Peace Process Illusions and Myths
Apr 20, 2010 | AIJAC staff
April 20, 2010
Number 04/10 #04
Today’s Update features some articles clarifying illusions and myths which feature prominently in what is probably the most common approach to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”, especially in terms of US and foreign efforts to advance it.
The first entry is an unprecedented and very important recantation of sorts from Aaron David Miller, perhaps the most veteran and dedicated US peace process official of the 1990s. He now says the idea of the peace process has become something of a “religion”, and while he was once a believer, he has ceased to be. He gives a cool-eyed assessment of the real prospects for peace, given that “the region has [been] dramatically becoming nastier and more complex”, examines the worth of the mooted idea that the US administration could try to impose a peace, and concludes that the idea that solving the Arab-Israel conflict would be a single fix for America’s regional problems is “just flat wrong.” To read this long, but highly enlightening, watershed piece, CLICK HERE.
Next up is a new post from Israeli academic and blogger Professor Barry Rubin, in which, in the context of looking at some recent statements by former US President Bill Clinton, he offers some analysis of the current situation which has striking parallels to what Miller has to say. Rubin takes apart Clinton’s claims about the prospects and effects of such an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and like Miller, makes it clear that the regional context is vastly more complex than in the “peace process narrative” put forward by Clinton, amongst many others. Rubin offers a disclaimer that his conclusions are not in any way partisan or politically motivated, but based simply on “sheer analysis of regional politics and political culture.” The parallels in analysis with Miller, whose background is of course very different, seems to vindicate this. To read Rubin’s version, CLICK HERE. An earlier Rubin post offered kudos to the US Congress and France, and criticism of the Obama Administration, on the handling of Syrian, Iranian and Arab-Israel affairs.
Finally, think tank analyst Max Singer offers an argument that what most needs to be understood to prevent Israeli-Palestinan negotiations from becoming a “charade” is the nature of the effective debate occurring in Palestinian society. He says the moderates and rejectionists are essentially arguing over two issues: “whether they have a serious chance of winning if they keep fighting” and “whether making peace is honourable or shameful.” He says to further peace, policy must encourage the pro-peace side by strengthening their argument that the elimination of Israel is not possible, and must also strive to counter and pierce Palestinian efforts to assert that Jews have absolutely no claim or connection to any of Palestine, which leads to the conclusion that peace with them is not honourable. Singer criticises recent American policy for not furthering these goals, and for his complete argument, CLICK HERE. More on the Palestinian internal divides comes from a talk by Israeli-Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh (who is due in Australian next month), as reported by American author Phyllis Chesler.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Another excellent refutation of dominant “peace process” illusions comes from an exchange between American pundit James Risen and Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi, in which the former insists that American interests demand a peace deal and Israel is standing in the way, while Halevi comprehensively refutes this claim.
- Some comment from columnist Caroline Glick on the reality of the Anat Kamm scandal, concerning the army clerk who leaked top secret Israeli army documents to a journalist . Plus, Israeli writer Ben-Dror Yemini looks at the key documents involved, and says that the Haaretz newspaper claims that they show illegal army activity during “targeted killings” do not bear scrutiny, while Israel’s independent Attorney-General ruled the same thing last year.
- Some reflections on Israel’s 62nd Anniversary being celebrated today.
- An interview with Australia’s new Ambassador to Israel, Andrea Faulkner.
- Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel published a paid statement in various newspapers about the status of Jerusalem.
- Nonie Darwish, whose father was an Egyptian commander in Gaza, writes an open letter to Gaza calling for reconciliation between Arabs and Jews. Meanwhile, a report that Hamas allowed Gaza sanitation engineers to meet their Israeli counterparts to learn about wastewater treatment and recycling. Hamas also allegedly stole money from a Gaza bank as part of a dispute with Fatah.
- A new claim in the story about the alleged transfer of Syrian Scud missiles to Hezbollah – an allegation that Israel aborted a planned strike on a convoy carrying the missiles because of US objections. Elliot Abrams argues that Israel would have been legally within its rights to hit the convoy, given it was a blatant violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
- Lebanon specialist Tony Badran has more on the Scud news, what it says about Syrian foreign policy, and the implications for Lebanon.
- An interesting history of the rise and fall of the UN’s notorious “Zionism equals Racism” resolution including considerable discussion of Australia’s positive role.
- Libya’s ongoing “jihad” against Switzerland.
And why I’m no longer a believer.
BY AARON DAVID MILLER
Foreign Policy, APRIL 19, 2010
On October 18, 1991, against long odds and in front of an incredulous press corps, U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin announced that Arabs and Israelis were being invited to attend a peace conference in Madrid.
Standing in the back of the hall at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that day, I marveled at what America had accomplished. In 18 months, roughly the time it took Henry Kissinger to negotiate three Arab-Israeli disengagement agreements and Jimmy Carter to broker an Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the United States had fought a short, successful war — the best kind — and pushed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. And America was now well-positioned to bring Arabs and Israelis across the diplomatic finish line.
Or so I thought.
Baker, who lowballed everything, was characteristically cautious. “Boys,” he told a few of us aides in his suite after the news conference, “if you want to get off the train, now might be a good time because it could all be downhill from here.” But I wasn’t listening. America had used its power to make war, and now, perhaps, it could use that power to make peace. I’d become a believer.
