Strategy as policy: Douglas J. Feith on the failed ‘peace process’

As the former Pentagon official sees it, the world has created incentives for Palestinian leaders that work against the interests of peace.

PERES receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, in 1994 alongside Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. (photo credit: GPO)
PERES receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, in 1994 alongside Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.
(photo credit: GPO)
Douglas J. Feith is a strategist, someone who thinks about national security conceptually, with a long-term perspective.
As the no. 3 man – the under secretary for policy – in the US Defense Department during the George W. Bush administration, he helped devise the government’s response to the 9/11 attacks. He wrote War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism and is now a senior fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He is writing a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
When asked what he thinks about the term “two-state solution,” he notes it is rooted in the Oslo process.
“A key problem with it is the assumption that peace can be negotiated with today’s leaders of the Palestinian Authority,” he says, “but that leadership has all of the flaws – the dishonesty, corruption and violence – inherent in the Oslo process.”
As the former Pentagon official sees it, the world has created incentives for Palestinian leaders that work against the interests of peace.
“In multiple ways, the people who run the PA are paid richly to perpetuate the conflict,” he says. “All the aid, attention, sympathy and honor that the world bestows on them hinges on their role as leaders of the fight against Israel for what they call ‘justice.’” If they agreed to terminate the conflict, he argues, “they would not only put their personal security at risk – remember the fate of Anwar Sadat – but also likely lose almost everything in life that they value, materially or morally.”
Feith believes this helps explain the failure of the “extraordinarily forthcoming peace proposal” of prime minister Ehud Barak to Yasser Arafat in 2000. Instead of accepting, Arafat insisted on one additional concession: the “right of return,” which “even leaders of Israel’s so-called peace camp described as a demand for Israel’s suicide.” Feith observes that, “After rejecting Barak’s offer, Arafat launched the Second Intifada,” years of attacks that killed 2,000 Israelis and severely wounded tens of thousands.
It was for the same reason, Feith explains, that Ehud Olmert’s open-handed peace proposal to PA President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 failed. “Evidently, Mahmoud Abbas calculated that he couldn’t afford to agree to terminate the conflict,” Feith argues, adding that “that remains the case today.”
In Feith’s opinion, blame attaches to the United States, Japan, Canada and the European Union – and Israel too – for having in one way or another “contributed to the creation of this perverse incentive system that rewards Palestinian leaders for perpetuating the conflict and would penalize them for ending it.”
“Anyone hoping to promote peace,” he contends, “should start by acknowledging the disappointing reality that the current Palestinian leadership cannot be expected to end the conflict.” The only serious way to increase the chances for peace, he says, is “to develop a long-term strategy to change the economic and political circumstances of Palestinian society so that a leadership with different interests and incentives can arise.” That, he says, requires “vision and patience.”
His realistic approach is intriguing. First, he advises, “If foreigners are going to provide aid, they should do so in ways that empower good people, not the current leaders.” The aid, he says, “shouldn’t continue to flow if it’s used to pay terrorists or their families. Controls should be established so that political leaders don’t steal the aid. The goal should be to use the aid to give children a proper education and to improve the health and material well-being of the population generally.”
Feith contends that Palestinian society suffers from “too much violence and corruption, lack of democratic institutions, over-dependence on government handouts, lack of economic productivity and, last but not at all least, debilitating anti-Israel indoctrination of children and adults.”
He argues that “the ultimate purpose of any foreign aid provided to the Palestinians should be to promote a new culture. Without that, new and better leaders won’t arise. And without such leaders, there will not be peace with Israel.”
He points out that the Palestinians in the territories live largely on foreign aid as employees of the PA government, which is not healthy for their society. But there’s a positive consequence of this unhealthy reality: “Aid donors could exercise substantial influence for the good, if they chose to. They could insist that their aid be directed to projects and institutions that help raise popular living standards and end the artificial status as ‘refugees’ of millions of Palestinians. They could use the aid to empower individuals who are not corrupt and anti-democratic.”
“If Palestinian leaders were actually interested in the good and welfare of their people,” Feith argues, “they would resign themselves to the reality and permanence of Israel and make the Israelis their partners rather than their enemies.” Aid donors should be looking “to empower such people, not to strengthen the current self-serving Palestinian leadership.”
He sees the Palestinian national cause as focused on “justice” – which supporters define as “getting all that they believe they are entitled to.” That means recovering not just the territories that Israel won in 1967, but all the land controlled by Jews since 1948.
“Palestinian rights are commonly referred to as ‘inalienable,’” Feith says, and “according to that view, it would be dishonorable or treasonous to consider compromising because that would mean agreeing to an injustice.
“A peace agreement with Israel would entail alienating – that is, trading away – Palestinian rights that are inalienable. This is a perspective that makes peace with Israel impossible.”
He compares that perspective with the ideas that predominated among Zionist leaders since Theodor Herzl.
“The Zionists had all kinds of thoughts about Jewish national claims and rights,” Feith says, “but they never took the position that such claims or rights could never be compromised. In the years before Israel achieved statehood, no Zionist leader, when offered the possibility of a Jewish state, said the offer should be rejected because it failed to give the Jews 100% of what they could claim was theirs.”
“There’s no limit to claims of entitlement,” Feith points out.
“The world is full of countries that could put forward territorial claims that conflict with those of their neighbors. Yet most live in peace with those neighbors. Zionist leaders time and again took the position that they were willing to accept the best deal available, even if they had to trade away some claims to obtain it.” He says Zionist leaders didn’t focus on “justice” in the abstract and “didn’t teach their children that political compromise is dishonorable.”
At the moment, he laments, “the Palestinians are locked into a political culture dominated by an ideology rooted in inflexible religious and nationalist principles that preclude peace with Israel.”
This culture “is not serving the best interests of the Palestinians,” and “is not serving the interests of the countries that are donating billions of dollars of aid to the Palestinians. It goes without saying that it is not serving Israel’s interests.”
His bottom line: “The only way there can be peace is if that culture changes. New Palestinian leaders might be able to make the changes. And outside powers might be able to use their influence to bring such changes about.”
Feith hopes that US officials and those of other countries will retire their longstanding policies and, instead, “develop a strategy for changing Palestinian society in ways that improve Palestinian lives and can produce a new culture and new leaders who could make peace possible.”