What role should the Israeli-Palestinian conflict play in American politics? : NPR

NPR’s Ailsa Chang talks with Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program at the US Institute of Peace, about the history and future of US policy on the conflict.


President Joe Biden had hoped to hijack US foreign policy from the Middle East. But continued airstrikes, rioting in the streets and a rising death toll – which has been several times higher in Gaza than in Israel – have pushed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back onto the agenda of the Biden administration. In a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, Biden said he hoped for a quick end to hostilities. He reassured Israel of its unwavering support. But what should American support look like? Well, to help us answer that question, we called Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, who directs the program on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the US Institute of Peace. Welcome.

LUCY KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Thank you for inviting me.

CHANG: Let’s start with a little background before looking forward. Tell us; Why has this conflict always been such a challenge for American administrations?

KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Well, Ailsa, as you noted, it’s a – it’s a movie that keeps repeating itself. And successive administrations have found themselves confronted with these same dynamics to varying degrees. Part of the challenges between these explosions that we see – there’s a whole host of spoiler dynamics, pilots, behaviors on both sides that tend to go unresolved. And so until those underlying dynamics are addressed, I think we’re unfortunately going to continue to see that cycle.

CHANG: Well, the United States has historically been the only country to be an effective international peace broker in this conflict. But what role do you think this conflict should play in American politics?

KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Well, what you’re definitely seeing with the current administration is a very clear decision that I think they’ve made – not just stumbled – to prioritize this conflict, not to be as engaged as you’ve seen other administrations before it is. We must recall that President Biden served two terms as Vice President of President Obama, who in both terms engaged strongly from the outset in his first administration and then pushed the status negotiations final and got really burned both times. So we have to remember that President Biden comes with that memory. He is surrounded by an extremely experienced foreign policy team, but also many of whom were there at the time.

And while this administration faces a whole host of pressing domestic concerns, I think what you’re seeing is an administration that’s said, this conflict isn’t yielding a lot of political payoff and, you know, even foreign policy payoff when we try to spend significant resources. I think what we’re going to have to watch, does that reverse that approach? I mean, right now, obviously, the US administration, like other players, is engaged in trying to bring about a de-escalation and an immediate end to the firefight. But the question is how actively he engages when it doesn’t have to be accomplished.

Chang: Yeah. Well, anything specific that you can point to that the Biden administration needs to do to be an effective broker here?

KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Certainly. I think the goal that has been set to reset the relationship, to re-establish a relationship with the Palestinians will be important. You cannot be an effective broker if you speak and engage only one party. So that’s number 1. One of the challenges the administration is going to face is the increasing pressure, which it will also see domestically – and you see it already gearing up – on where to focus and its focus on this conflict.

There is much stronger pressure for this administration to focus heavily on human rights issues and for many what it sees as human rights abuses by Israel towards the Palestinians . And this administration itself said early on that it planned to put more emphasis on human rights around the world. And so I think you’re going to see this administration face a lot of pressure as it turns – or when it turns its attention to this conflict and how it calibrates and walks a tightrope as it navigates by being an efficient and credible broker for both parties.

CHANG: Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen directs the program on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the US Institute of Peace. Thank you very much for joining us today.


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