I’m not anymore.
Etymologists tell us that the word “religion” may come from the Latin root religare, meaning to adhere or bind. It’s a wonderful derivation. In both its secular and religious manifestations, faith is alluring and seductive precisely because it’s driven by propositions that bind or adhere the believer to a compelling set of ideas that satisfy rationally or spiritually, but always obligate.
And so it has been and remains with America’s commitment to Arab-Israeli peacemaking over the past 40 years, and certainly since the October 1973 war gave birth to serious U.S. diplomacy and the phrase “peace process” (the honor of authorship likely goes to a brilliant veteran State Department Middle East hand, Harold Saunders, who saw the term appropriated by Kissinger early in his shuttles). Since then, the U.S. approach has come to rest on an almost unbreakable triangle of assumptions — articles of faith, really. By the 1990s, these tenets made up a sort of peace-process religion, a reverential logic chain that compelled most U.S. presidents to involve themselves seriously in the Arab-Israeli issue. Barack Obama is the latest convert, and by all accounts he too became a zealous believer, vowing within days of his inauguration “to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors.”
Like all religions, the peace process has developed a dogmatic creed, with immutable first principles. Over the last two decades, I wrote them hundreds of times to my bosses in the upper echelons of the State Department and the White House; they were a catechism we all could recite by heart. First, pursuit of a comprehensive peace was a core, if not the core, U.S. interest in the region, and achieving it offered the only sure way to protect U.S. interests; second, peace could be achieved, but only through a serious negotiating process based on trading land for peace; and third, only America could help the Arabs and Israelis bring that peace to fruition.
As befitting a religious doctrine, there was little nuance. And while not everyone became a convert (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush willfully pursued other Middle East priorities, though each would succumb at one point, if only with initiatives that reflected, to their critics, varying degrees of too little, too late), the exceptions have mostly proved the rule. The iron triangle that drove Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and now Barack Obama to accord the Arab-Israeli issue such high priority has turned out to be both durable and bipartisan. Embraced by the high priests of the national security temple, including State Department veterans like myself, intelligence analysts, and most U.S. foreign-policy mandarins outside government, these tenets endured and prospered even while the realities on which they were based had begun to change. If this wasn’t the definition of real faith, one wonders what was.
That Obama, burdened by two wars elsewhere and the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, came out louder, harder, and faster on the Arab-Israeli issue than any of his predecessors was a remarkable testament to just how enduring that faith had become — a faith he very publicly proclaimed while personally presiding over the announcement of George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy in an orchestrated ceremony at the State Department two days after his swearing-in.
At first, it seemed that Obama, the poster president for America’s engagement with the world, had found a cause uniquely suited to his view of diplomacy, one whose importance had been heightened by his predecessor’s neglect of the issue and the Arab and Muslim attachment to it. Even before the Gaza war exploded three weeks prior to his inauguration, Obama had been bombarded by experts sagely urging a renewed focus on Middle East peace as a way to regain American prestige and credibility after the trauma of the Bush years. The new president soon hit the Arab media running as a kind of empathizer-in-chief, ratcheting up expectations even as Israelis increasingly found him tone-deaf to their needs.
Obama surrounded himself with key figures, such as chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who believed deeply in the peace religion. He named as his chief peacemaker Mitchell, a man with real stature and negotiating experience; and his national security advisor is James L. Jones, himself a former Middle East envoy who made the stunning pronouncement last year: “If there was one problem that I would recommend to the president” to solve, “this would be it.”
All these veteran leaders were not only believers, but had extra reason to encourage a tougher line toward Israel; they had seen the Benjamin Netanyahu movie before and were determined not to let their chance at Middle East peace end the same way. In his first turn as prime minister in the 1990s, the brash hard-liner Netanyahu had driven Bill Clinton crazy. (I remember being briefed on their first meeting in 1996, after which the president growled: “Who’s the fucking superpower here?”) Confronted with Netanyahu again, Obama and his team needed no encouragement to talk tough on the growing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, an issue that experts inside and outside government were clamoring for Obama to raise as the first step in his renewed push for peace.
At the time, it looked to be a magical convergence of leader and moment: The Arab-Israeli issue seemed perfectly suited to Obama’s transformational objectives and his transactional style. If Obama wanted to begin “remaking America,” why not try to remake the troubled politics of peace, too? After all, this was the engagement president, who believed deeply in the power of negotiations.
Obama was not alone in his belief, of course. The peace-process creed has endured so long because to a large degree it has made sense and accorded with U.S. interests. The question is, does it still? Does the old thinking about peacemaking apply to new realities? Is the Arab-Israeli conflict still the core issue? And after two decades of inflated hopes followed by violence and terror, and now by directionless stagnation, can we still believe that negotiations will deliver?
Sadly, the answers to these questions seem to be all too obvious these days. And Obama’s first 15 months as a disciple of the old creed tells you why. In 2009, the president pushed the Israelis, the Arabs, and the Palestinians to get negotiations going and was rebuffed by all three. He later told Time magazine ruefully that “we overestimated our ability to persuade.” In March of this year, provoked by the Netanyahu government’s incomprehensible announcement of new housing units in East Jerusalem smack in the middle of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, Obama pushed the Israelis again, harder this time, though it seems without much of a strategy to put the crisis to good use.
