Among Israelis and Palestinians, there’s little optimism about renewed American efforts to negotiate a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In Ramallah and Jerusalem, officials, journalists, and policy analysts have watched as industrious U.S. activity in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations came to naught—and they expect the same outcome for the Trump administration.
There is a lot more optimism in the Trump White House, and of course it starts at the top. The president said this in a February press conference with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
I think a deal will be made. I know that every president would like to. Most of them have not started until late because they never thought it was possible. And it wasn’t possible because they didn’t do it.
But Bibi and I have known each other a long time—a smart man, great negotiator. And I think we’re going to make a deal. It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand.
In April, President Trump added, “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians—none whatsoever.” And in a May press conference with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas he made his most categorical statement: “We want to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We will get it done. . . . It is something that I think is frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
The attitude I’ve detected outside the Oval Office is more realistic about the chances of success. But arguments suggesting that there is little or no chance are met with a standard reply: “Okay, but what’s the harm in trying?”
US President Bill Clinton’s approach to Middle East peacemaking – ““We always need to get caught trying—fewer people will die” – was a mistake.
This is not a new idea; it was Bill Clinton’s. As he put it, “We always need to get caught trying—fewer people will die.” So the Trump administration wishes to get caught trying as well, and operates under the assumption Clinton made: that there is no harm in trying, and that indeed it saves lives.
But that conclusion is wrong, as round after round of terrorism should attest. To put it slightly differently, there is harm in failing—and it does not save lives. What’s the harm?
To begin with, it is always harmful for the United States to fail—and for a president to fail. Influence in the world is hard to measure, but when a president devotes himself—as Bill Clinton, especially, did in the Camp David talks in 2000—to any project and fails to pull it off, his influence and that of the United States are diminished. Yes, he does get credit for trying, but there’s no benefit in failing. Opinions may differ as to why this happened: The United States misjudged Yasser Arafat, the White House prepared poorly, the timing was all wrong, the conditions were misunderstood. But getting an A for effort isn’t enough when other people’s security hangs in the balance.
Results matter. When the United States succeeds, as it did for example in the 1995 Dayton Accords on the Balkans or in the Camp David deal under Jimmy Carter, American prestige and influence grow. But that coin has two sides, and failure is never a good thing. With U.S. influence on the wane in recent years, devoting significant effort to a goal that is unlikely to be attained looks like a misplaced priority.
What’s more, the United States has been championing the “peace process” now for about 30 years, if we start with George H. W. Bush and the Madrid Conference of 1991. Palestinians and Israelis have seen negotiators come and go—or in many cases, never go, and instead just age and write memoirs. Round follows round, claims of progress and angry denunciations for blocking progress follow each other, and the “unsustainable occupation” continues. What this produces is cynicism about peace talks and about peace. On the Palestinian side many view the “peace process” as a formula for sustaining the occupation. Many Israelis see it as a shield protecting Palestinian malfeasance and worse: When they demand a stop to official Palestinian glorification of terrorism, they hear, “Don’t rock the boat now, negotiations may start.”
A further reason to be wary of another big peace effort is the opportunity cost. When each successive American administration works for a comprehensive peace deal, it tends to neglect the many opportunities to make less dramatic but still consequential real-world progress.
Palestinian PM salam Fayyad had the right idea – a bottom-up state building approach – but did not the international support his approached deserved.
If the goal were instead to leave things better than we found them, every incremental bit of progress would be a victory. That was the “bottom-up” approach taken by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who was fiercely dedicated to Palestinian independence but thought this required building the institutions of a viable state first. That meant concentrating on better financial controls and a reduction in corruption, better courts and police, and a more productive economy. Unfortunately, the incremental approach lacks drama and did not win the international support it deserved—including the Israeli and American support it deserved.
During the George W. Bush administration, those of us on the American side often demanded concessions from Israel to “set the tone for talks” or to “get things moving in the talks.” The steps often gave Abbas symbolic victories but they rarely contributed to state-building. For example, we were more concerned with getting Israel to release some Palestinian prisoners—who may have committed acts of violence—than we were about getting Israel to remove checkpoints or barriers that prevented Palestinian mobility in the West Bank and thereby made both normal life and economic activity harder. How returning convicted criminals to the streets contributed to building a Palestinian state was never explained.
A thought experiment: Suppose Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama had for 24 years focused not on “peace,” not on a comprehensive deal, but on progress—on making Palestinian life easier, on building institutions, on fostering economic growth and Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation. These latter goals were always part of U.S. policy, but were never the main goal; they always took second place. Netanyahu, for example, has removed many barriers and checkpoints in the West Bank in the last 10 years; could that have happened under his predecessors, years earlier, if it had been an American goal? Israel finally relented and allowed 3G wireless access in the West Bank this year; could this have happened years earlier, with accompanying economic benefits, had it been a real U.S. goal? The Allenby Bridge to Jordan is set to be open round the clock on weekdays, starting this month; could that have been arranged a year ago, or 10 years ago, had the United States made it a priority?
So the pursuit of a comprehensive “final status agreement” is not without costs. The idea that there is “no harm in trying” is wrong. The search for a final peace deal is understandable, of course. It would presumably benefit both peoples, and it would benefit those who could claim the credit: There would be Nobel Peace Prizes, handshakes on the White House lawn, memoirs to sell, and speeches to make. If that seems unduly cynical, it shouldn’t: It is possible to be dedicated to peace and also keenly aware of the personal benefits of achieving it.
Forget the cynicism and assume real idealism, which has I think characterized most American diplomats and American presidents confronting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Talleyrand’s old advice is nevertheless good counsel here: surtout, pas trop de zèle (above all, not too much zeal). Don’t pass up opportunities to make small gains, to get undramatic and almost invisible advances, to set in motion changes that will take a long time to bear fruit. The odds of getting a complete peace deal are very small. It would be quite enough to be able to say, in four or eight years, “You know, we really made things better.”
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring, which will be published in September.