“The United States has provided both a sense of direction and a mechanism. That, at its best, is what the peace process has been about. At worst, it has been little more than a slogan used to mask the marking of time.” William B. Quandt
The United States has, for decades, been actively involved in an elusive because illusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The tenacity of our leaders deserves recognition, but what lies behind their serial failures? Between Israel and the Arabs there have been some notable successes, and the following is a partial chronology adapted from Wikipedia:
Camp David Accords (1978): signed by Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on September 17, 1978, the Accords produced two agreements. One succeeded in laying the groundwork for Anwar Sadat’s historic appearance before the Israeli Knesset followed by a treaty of peace between the two states. The second accord between the governments was intended to lead to the same result between Israel and the Palestinians. After 33 years that has yet to occur.
“We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today, in a loud and a clear voice, enough of blood and tears ... enough!” Yitzhak Rabin (Reuters)
The Oslo Accords (1993) produced the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (DOP), which provided for Arafat returning to the West Bank, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and self-rule, and made Rabin, Arafat and Peres Nobel laureates. Some sources suggest that with Rabin’s assassination peace, almost achieved, was also victim. But this optimism towards peace neglects both what preceded and followed the assassination, issues that will be discussed below.
A light moment at Camp David: Barak playfully pushes Arafat into the Laurel cabin, 11 July, 2000 (Reuters)
Camp David (2000) was, judged by the purpose of the summit, a failure. Yet it laid out a ground plan for eventual success between willing parties.
According to news reports prior to the summit Yasser Arafat agreed to attend only reluctantly. Although the agreements mediated by President Clinton were described as the most both sides could realistically expect, Arafat walked away saying, according to a Saudi journalist, that to sign would result in his assassination.
It is notable, and a lesson to would be “intermediaries,” that in the end the only two successful treaties, those between Egypt (1979) and Israel and Jordan and Israel (1994) resulted from direct and secret negotiations between the principles. In both cases, according to reports, discussions were kept secret even from the Americans. The Sadat visit, for example, resulted from Egyptian and Israeli emissaries meeting secretly in Morocco to avoid President Carter’s insistence on a Geneva Conference targeting a comprehensive regional peace which Sadat and Begin both knew would end in failure (Eisenberg and Caplan, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace, p. 42).
Basic Positions: Arab, Israel, Palestinian: In its simplest terms peace is unlikely because it means different things to the parties involved. For Israel, surrounded by hostile and threatening neighbors peace means firstly, “security.” In terms of geography that means the indefinite stationing of troops along the Rift Valley border with Jordan, and control of the airspace above any future Palestinian state. Both conditions have been repeatedly rejected out of hand by the Palestinians. For the Palestinians the single issue they seem unwilling to compromise on is the right of return of all Palestinians to their abandoned homes within Israel. At Camp David 2000, for example, Yasser Arafat reportedly told President Clinton that, “he would never relinquish the Palestinian right of return.” And Mahmoud Abbas recently confirmed that, “the Palestinians will never renounce the right of return to their former homes in Israel.” Since such a condition would mean not just a potential fifth column, but a demographic time bomb eventually resulting in a “one-state solution,” the demand is a non-starter for Israel.
But the more fundamental issue is that Israel is viewed by most Arab states as an alien interloper, an extension of European imperialism, a 20th century crusader outpost. Hamas and its patron Iran make no bones about this; but so do the Saudis and, occasionally, the Egyptian press also. And while Abbas’ Palestinian Authority maintains its posture as a “partner in peace,” maps in Palestinian school textbooks represent the territory between the river and the sea as “Palestine,” while representing Israelis in anti-Jewish terms. Not a training ground for mutual respect, acceptance of a future sovereign neighbor.