Obama is clearly determined not to take no for an answer. Fresh from his victory on health care, he’s King of the World again and in no mood to let the King of Israel frustrate his plans. This willfulness is impressive, and it makes it even more imperative now that he’s engaged in the faith to give that old-time religion a fresh look, based not just on what’s possible but on what’s probable. We don’t have the right to abandon hope, but we do have the responsibility to let go of, or at least temper, our illusions.
I can’t tell you how many times in the past 20 years, as an intelligence analyst, policy planner, and negotiator, I wrote memos to Very Important People arguing the centrality of the Arab-Israeli issue and why the United States needed to fix it. Long before I arrived at the State Department in 1978, my predecessors had made all the same arguments. An unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict would trigger ruinous war, increase Soviet influence, weaken Arab moderates, strengthen Arab radicals, jeopardize access to Middle East oil, and generally undermine U.S. influence from Rabat to Karachi.
From the 1940s through the 1980s, the power with which the Palestinian issue resonated in the Arab world did take a toll on American prestige and influence. Still, even back then the hand-wringing and dire predictions in my Cassandra-like memos were overstated. I once warned ominously — and incorrectly — that we’d have nonstop Palestinian terrorist attacks in the United States if we didn’t move on the issue. During those same years, the United States managed to advance all of its core interests in the Middle East: It contained the Soviets; strengthened ties to Israel and such key Arab states as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia; maintained access to Arab oil; and yes, even emerged in the years after the October 1973 war as the key broker in Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
Today, I couldn’t write those same memos or anything like them with a clear conscience or a straight face. Although many experts’ beliefs haven’t changed, the region has, and dramatically, becoming nastier and more complex. U.S. priorities and interests, too, have changed. The notion that there’s a single or simple fix to protecting those interests, let alone that Arab-Israeli peace would, like some magic potion, bullet, or elixir, make it all better, is just flat wrong. In a broken, angry region with so many problems — from stagnant, inequitable economies to extractive and authoritarian governments that abuse human rights and deny rule of law, to a popular culture mired in conspiracy and denial — it stretches the bounds of credulity to the breaking point to argue that settling the Arab-Israeli conflict is the most critical issue, or that its resolution would somehow guarantee Middle East stability.
The unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict is still a big problem for America and its friends: It stokes a white-hot anger toward the United States, has already demonstrated the danger of confrontation and war (see Lebanon, 2006; Gaza, 2008), and confronts Israel with a demographic nightmare. But three other issues, at least, have emerged to compete for center stage, and they might prove far more telling about the fate of U.S. influence, power, and security than the ongoing story of what I’ve come to call the much-too-promised land.
First, there are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of Americans are in harm’s way and are likely to be for some time to come. Add to the mix the dangerous situation in Pakistan, and you see volatility, threat, and consequences that go well beyond Palestine. Second, though U.S. foreign policy can’t be held hostage to the war on terror (or whatever it’s now called), the 9/11 attacks were a fundamental turning point for an America that had always felt secure within its borders. And finally there’s Iran, whose nuclear aspirations are clearly a more urgent U.S. priority than Palestine. Should sanctions and/or diplomacy fail, the default position — military action by Israel or even the United States — can’t be ruled out, with galactic consequences for the region and the world. In any event, it’s hard to imagine Netanyahu making any big decisions on the peace process until there’s much more clarity on what he and most Israelis regard as the existential threat of an Iran with a bomb.
As Obama surely reckoned, moving fast on Arab-Israeli peacemaking would help the United States deal with these issues. But that linkage wasn’t compelling when Bush used it to suggest that victory in Iraq would make the Arab-Israeli conflict easier to resolve; it’s not compelling now as an exit strategy from Iraq either, as if engaging in Arab-Israeli diplomacy will make the potential mess we could leave behind in Iraq easier for the Arabs to swallow. Nor can the Arab-Israeli issue be used effectively to mobilize Arabs against Iran, because the United States could never do enough diplomatically (or soon enough) to have it make much of a difference. Finally, linking the United States’ willingness to help the Israelis with Iran to their willingness to make concessions on Jerusalem and borders isn’t much of a policy either. If anything, it risks the United States losing its leverage with Israel on the Iranian issue and raising the odds that Israel would act alone.
Surely the United States can do more than one thing at once, the foreign-policy equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time. But America must also do multiple things well. Obama can’t have an inch-deep and mile-wide approach in which he commits to everything without a cruel and unforgiving assessment of what’s really possible and what’s not. Nor can the United States afford another high-profile failure based on what a brilliant and committed Clinton told us shortly before we went to Camp David: “Guys, trying and failing is a lot better than not trying at all.” This is an appropriate slogan for a high school football team; it’s not a substitute for a well-thought-out strategy for the world’s greatest power. Obama already has made a commitment to the American people to end two wars, keep them safe from attack at home, and stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, not to mention tackling the challenges of a severe recession and growing deficit.
Governing is about choosing; it’s about setting priorities, managing your politics, thinking strategically, picking your spots, and looking for genuine opportunities that can be exploited — not tilting at windmills. And these days, Arab-Israeli peacemaking is a pretty big windmill.
Even if you could make the case for the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, could you make peace?
