During an off-the-record meeting in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 10, one of President-elect Barack Obama's senior foreign-policy advisers stated that pushing a two-state solution on Israel and the Palestinians had to take place with great urgency.
This was because it was seen as the best way to turn around the Middle East (which he defined as including Afghanistan and Pakistan). Three elements of the plan the United States is to push are well-known (no refugee return, a divided Jerusalem and redrawn 1967 borders), but the fourth is less often explored — namely, that the Palestinian state be disarmed, and U.S. or NATO troops be stationed along the Jordan River.
I would suggest that this fourth condition is a dangerous trap, despite the fact that such troops played a very salutary role in the demilitarized zones in Korea and — during the Cold War — in Germany.
Before I proceed, I should note that I am free to quote what was said at the meeting, but not to mention who said what or the name of the organization that hosted the meeting. I should also note that the same ideas can be found in a new book, America and the World, wholly composed of interviews with Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, conducted by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. In the book, both interviewees agreed that "They [Israel and the Palestinians] need a heavier hand by the United States than we have traditionally practiced.
Brzezinski suggests "an American line along the Jordan River," and Scowcroft favors putting a "NATO peacekeeping force" on the West Bank.
How can I count the ways the fourth condition is a dangerous trap?
First of all, while the first three conditions are almost impossible to reverse once they're in place, the fourth one can be changed by a simple act of Congress or an order by a future American president. Abba Eban once described a U.N. force stationed on the Israeli-Egyptian border, which was removed just before Nasser attacked Israel, as having the same effect as a folded umbrella during a downpour.
Second, the American troops in Iraq and the NATO ones in Afghanistan are unable to stop terrorist bombs and rocket attacks in those areas. There is no reason to believe that they'd do any better in the West Bank.
Third, there are very few precedents for demilitarized states — by force.
All the Arms It Wants
A two-state solution means, to practically everyone involved, except a few foreign-policy mavens, two sovereign states. And a sovereign state is free to import all the arms and troops it wants.
One second after the Palestinian state is declared, many in the Arab world, Iran and surely in Europe, not to mention Russia and China, will hold that "obviously" the new state must not be prevented from arming itself, whatever is written on some parchment or in some treaty. If this is not allowed, whatever therapeutic effect the creation of a Palestinian state may engender will be about the same as the ending of the Israeli occupation of Gaza had — either too small to measure or a purely negative one.
A strong case for a two-state solution has been made, but it better be based on the Palestinians developing their own effective forces, as well as an Israeli presence on the Jordan River. Neither party can rely on the United States, beleaguered as it is.
Nor should either one look to conflict- and casualty-averse NATO to demonstrate the staying power of peacekeeping, which it did not muster in Kosovo, Bosnia or Haiti, and which it has never provided in Sudan and the Congo.
There is a new dawn in America, but when the sun rises in D.C., it is often close to sunset in the Middle East.
Amitai Etzioni is professor of international relations at George Washington University.