America’s Position: American efforts to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis together have been significant in number. Significant also is the regularity of their failure. All began with the optimistic and erroneous assumption that there is a rational core to the conflict which, if addressed with good will and determined mediation will result in peace and mutual trust. I suggest that the explanation for the failure of presidents since Eisenhower, despite their best efforts, is the direct result of overestimating the words of the adversaries without appreciating the evidence of their behavior. Abbas recently complained that the Arabs made a tragic mistake by rejecting the 1947 UN Partition Plan, yet he perpetuates the tragedy by almost identical demands, “Palestinian rights.” In 1947 the reference meant all the land for the Palestinians. In 2011the demand is the “right of return” of all “refugees” to their abandoned homes in Israel. Arafat had maintained this position since Oslo. Abbas repeated it recently. In practice the right of return would eventually result in a Palestinian one-state solution.
In terms of Arab thinking this is a reasonable and fair basis for “peace;” for Israel it represents national suicide. And so long as American foreign policy thinking persists in denying this fact it will continue to throw prestige, time and money at the wrong problem.
Obama and Netanyahu at White House, 20 May, 2011 (Reuters)
Obama and the “settlements precondition”: At their first meeting in the White House in May, 2009 Obama proposed that Netanyahu cease building in settlements as a way to encourage Abbas back to the negotiations he abandoned the year before in response to Israel’s brief war in Gaza (encouraged and assisted with intelligence by Abbas!). The Israeli government acceded to the presidential request in November, 2009 with a 10-month moratorium. In announcing the moratorium Netanyahu added wistfully, "We have been told by many of our friends that once Israel takes the first meaningful steps toward peace, the Palestinians and Arab states would respond." Nine months and one week later, under intense pressure from Washington Abbas agreed to face-to-face talks on condition that Israel continue the moratorium indefinitely. The talks ended on that demand. But the principle of the American precondition remained in place until December, 2010.
Abbas reminds that it was not he, but Obama who created the precondition: "At first, President Obama stated in Cairo that Israel must stop all construction activities in the settlements. Could we demand less than that?" In fact Abbas had previously negotiated with seven Israeli prime minister without such a precondition.
“U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the Palestinians are creating a new precondition for talks to begin. Settlements, she says, have "always been an issue within the negotiations.… There''s never been a precondition." In other words the secretary is saying that the administration accepts no responsibility in the matter. But according, to Elliott Abrams, a Middle East adviser to Bush, “One has to remember the Arabs had not ever insisted on such a precondition. This was something that was added by the administration and it proved to be disastrous.” How a disaster? Clearly the “precondition” failed to result in Abbas return to negotiations. But according to Palestinian officials, Abbas has lost faith in Mr. Obama… and after four face-to-face meetings and many regular telephone calls there is now little contact between them.” It also created tension between the administration and Israel. Tension with Israel, Abbas, almost entirely dependent on American good will and largesse ignoring Obama: certainly the lesson was learned?
“On May 19, in a speech at the State Department on his Middle East policy, Obama called for peace negotiations on the basis of the 1967 borders with mutually agreed upon land swaps.” Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinians lost no time adopting this new Obama condition as another precondition for negotiations: "If Netanyahu agrees, we shall turn over a new leaf. If he doesn''t, then there is no point talking about a peace process. We''re saying it loud and clear."
In the meantime the newly independent Palestinian leader, proclaiming Obama’s “deadline” of September, 2011 for a Palestinian state, is taking his case directly to the United Nations. And Obama, having lost credibility and authority to persuade or coerce, can do little but try to persuade the Europeans not to vote in favor of Palestinian statehood.
A rational Middle East policy based on American interests would begin with the only reliable ally of the superpower in a region adrift, much the result of American missteps in Iraq (Bush), Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and throughout the region (Obama). Yet Israel has, over the past two years, been subjected to accusation and abuse by the White House resulting in an Israeli public highly mistrustful of Obama. And should the Palestinians achieve their UN recognition with little to show for the victory on the street; or should the Palestinian bid fail due to US-Israeli opposition, the conditions for yet another intifada may be ripe.Last week, on 1 November, the media announced that Palestine was accepted as a member state in UNESCO, “scoring a symbolic victory in their battle for full membership of the United Nations.”