Americans are optimists. Our idealism, pragmatism, and belief in the primacy of the individual convince us that the world can be made a better place. Unlike many countries that grapple with existential questions of political identity and physical survival, Americans today don’t live on the knife’s edge or hold (whatever our Puritan or Calvinist beginnings) a dark deterministic view of human nature.
All this drives our conviction that talking is better than shooting. Rodney King-like, we believe that if people would only sit down and discuss their differences rationally and compromise, a way might be found to accommodate conflicting views. After all, America is the big tent under which so many religious, political, and ethnic groups have managed to coexist, remarkably amicably. Perhaps this spirit is best embodied by Obama’s Mideast envoy George Mitchell, who once told me that any conflict created by human beings could be resolved by them. Mitchell is truly convinced that solutions can be found and that serious diplomacy is what you do until that time comes. But he ended his first foray into Arab-Israeli diplomacy with three emphatic no’s: from Israel on a comprehensive settlement freeze, from Saudi Arabia on partial normalization, and from the Palestinians on returning to negotiations.
Much of our earlier experience in the tough world of Arab-Israeli peacemaking seemed to bear out Mitchell’s initial conviction. In the time from the 1973 war to 1991, two Republican secretaries of state (Kissinger and Baker) and one Democratic president (Carter) succeeded in hammering out a series of Arab-Israeli agreements that established America’s reputation as an effective, even honest, broker — seeming to validate the simple proposition that negotiations can work.
If there was anyone who represented the faith in that proposition, it was me. I recall giving a talk in Jerusalem in the fall of 1998, after Clinton had brokered the Wye River accords (never implemented), in which I argued that Arab-Israeli negotiations and the move toward peace were now irreversible. That remark, one of the great howlers of the decade, prompted a note from Efraim Halevy, then Israel’s deputy Mossad chief, rightly questioning my logic, and though Halevy was too polite to say it in his note, my judgment as well. Still I believed.
And I continued to do so, all the way through the 1990s, the only decade in the last half of the 20th century in which there was no major Arab-Israeli war. Instead, this was the decade of the Madrid conference, the Oslo accords, the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, regional accords on economic issues, and a historic bid in the final year of the Clinton administration to negotiate peace agreements between Israel, Syria, and the Palestinians. But for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the Arab, Palestinian, Israeli (and American) unwillingness to recognize what price each side would have to pay to achieve those agreements, the decade ended badly, leaving the pursuit of peace bloody, battered, and broken. Perhaps the most serious casualty was the loss of hope that negotiations could actually get the Arabs and Israelis what they wanted.
And that has been the story line ever since: more process than peace.
Looking ahead, that process looks much, much tougher — and peace more and more elusive — for three reasons.
First, Arab-Israeli peacemaking is politically risky and life-threatening. Consider the murders of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. At Camp David, I heard Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat say at least three times, “You Americans will not walk behind my coffin.” Leaders take risks only when prospects of pain and gain compel them to do so. Today’s Middle East leaders — Israel’s Netanyahu, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas — aren’t suicidal. It was Netanyahu, after all, who once told me: “You live in Chevy Chase. Don’t play with our future.”
Second, big decisions require strong leaders — think Jordan’s King Hussein or Israel’s Menachem Begin — because the issues on the table cut to the core of their political and religious identity and physical survival. This requires leaders with the legitimacy, authority, and command of their politics to make a deal stick. But the current crop are more prisoners of their constituencies than masters of them: Netanyahu presides over a divided coalition and a country without consensus on what price Israel will pay for agreements with Palestinians and Syria; Abbas is part of a broken Palestinian national movement and shares control over Palestine’s guns, authority, and legitimacy with Hamas. It’s hard to see how either can marshal the will and authority to make big decisions.
Third, even with strong leaders, you still need a project that doesn’t exceed the carrying capacity of either side. In the past, U.S. diplomacy succeeded because the post-1973-war disengagement agreements, a separate Egypt-Israel accord, and a three-day peace conference at Madrid aligned with each side’s capabilities. Today, issues such as Jerusalem (as a capital of two states), borders (based on June 1967 lines), and refugees (rights, return, and compensation) present gigantic political and security challenges for Arabs and Israelis. One accord will be hard enough. The prospect of negotiating a comprehensive peace; concluding three agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon; dismantling settlements in the Golan Heights and West Bank; and withdrawing to borders based on June 1967 lines seems even more fantastical.
Bottom line: Negotiations can work, but both Arabs and Israelis (and American leaders) need to be willing and able to pay the price. And they are not.
Under these circumstances, the refrain from many quarters is that America must save the day. If the Arabs and Israelis are too weak or recalcitrant, then the United States must support and/or push them to make the deal.
Such forceful U.S. diplomacy succeeded in the past. Indeed, it’s a stunning paradox that with the exception of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, every other successful accord came not out of direct negotiations, but as a result of U.S. mediation. The Oslo accords, often touted as the miracle produced by direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, proved to be a spectacular failure. All that’s missing now, the argument goes, is the absence of American will.
