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Middle East Peace

Sometimes, It Takes Persistent Work to Prepare for a Fleeting Moment

By James A. Thomson

James A. Thomson is president and chief executive officer of the RAND Corporation.

James Thomson
PHOTO BY DIANE BALDWIN 

U.S. President Barack Obama’s commitment to achieving a comprehensive peace in the Middle East has potentially opened a policy window for strategic planning on this critical issue, even if the day-to-day impediments to the process are daunting. Over the past decade, RAND’s work in the region has attracted attention as suggesting a viable way forward. We hope to make the most of this opportunity.

The work began in 2003 when two private citizens, believing that RAND’s objectivity might shed light on the prospects and challenges of a future Palestinian state, gave us generous gifts to conduct work that could not be funded by RAND’s usual sources.

Working closely with Palestinian leaders, we focused on a question no one else had considered: Assuming that a new state was established, what would it need to succeed? We looked at the areas of health, education, governance, internal security, demography, economics, water, and infrastructure, identifying what was needed and estimating the resources required. We also developed an infrastructure concept, known as the Arc, which presented a stunning visual image of what a successful Palestinian state might look like. Publication of the study in April 2005 attracted substantial media coverage in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. The research team presented the work in important government, academic, and business venues.

But the election of Hamas in January 2006 dramatically changed the context. For the rest of that year, our work went into a holding pattern as the international community tried to figure out how to respond to the new Palestinian government. As Fatah assumed governance in the West Bank while Hamas remained entrenched in Gaza, the RAND team nonetheless continued to disseminate its ideas.

We renewed contacts with decisionmakers and experts and began new research to adapt to the reality of divided Palestinian governance. Recently, we designed a series of demonstration projects — including the first regional transit system for the West Bank — that could begin to be implemented immediately under current security arrangements while laying the foundation for more extensive projects. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is particularly interested in working with us to develop a transportation master plan, which he sees as the fulcrum for the development of other key infrastructure systems such as water and energy. In each area, the key to success will be working hand-in-hand with Palestinian decisionmakers.

Public attention to the work has gained momentum. In October, I joined a RAND team in discussing our work with representatives of the U.S. National Security Council, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. In November, the Arc was named Future Project of the Year at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona. Reporters and bloggers are talking about the Arc and related demonstration projects, seeing them as possible ways to improve the daily lives of Palestinians, whatever the state of formal peace negotiations. We have recently published our original Arc volume as RAND’s first enhanced e-book with embedded videos, taking advantage of the Arc’s inherent visual appeal, and will soon reprint the hard copy book to meet renewed demand for it.

In many ways, this Palestine initiative is classic RAND work. It addresses a vital policy issue from multiple interrelated dimensions. It strives to ask and answer the questions that should be addressed, not necessarily the obvious ones. It is work that has been, for several years, ahead of the curve. And it has staying power. Routine transportation and infrastructure work might have been done by others. But RAND is uniquely equipped to balance planning, innovative design, infrastructure, economic, security, and political considerations.

That’s why we believe Palestinian decisionmakers view us as a trusted, objective adviser who can help them find solutions to their difficult problems. The trust that we have gained over the years has positioned us to make an important contribution whenever a sometimes-fleeting policy window opens. square

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