Israel-Palestine and the Limits of Strategic Ambiguity

The United States has blocked a United Nations Security Council statement on the continuing violence. According to The Times of Israel, “the draft statement urged Israel to prevent the looming evictions of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and called for ‘restraint’ and respect for ‘the historic status quo at the holy sites,’ diplomats involved in the meeting confirmed. The original statement also urged both sides to act in order to de-escalate the situation, they said.” The United States was the only member of the Security Council to block the statement. Any hope of a radical change from the Trumpian all-in backing of Israel is disappearing.

The recent violence between Palestinians and Israelis defies a precise definition. Is it a flare-up? Upheaval? Riot? Precursor to a civil war? Beginning of another intifada? Momentary clash? Harbinger of other outbreaks in the Middle East? Tragically part of inevitable clashes since the creation of the Jewish state?

Historically, the 1948 establishment of Israel posed inherent geopolitical conundrums. The international community dictated that a given territory would become a Jewish homeland. The fact that there were non-Jews living in the space that was finally chosen was not a priority. Guilt for the lack of action to save Jews during the Holocaust precipitated finding a refuge for those who had survived. Historical justifications also justified why the territory chosen was more appropriate for the establishment of a Jewish state than Uganda or someplace else.

The underlying geographic and temporal question behind the current violence is the unresolved situation of those who were living on the land before 1948. Israelis will claim the land always belonged to them, often using Biblical language to refer to modern cities. Arabs will also claim the land as theirs since time immemorial. So the claims and counterclaims have ancient historical and religious roots.

The geographic/temporal undecideds make any definition of the current situation unclear. While condemning the violence should be a non-starter, fundamental questions remain. Are the Palestinians human rights victims of an occupying force? Are they a repressed minority in a situation similar to Blacks during apartheid in South Africa? Are they a legitimate nationality being denied their rightful demand for statehood? Are the Palestinians freedom fighters or terrorists? On the other hand, what does living in peace and security mean for Israelis?

Following from the conceptual difficulties, the question then comes to what to do to stop the violence. In the short term, everyone agrees the violence must stop. A cease fire is a beginning. But the situation will remain explosive until there is a satisfactory solution for all sides in the medium and long terms. There has been a false sense of stability in the status quo ante.

Numerous attempts at finding a solution have failed. The recent Trump/Kushner Abraham Accords can now be added to the failures of previous Accords at Camp David and Oslo as well as the Geneva Initiative.

Most of the world’s attitude to this dilemma is strategic ambiguity, an expression used by the U.S. in its policy towards Taiwan. But how long can strategic ambiguity remain? At a certain point, the underlying causes of the tension must be dealt with. The situation of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and creeping Jewish settlements has been tolerated like Taiwan’s position in relation to China. There seems no easy clarification of either situation. This ambiguity has led to periodic violence between Palestinians and Israelis. The United States and China may go to war in the South China Sea in the future, but for the moment a certain status quo stability is accepted.

Strategic ambiguity has a particularity that makes the Palestine-Israel situation most pressing. The outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians has global religious and cultural implications. Jerusalem is the site of holy representations for three major religions, meaning that ending the violence cannot be a simple win-lose situation. Too much is at stake. Humanely, the situation cannot remain strategically ambiguous while generations of hundreds of thousands Palestinians languish in refugee camps and intolerable living conditions continue in Gaza and the West Bank.

While the short term violence can and should be stopped, the long term solution of dignity and respect for the Palestinian people is not ambiguous. Israel’s valid claim to live in peace and security should not come at the denigration of Palestinians. The status quo ante is not tenable.

Strategic ambiguity has its temporal limits. The outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians highlight those limits. The continuing advancement of Israeli settlements including East Jerusalem shows that this is not a frozen conflict wherein strategic ambiguity is possible. While the world’s attention is focused on the current violence, simmering tensions have existed since 1948. And they have exploded on several occasions.

Much of the world and President Biden want to keep the situation in the background and continue a policy of strategic ambiguity. If President Biden wants to show that the United States is truly back in the multilateral system and that Trump’s policies are being overturned both domestically and in foreign affairs, let him show real leadership here. Blocking a UN statement is not a promising start.



Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.