I understand the logic of this view, and having spent more than 20 years in frustrating talks with the Arabs and Israelis, I can also see how it can be emotionally satisfying. But because I know a thing or two about failure and don’t want to see the United States fail (yet again), I simply don’t buy the argument. If I genuinely believed America could impose and deliver a solution through tough forceful diplomacy, I’d be more sympathetic — but I don’t. And here’s why:
Ownership: Larry Summers, Obama’s chief economic advisor, said it best: In the history of the world, no one ever washed a rental car. We care only about what we own. Unless the Arabs and Israelis want political agreements and peace and can invest enough in them to give them a chance to succeed, we certainly can’t. The broader Middle East is littered with the remains of great powers that wrongly believed they could impose their will on small tribes. Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran ‚Ä¶ need I continue? Small tribes will always be meaner, tougher, and longer-winded than U.S. diplomats because it’s their neighborhood and their survival; they will always have a greater stake in the outcome of their struggle than the great power thousands of miles away with many other things to do. You want to see failure? Take a whack at trying to force Israelis and Palestinians to accept an American solution on Jerusalem.
The negotiator’s mystique: It’s gone, at least for now. When Americans succeeded in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, it was because they were respected, admired, even feared. U.S. power and influence were taken seriously. Today, much of the magic is gone: We are overextended, diminished, bogged down. Again Summers: Can the world’s biggest borrower continue to be the world’s greatest power? Our friends worry about our reliability; our adversaries, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, believe they can outwait and outmaneuver us. Nor does there appear much cost or consequence to saying no to the superpower. After Obama and Mitchell’s fruitless first year, I worry that the mediator’s mystique of a Kissinger or a Baker, or the willfulness and driving force of a Carter, won’t return easily.
Domestic politics: The pro-Israel community in the United States has a powerful voice, primarily in influencing congressional sentiment and initiatives (assistance to Israel in particular), but it does not have a veto over U.S. foreign policy. Lobbies lobby; that’s the American way, for better or worse. Presidents are supposed to lead. And when they do, with a real strategy that’s in America’s national interests, they trump domestic politics. Still, domestic politics constrain, particularly when a president is perceived to be weak or otherwise occupied. This president has been battered of late, and his party is likely to face significant losses in the 2010 midterm elections. Should there be a serious chance for a breakthrough in the peace process, he’ll go for it. But is it smart to risk trying to manufacture one? The last thing Obama needs now is an ongoing fight with the Israelis and their supporters, or worse, a major foreign-policy failure.
U.S.-Israeli relations: America is Israel’s best friend and must continue to be. Shared values are at the core of the relationship, and our intimacy with Israel gives us leverage and credibility in peacemaking when we use it correctly. But this special relationship with the Israelis, which can serve U.S. interests, has become an exclusive one that does not. We’ve lost the capacity to be independent of Israel, to be honest with it when it does things we don’t like, to impose accountability, and to adopt positions in a negotiation that might depart from Israel’s. It’s tough to be a credible mediator with such handicaps.
Fighting with Israel is an occupational reality. It’s part of the mediator’s job description. Every U.S. president or secretary of state who succeeded (and some who didn’t) had dust-ups, some serious, with Israel. (Remember how Bush 41 and Baker used housing loan guarantees? In 1991, the United States denied Israel billions in credit to borrow at reduced interest rates because of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s determination to build settlements.) But the fight must produce something of value — like the Madrid conference — that not only makes the United States look good but significantly advances the negotiations. In short, we need a strategy that stands a chance of working. Otherwise, why would any U.S. president want to hammer a close ally with a strong domestic constituency?
And this was the problem with Obama’s tough talk to Israel on settlements. Not only was the goal he laid out — a settlements freeze including natural growth — unattainable, but it wasn’t part of a broader strategy whose dividends would have made the fight worthwhile. Going after the Israelis piecemeal on settlements to please the Arabs or to make ourselves feel better won’t work unless we have a way of achieving a breakthrough. That a tough-talking Obama ended up backing down last year when Netanyahu said no to a comprehensive freeze tells you why.
And that remains the president’s challenge after the Biden brouhaha over housing units in East Jerusalem. In the spring of 2010 we’re nowhere near a breakthough, and yet we’re in the middle of a major rift with the Israelis. Unless we achieve a big concession, we will be perceived to have backed down again. And even if the president manages to extract something on Jerusalem, the chances that Netanyahu will be able to make a far greater move on a core issue, such as borders, will be much reduced. Unless the president is trying to get rid of Netanyahu (and produce a new coalition), he’ll have no choice but to find a way to cooperate with him.
So now Obama faces a conundrum. A brilliant, empathetic president, with a Nobel Peace Prize to boot, has embraced the iron triangle and made America the focal point of action and responsibility for the Arab-Israeli issue at a time when the country may be least able to do much about it.
Trying to compensate for the absence of urgency, will, and leadership among Arabs and Israelis by inserting your own has always been a tough assignment. The painful truth is that faith in America’s capacity to fix the Arab-Israeli issue has always been overrated. It’s certainly no coincidence that every breakthrough from the Egypt-Israel treaty to the Oslo accords to the Israel-Jordan peace agreement came initially as a consequence of secret meetings about which the United States was the last to know. Only then, once there was local ownership or some regional crisis that the United States could exploit, were we able to move things forward.
Right now, America has neither the opportunity nor frankly the balls to do truly big things on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Fortuna might still rescue the president. The mullahcracy in Tehran might implode. The Syrians and Israelis might reach out to one another secretly, or perhaps a violent confrontation will flare up to break the impasse.
