace talks.
To maintain international support, but also as a matter of moral imperative, Israel must demonstrate that it is doing all that it can to uphold international humanitarian law, even as it wrestles with an enemy that places military assets near civilian hospitals, schools and mosques and that then discourages civilians from fleeing to safer ground. The urgency of getting aid into Gaza and taking all steps possible to minimize civilian casualties is clear.
Successful negotiations will also depend upon what kind of leadership emerges in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition was never going to embrace the two-state solution envisioned in the Oslo Accords. It was preoccupied with building thousands of new settlements in the West Bank at the expense of Palestinian moderates and economic cooperation among Ramallah, Israel and the broader region.
A greater role in setting policy is critical for Israeli voices that believe there is no viable alternative to a comprehensive peace settlement. And the question of who will represent the Palestinians is equally important. It is time to take a hard look at concrete ways to bolster Palestinians who still seek peace and encourage the emergence of new leaders.
The Palestinian Authority suffers from a myriad of problems but these do not diminish the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people— like Israelis, like Americans — to live in peace, with security and dignity. Israel, the United States, the European Union and — importantly — the Gulf states must do more in a coordinated way to address corruption, create economic opportunity and build the local Palestinian institutions needed for successful governance, not only in the West Bank but ultimately in Gaza. Otherwise there will be a political vacuum that the next iteration of Hamas, with Iran’s backing, will exploit.
A strong US commitment to negotiations, coupled with tangible support from regional players to fight Hamas and to build an effective Palestinian Authority, as well as the emergence of Israeli and Palestinian leaders who do support a two-state solution, provide hope that this terrible phase could sow the seeds for a better future.
With the key players thinking strategically and acting tactically — as eventually happened in Bosnia — peace in the Middle East may have a chance.
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