Interesting Times: How to pressure for peace

If Rice wants the peace process to go somewhere, she should do the opposite of what she is doing now.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
What would you do if you were the American Secretary of State and you didn't want Israelis and Palestinians to reach an agreement? You might start by focusing most of your public activity on the Arab-Israeli peace process, while letting the Iran sanctions campaign sputter in the background. Then you would dish out criticism equally, as if Israeli settlements and Palestinian radicalization were comparable obstacles to peace. It is absurd, of course, to suggest that Condoleezza Rice wants the Annapolis process to stall on take-off. But the current US approach is absurd, given that it is almost the exact opposite of the approach that America should take to achieve its own objectives. In a December 20 interview, Rice was asked whether brokering Israeli-Arab peace had become the "number one" US foreign policy objective. Rice denied this, saying, "As Secretary of State of the United States, I'm [also] working very hard on Iraq, on Afghanistan, of course, Lebanon, Northeast Asia and North Korea." Iran did not even make it on to the second tier of her priority list. Even if this was a slip of the tongue, it is not only telling, but rings true. Why is Rice not regularly going to London, Paris, Berlin, and even Moscow and Beijing to press for tougher sanctions on Iran? Why is stopping Iran not the centerpiece of her diplomatic agenda? ONE EXPLANATION is that Rice is emphasizing Annapolis publicly while behind the scenes she is feverishly working on America's real top priority, Iran. But "optics" have a way of becoming reality. And if Rice deliberately wanted to downplay the Iran campaign, she has obviously gone too far. Even before the National Intelligence Estimate tried to claim that Iran might not be racing toward a Bomb, the sanctions campaign seemed stalled, or on too slow a track to make a difference. Now it seems it could be on no track at all. The effect of the perceived collapse of America's Iran policy on the Arab-Israeli peace process is devastating. All the players in the region will assume, with good reason, that Iran's influence will increase along with its support for Hamas, Hizbullah and al-Qaida. The whole radical jihadi axis will enjoy a tailwind. Why would Arab leaders risk backing Mahmoud Abbas under such circumstances, and how could Abbas, already extremely weak, take on Hamas and its agenda? Already, Fatah is trying to compete with Hamas's militancy, as illustrated by its issuing an official anniversary poster picturing "Palestine" as all of Israel, with a machine gun thrown in for good measure ( The Arab world, including the Palestinians, will only take serious steps toward accepting Israel's existence if it is clear that the US is becoming stronger and Iran weaker. But even if this basic prerequisite were in place, the US is sabotaging its own diplomacy in a less obvious way. The idea that a peace process consists of "pressing both sides" has become axiomatic. Yet as strong as this instinct is, it fails to recognize a basic asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians. Symmetry is enticing to the Western mind, but its pursuit is often not a good guide to policy. Before World War II, many saw something in the Nazi claim that it was "unfair" to prevent Germany's rearmament while allowing France to rearm. Winston Churchill responded: "if France rearms there will be peace. If Germany rearms there will be war." He was right. Similarly, the tendency now is to take the Road Map in hand and press both sides to fulfill their commitments. Further, it is assumed that you go for compliance wherever you can get it. So if Israel is "strong" and the Palestinians are "weak," you press Israel harder to deliver in order to "strengthen" Mahmoud Abbas. All this ignores a critical fact: there is a huge asymmetry between the effects of each side's actions. Palestinian compliance leads to more Israeli compliance, while Israeli compliance leads to less Palestinian compliance. The latter negative dynamic has been most recently demonstrated by Rice's decision to come out against Israel's building a new section of Jerusalem's Har Homa neighborhood. Her objection was utterly pointless, since Har Homa is well established and no Israeli government will stop building within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, which is not even considered part of the West Bank by Israeli opinion. Yet it had the immediate effect of giving the Palestinians something to complain about, in order to divert all attention from what they have to do. If Rice continues to squeeze Israel into a total settlement freeze and dismantling outposts, the Palestinians will continue to hide behind these demands rather than fulfill their own part of the bargain. The opposite, however, is not true. If Palestinians were to demonstrate meaningful movement on ending incitement, accepting Israel's national rights, and cracking down on terrorism, this would generate much more internal political pressure for Israeli concessions than anything Rice could do. THE UNDERLYING reality is that Israelis want the two-state solution more than the Palestinians. This means that the Israeli political system will automatically enter into peace euphoria mode if there are credible signs of Palestinian movement, while the Palestinian side will use any US claims of Israeli non-compliance as an excuse to do nothing. Accordingly, if Rice wants the peace process to go somewhere, she should do the opposite of what she is doing now. She should spend more time on Iran than Annapolis, and put more pressure on the Palestinians than on Israel. This is not a matter of fairness (though it is also that), but of a realistic assessment of what has a chance to work. "Evenhandedness" is morally bankrupt, since it makes no distinction between aggressors and victims, but it also backfires for the same reason. Pressure on Israel takes pressure off the Arabs, while pressure on the Arabs can - through the internal Israeli pro-peace political dynamic - end up putting more pressure on Israel. The Palestinians may be weak and harder to influence, but pressing on Israel is like looking for a quarter under the lamppost because that's where the light is. However difficult it may be, pressing the Palestinians and, better yet, the Arab states is potentially more productive, because it is the Arab side that keeps the war going, not Israel, which desperately wants and will pay almost any price for peace. [email protected]

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11