But without a tectonic plate shifting somewhere, it’s going to be tough to re-create the good old days when bold and heroic Arab and Israeli leaders strode the stage of history, together with Americans, willing and able to do serious peacemaking.
I remember attending Rabin’s funeral in 1995 in Jerusalem and trying to convince myself that America must and could save the peace process that had been so badly undermined by his assassination. I’m not a declinist. I still believe in the power of American diplomacy when it’s tough, smart, and fair. But the enthusiasm, fervor, and passion have given way to a much more sober view of what’s possible. Failure can do that.
The believers need to re-examine their faith, especially at a moment when America is so stretched and overextended. The United States needs to do what it can, including working with Israelis and Palestinians on negotiating core final-status issues (particularly on borders, where the gaps are narrowest), helping Palestinians develop their institutions, getting the Israelis to assist by allowing Palestinians to breathe economically and expand their authority, and keeping Gaza calm, even as it tries to relieve the desperation and sense of siege through economic assistance. But America should also be aware of what it cannot do, as much as what it can.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who probably didn’t know much about the Middle East, said it best: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, then in half the creeds.” And maybe, if that leads to more realistic thinking when it comes to America’s view of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, that’s not such a bad thing.
Aaron David Miller served as an advisor on the Middle East to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. He is currently a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.
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Bill Clinton Explains How Middle East Utopia is Just Around the Corner, Just Tell Israel and Palestinians How to Make Peace
By Barry Rubin
Rubin Report, Tuesday, April 20, 2010
It’s truly amazing what some people say about the Middle East without anyone noticing the inaccuracies and contradictions. An interview former President Bill Clinton gave to the ABC news’ program “This Week” is a wonderful example of this situation.
As a friend of mine who’s a policy analyst just put it in evaluating another, roughly similar article: “Everyone should have views that approximate reality. There’s still plenty of room for argument within that space.”
I will now show, point by point, how almost everything Clinton said, however, is outside that space. Still, Clinton—who was an okay president—is savvy enough to make one terrific argument which shows he really does understand the shortcomings of Obama Administration policy.
Of course, as a fellow former president, a Democrat, and husband of a certain secretary of state, Clinton isn’t going to trash the current government’s stances. But his statements force him into saying some very silly things. I will give you one point for each of them you spot. Read each paragraph, think of one or more major problems with it, and then read my analysis.
“If [Obama] decides to [issue his own peace plan], I will support it,” said Clinton, suggesting that such an action would be like what he did at the Camp David meeting and later in the Clinton peace plan, both in 2000.
What’s wrong with this?
Answer: Clinton did not really present his own peace plan in either case. On both occasions, he was presenting a plan which he had cleared with Israel’s prime minister. This was appropriate since the Israeli government had agreed to make some major concessions if it received certain things in return. In sharp contrast, however, Obama would be proposing a plan demanding Israeli concessions which not only hasn’t been approved by Israel’s government but which the president knows it would oppose.
Incidentally, as we will see in a moment Clinton knows—despite his support—that this is a serious mistake. If the president puts forward a plan both sides will reject he does no good and ends up looking very foolish. Moreover, what about Clinton’s own experience: offering a great deal to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and watching them turn it down. Shouldn’t he be warning Obama–and his spouse–more about how the PA is unwilling or unable to make peace?
Next, what’s wrong with this:
“We need to do something to deprive both sides of any excuse not to engage in serious negotiations.”
Answer: If the goal is to get talks going, the way to do so is not to propose a comprehensive peace plan which both sides will certainly reject but to start with small things on which they can agree. To put forward such a plan would be the best “excuse not to engage in serious negotiations” of all!
But, by the way, might it be relevant that the PA has refused to talk for 15 months while Israel’s government has been ready to meet during this entire period? So Clinton knows Israel is not looking for any excuse not to engage in serious negotiations. The PA is. But to be “even -handed,” Clinton is covering up for PA intransigence. And who should know better about PA intransigence then the man who was humiliated by Yasir Arafat’s refusal to make peace in 2000?
At this point, Clinton does give some good advice: “The current Israeli government, with its current coalition, almost certainly would reject it. And the argument is that that makes us look weak.” Right. Why put forward a plan that’s going to be rejected. The Obama Administration already looks dangerously weak. Once both sides reject its plan, things will really be at a dead end.
But soon we are back in fantasyland. So what’s wrong with this:
Clinton said that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would vastly reduce the level of terrorism in the region: “Half of the energy coming out of all this organization and money-raising for terror comes out of the allegations around the unresolved Palestinian issue.”
What’s wrong with this?
Answer: Suppose you are the kind of Arab who supports terrorist groups politically and gives them money. Would a two-state compromise agreement make you stop doing that? Of course not, you would say that the Palestinian Authority had betrayed the Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, while the United States was a horrible enemy that had destroyed the chance for destroying Israel and creating a Palestinian Muslim Arab state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.
Consider Hamas. If an agreement was made leaving it aside, would it fold up? Stop terrorism? Cease receiving money? Lose all popular support? Forfeit the backing of Iran, Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhoods? And how in Hades are you going to have and implement such a solution without the Gaza Strip?
See if you can spot the pattern: King Abdallah of Jordan made a deal with Israel and was assassinated. President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt made a deal with Israel and was assassinated. President Bashar Gemayel of Lebanon made a deal with Israel and was assassinated. Ah, “President” Mahmoud Abbas, please just sign right here and terrorism will just disappear. Nothing to worry about!
