With recent media reports that the Obama administration is considering options for addressing the present deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, it’s not surprising to see pro-Israel representatives in Congress debate whether the Administration should articulate a “non-binding vision of what a comprehensive final status agreement” between Israel and the Palestinians might look like.

A recent Congressional letter to the President co-authored by Representatives Nita Lowey and Kay GrangerNorvell (Kay) Kay GrangerHere are the House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump Growing number of lawmakers test positive for COVID-19 after Capitol siege Overnight Health Care: US sets record for daily COVID-19 deaths with over 3,800 | Hospitals say vaccinations should be moving faster | Brazilian health officials say Chinese COVID vaccine 78 percent effective MORE and signed by 394 Members reiterated that a resolution to the conflict cannot be imposed and that only the parties themselves can agree to end their conflict.  In the wake of that letter, Representatives John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthTrump seeks to freeze .4 billion of programs in final week of presidency Sanders to wield gavel as gatekeeper for key Biden proposals COVID-19 could complicate Pelosi's path to Speaker next year MORE and David Price introduced a resolution supportive of Israeli security requirements, opposed to Palestinian efforts to penalize Israel in the International Criminal Court, opposed to Israeli settlement activities and Palestinian violence, and supportive of American help in advancing peace prospects through the articulation of a non-binding vision of peace.

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This prompted a strong letter from Congresswoman Lowey, a good friend and longtime supporter of peace, expressing concern that such a U.S. action “risksseriously setting back negotiations” and “risks hardening both Palestinian and Israeli positions.”   Yet that criticism seems misplaced both because laying out such a vision has been done before – the Clinton parameters that were shared with the parties in December 2000 – and because such a vision would be absolutely consistent with support for direct, bilateral negotiations between the two sides themselves.

First, a historical note.  President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe challenge of Biden's first days: staying focused and on message Why the Senate should not rush an impeachment trial Revising the pardon power — let the Speaker and Congress have voices MORE offered his non-binding vision to the parties at the end of his term in office; he withdrew these co-called Clinton parameters when the two sides would not agree to use them as a basis for negotiations.  However, as soon as Clinton left office, Israel and the Palestinians resumed talks in Taba, Egypt, and essentially drew on the parameters as a starting point.  The reason was simple: the parameters captured in a fair and balanced manner the progress and direction of the negotiations until that point, and pointed the way forward.  To be sure, the translation of the parameters into a detailed agreement was always envisaged as resulting from direct, bilateral talks between the two sides themselves.

Those who favor updated parameters today – and I am a major proponent of this – harken back to this experience with the same process in mind.  Since 2000, the parties have engaged in serious talks twice, in 2008 after the Annapolis Conference convened by President George W. Bush, and in 2013-14, as part of the effort by Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryFor Joe Biden, an experienced foreign policy team Biden's trade policy needs effective commercial diplomacy Biden taps ex-Obama aide Anita Dunn as senior adviser MORE to bring about negotiations.  The parties have made substantial progress in their negotiations.  The point of an American paper – call it parameters, proposed terms of reference, a vision, or a political horizon – would be to capture some of that progress and point the two sides forward, toward negotiations that start from a reasonable and fair starting point.  Neither side would be required to “accept” a U.S. paper, and both would undoubtedly find fault with the way the United States had formulated this or that provision.  In effect, the parameters would point the parties forward; it would still be up to them to decide where to go, how far and what issues to raise.

After three decades of high-level American engagement in peace efforts, it should not be seen as unusual for the United States to offer such a non-binding vision.  Without it, the parties have had and will continue to have difficulties even getting back to negotiations.  Each side prefers to retreat to starting positions that have been shown time and again to be non-starters; each prefers to lay down preconditions that make it impossible for the other side even to contemplate negotiations. 

In this respect, an American view could offer a way for both parties to say the following: ‘We don’t agree with everything the United States has written.  We reserve the right to advance our own ideas.  But we do agree that the U.S. paper has organized the issues in a manner that makes it possible for us to resume negotiations without preconditions.  We hope the other side feels the same way.’

Far from being a roadblock or disincentive to negotiations, such a paper can and is likely to be a catalyst.  The United States will maintain its longstanding policy that sees direct negotiations as the only pathway to a final agreement; but it will also have done its part in getting the two sides back to such face to face talks.  For these reasons, I believe it is wise and prudent for the United States to put forth fair, balanced, reasonable parameters, and equally wise for our Congressional representatives to support this effort.


Kurtzer is the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel