On July 15, at the end of his first visit to Israel as US president, Joe Biden flew to Saudi Arabia. The White House was eager to stress that it was the first direct flight of its kind, emblematic of America’s involvement in the normalization of relations between the Jewish state and the Arab world.
Yet, while the US has undoubtedly played a vital role in advancing Middle East peace, at several crucial moments in the past, progress was achieved despite, and not because of, Washington’s intended policy.
American peace proposals are almost as old as the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the 1950s, Washington and London worked jointly on Operation Alpha, a plan that would have seen Israel give up parts of the Negev and accept Palestinian refugees, in return for recognition and the end of the Arab boycott. Alpha was a non-starter – the Arabs were not ready to recognize Israel’s right to exist and prime minister David Ben-Gurion was not prepared for a pullout from any part of the Negev.
Interestingly, the international community’s now sacrosanct pre-1967 lines were not so hallowed back then.
Failed American Middle East plans
Alpha was largely clandestine, but the 1969 Rogers Plan was very publicly launched by president Richard Nixon’s secretary of state William Rogers. His proposal called for Israel to withdraw from Egyptian territory captured in the 1967 Six Day War, in return for Cairo’s non-belligerency and Israeli freedom of navigation through the Gulf of Eilat and the Suez Canal.
This plan, too, went nowhere. Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser rejected it as biased toward Israel, while prime minister Golda Meir believed it contained a fundamental imbalance – Israel was expected to make a full withdrawal but would not receive full peace in return.
In June 1970, a second, more modest, Rogers Plan was adopted. It focused on an Israel-Egypt ceasefire along the Suez Canal that ended the War of Attrition.
WASHINGTON’S involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace process moved into high gear after the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. Secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” begat Israeli disengagement agreements with Egypt (January 1974) and Syria (May 1974). And Kissinger produced Sinai II (September 1975), an Israel-Egypt interim agreement in which the IDF pulled back from the Suez Canal and Egypt agreed to the demilitarization of the evacuated territory.
Despite these tangible diplomatic successes, president Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976, saw Kissinger’s incremental approach as overly piecemeal. Believing the time was ripe for a comprehensive Middle East peace, Carter proposed an international conference sponsored by the UN and both superpowers, with Israel, Arab states, and the Palestinians participating.
Carter’s proposal riled Israel and dismayed Egypt, but it did inadvertently advance peace. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had no interest in a process that would give the Soviet Union and the radical Arabs a veto over Cairo’s freedom of maneuver. Sadat’s historic decision to become the first Arab head of state to visit Israel was the Egyptian president’s response to American ideas, which he thought could only lead to stagnation.
Carter was initially critical of Egypt’s uncoordinated, surprise diplomatic initiative, and while millions worldwide looked on in hopeful anticipation in November 1977 as Sadat landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, the American president worried that the visit was a mistake that would undermine his plans for a comprehensive solution.
However, upon being presented with the Egyptian fait accompli, and correctly understanding that active American involvement would be the key to success, Carter rolled up his sleeves and went to work. His indefatigability proved indispensable in reaching the 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty.
Although the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO were signed at the White House, with a beaming president Bill Clinton presiding over the ceremony, the Americans were only brought into the process once the deal had been agreed. In contrast, Clinton gave vital backing to the negotiations between prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein that produced the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, especially in granting Amman generous debt relief.
Later, when the Israeli-Palestinian talks faltered, the Clinton administration picked up the ball and played a crucial role, facilitating the Hebron (1997) and Wye River (1998) agreements, as well as hosting the ultimately unsuccessful 2000 Camp David peace summit.
The Clinton administration also had a central position in the negotiations for Israel-Syria peace, shuttling between the parties and hosting negotiations at both Wye River (1996) and Shepherdstown (2000).
For all his efforts, Clinton left the White House without a Syria-Israel agreement and with the deadly explosion of Israeli-Palestinian violence of the Second Intifada, which erupted in September 2000.
President George W. Bush initially decided not to adopt Clinton’s hands-on approach to Middle East peacemaking. Yet he was nonetheless drawn into the process, producing the 2003 “Roadmap for Peace,” supporting prime minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement in 2005, and hosting the 2007 Annapolis peace conference.
PRESIDENT Barack Obama entered office in 2009 with aspirations to aggressively move forward on the Israeli-Palestinian track. But despite the efforts of his two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, no breakthrough was achieved. On the contrary, Obama left the White House after eight years with the negotiations collapsed and any expectation for an early resumption seemingly illusory.
Notwithstanding this failure, Obama inadvertently made an immeasurable contribution to peace. His responses to the Arab Spring, to the Syrian civil war, and to nuclear diplomacy with Iran, all negatively impacted the confidence of America’s traditional Arab allies in the US commitment to them.
Moreover, the repeated declarations of a “pivot to Asia” implied the de-prioritization of the Middle East – this when pro-Western Arab states had for decades based their national security on American protection. Feeling less certain of Washington’s support in a crisis, Arab states sought new security partners – the Jewish state becoming the unintended beneficiary.
After his predecessor unwittingly laid the foundations, president Donald Trump embraced the opportunity. His active engagement produced the 2020 Abraham Accords with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, and the normalization of ties with Morocco. This while Trump’s much-hyped plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace remained stillborn, having been adamantly rejected by Ramallah.
Last month, when Biden left the region for home, it remained unclear as to whether the current US president will be making any meaningful contribution to Middle East peace – either by design or by folly.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.