What planet is Bill Clinton living on if he believes this? Well, he probably doesn’t believe it.
“If there were a Palestinian state working in partnership…it would be a whole different world. All the Arabs would identify with Israel. They’d have a political and economic partnership. The whole economic basis in the Middle East would shift from oil to ideas.”
What’s wrong with this? (This is an easy one.)
Answer: First, it assumes a Palestinian state would be at total peace with Israel and would want to cooperate with it. This ignores Palestinian politics, public opinion, the composition of the Fatah leadership, and the large minority of those supporting Hamas and other radical groups (25 percent in the West Bank at minimum) who’d reject any such thing. It is quite possible (and that’s putting it conservatively) that the Palestinian government would support (or even sponsor) continuous incitement to destroy Israel and view it as an enemy; cross-border raids; and requests for foreign Arab military aid. To analyze an Israel-Palestinian agreement as operating perfectly is a leap of faith far beyond any Olympic record.
Then there is the equally awesome assumption that a bilateral agreement would make all that cultural-economic mistrust and hatred disappear overnight in Arab states. Egypt has been at peace with Israel for more than three decades with attitudes not changing. What about Muslim hatred of a Jewish state in the region and Arab nationalist horror at the idea of Israel’s continued existence? Arab states would still fear Israeli strategic and economic domination. The naïve idea of a Middle East shifting from oil to ideas, of the Arab rulers or masses “identifying” with Israel is not something that a former president should suggest as serious. It’s not something any rational adult should predict.
Here’s another one:
“Look at what the Saudi Arabians are doing — building six new towns. The UAE wins the international competition for the clean energy agency, and they’re going to build a carbon-neutral city in the UAE. And nobody thinks about this. Dubai is the only country, with huge amounts of imported workers, that’s actually passed legislation to give these immigrant workers a better deal in the Middle East. And they’ve got women in the government; they have a joint public-private decision-making process. Nobody knows anything about it. Why? Because of the Palestinian-Israeli thing.”
What’s wrong with this?
Answer: Before saying anything else, it should be noted that Clinton has reportedly received a lot of money from Dubai, including millions for helping the ruler make investments and advising Dubai on its controversial attempt to buy a company managing U.S. ports. Isn’t that a bit of a conflict of interests for him to talk about how great that place is and not even mentioning its recent financial collapse?
But back to the political issues. Well, of course people do know about events in the Gulf. But these are wealthy states rolling in oil dough. There’s a lot of poverty in other Arab countries and developments in the Israel-Palestinian issue will have no effect on that. Equally, there’s a lot of dictatorial regimes holding down populations which are not ready–to cite the words of a Jordanian king decades ago–to act like the Swiss. And in each country there’s a life-and-death battle between regimes and revolutionary Islamists.
If anything, an unpopular peace agreement–and that’s what it would be–is going to inflame these internal conflicts rather than soothe them. Indeed, if we see how Arab regimes use the conflict to distract passion and attention from getting rid of themselves, removing the conflict would increase instability in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other places.
No, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is not the only problem, nor is the idea that if Arabs read more about how great Dubai is they would want to spend their time building nice environmentally cool cities instead of engaging in radical rhetoric or activities.
So what is Clinton talking about when he says, “Nobody knows anything” about this stuff? Is he implying that the Israel-Palestinian conflict will go away and millions of Arabs are going to say: Wow! Now I get it! Let’s have democracy, moderation, and equality for women!
But what about the Islamism thing, and the dictatorship thing, and the nationalist thing, and the Sunni-Shia thing, and all those other little things? Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the only factor keeping the region from being a utopia? Clinton suggests that it is.
Another one: If there was an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, “How could the Syrians stay out there alone—cooperating with the Iranians, and letting Hizballah people travel through Syria, and doing all the things they do?”
What’s wrong with that?
Answer: Where to begin! There’s no real reason that the Syrians can’t “stay out there alone.” One reason is that they’ve been doing so for decades, regarding their siding with Iran against other Arab states. Another reason is that they won’t be alone even among Arab states and political forces. They have Iran on their side, the strongest single Muslim-majority state in the region and soon to be a nuclear power. They have Hamas (which rules the Gaza Strip) and Hizballah (which runs much of Lebanon and has veto power over the government) and many other allies in that country. They sponsor the Sunni Iraqi insurgents and can depend on a huge slice of Arab and Muslim opinion. They also would have Qatar, Yemen, and Libya, while the Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhoods would join forces with them, too.
The Iranians, Syrians, and many others would all denounce the agreement as treason. Oppositionists would try to assassinate any Arab leader who went along with it. There would be riots in every Arab capital.
Clinton seems to speak here as if he has no idea what makes Arab politics different from those in Western Europe.
If you think six of Clinton’s statements were right you can be a high-level Western policymaker; five right, a leading mainstream media pundit; four right, a professor of Middle East studies.
If, however, you understand why the six points made by Clinton which I highlighted were wrong you can write a blog just like this one, have no influence, and receive no honors whatsoever. None of the points you make will be repeated on television or in the most prestigious newspapers.
But there’s a consolation prize: History will prove you to be right.
Optional note: Please understand that there is absolutely nothing about any of the above arguments that is liberal or conservative, left or right. It is all sheer analysis of regional politics and political culture. These are conclusions that everyone should be able to reach no matter what their personal viewpoint, party affiliations, or nationality. There is no greater disservice one can do to one’s people (or audience) than to feed them nonsense which will lead to serious strategic indigestion later.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood.
By MAX SINGER
Jerusalem Post, 14/04/2010
The Palestinians are divided on two sides, and the chances of reaching an agreement with Israel depends on who wins this argument.
A useful way to think about the possibility for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is to imagine that the Palestinians have been involved in a long-term internal debate. The two sides would be those who think they should continue the effort to eliminate Israel, and those who think the fight to destroy it has gone on long enough, and that it’s time for the Palestinians to pursue their own interests in peace and prosperity.
These two groups have constantly shifting memberships, all of whom have organizational and political interests which complicate their choice. To some extent, many individuals are divided in their own minds, so that the general debate is echoed within individuals.
It is important to note that the debate usually takes place in an environment where public (and even private) discussion is far from free. Providing certain information or expressing some views can be a risk for Palestinians.
Peace depends on those who are ready for winning the internal debate. While those who prefer to keep fighting are on top, there is no chance for a negotiated settlement. Serious negotiations can only begin when the predominant view is that it is necessary to give up the effort to destroy Israel.
There are two dominant issues in the debate. One is whether they have a serious chance of winning if they keep fighting. The other is whether making peace is honorable or shameful.
Palestinians who prefer peace have no chance of winning the internal argument if they believe the continued effort to destroy Israel might succeed. They can only be effective if they believe and can convincingly say, “We have no chance of defeating Israel,” or “You have no plausible theory of victory; it is time to get practical.”
Therefore, a main goal of anyone who wants to promote peace is to understand and counter the theory of victory that sustains those who want to keep fighting.
Currently the Palestinians do not believe they can militarily defeat Israel, or that the Arab and Muslim countries will send armies to force its surrender. Their willingness to keep fighting is now sustained by two hopes. The lesser is that Israel is becoming soft and divided and that if the pressure of hatred and terrorism is maintained, it will lose its will to defend itself, or enough Israelis will leave to fatally weaken the country. The greater hope is that their international campaign to delegitimize Israel will lead to international pressure that forces it into a series of retreats that ultimately makes it unable to defend itself.
THERE IS a third hope, that an Iranian nuclear attack will lead to so many deaths and desertions that Israel cannot sustain itself. But this hope is not near the top of Palestinian thinking, and may be too external to be a deciding influence on it.
Objectively speaking, the “keep fighting” group has a good case. Given the progress made over the past few years in building anti-Israel sentiment in Europe, the “peace camp” certainly cannot confidently argue that there is little chance that the UN will take decisive measures against it.
Not only are there very few – if any – voices from Europe or the US telling Palestinians they are wrong and must accept a permanent Jewish state, but the Europeans are also handsomely paying to support them and show every sign of unwillingness to challenge the Muslim world.
It is true that the US especially continues to insist that it is committed to Israel’s security, and no European government has yet called for it to retreat beyond the 1967 borders – although that itself is a retreat that would force 10 percent of the population to move from places they have lived for a generation.
But Palestinians have plenty of basis for thinking that if they do more of what they have been doing, in a few years international opinion will move enough to act in ways that become fatal for Israel.
In the past year this theory of victory has been bolstered by President Barack Obama’s movement of American policy away from its traditional closeness to Israel and his apparent intention to force it to make important concessions without return.
The second crucial issue is whether the Palestinians believe it would be honorable to make peace. This depends on whether the Jews are colonial thieves stealing land solely on the basis of force, or whether they are a people that also historically lived in the land and are attached to it.
If the Palestinians understood that there are two peoples with long historical and moral claims to the same land, it would be honorable to recognize that fighting is useless and that compromise is an appropriate way to settle the dispute.
Currently, their leadership and elite are adamant in insisting there is no Jewish people, and that there was no Jewish presence in the land before Islam. They officially and energetically deny that there was ever a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount, despite the many Muslim sources from previous generations that recognized its location in pre-Muslim times. The Palestinian leadership is deliberately making an honorable peace impossible by falsely denying that Jews have a legitimate claim to any of the land.
When free discussion is possible, it will be impossible to conceal the fact of historical Jewish connection to the land. Those who want peace will be able to argue that peace could be an honorable compromise between two peoples with just claims to the land, and not just a cowardly yielding to force.
This issue, too, is in the hands of Europeans and Americans. If they regularly reminded the Palestinian leadership and public of the Jewish moral and historical claims to the land, recognized by the League of Nations in the Palestine Mandate, the leadership could not keep the truth from their people. But so long as they perpetuate the colonial lie, the rest of the world has an infallible sign that they have not yet become ready for peace. Peace will not become possible until Palestinians say to each other that the Jews also have an historical attachment to the land.
The path to peace is clear. Peace will become possible when Palestinians see that there is no chance that Europeans or Iranians will prevent Israel from defending itself, and when they recognize that they are not the only people with a moral and legal claim to the land. In the meantime, negotiations are a charade and concessions can do nothing to “improve the chances of success.”
The writer is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a founder and senior fellow of the Hudson Institute.