I’m a great admirer of Gen. Brent Scowcroft, whom I’ve always regarded as a sort of model national security adviser. Alas, the last administration he served (that of the first President Bush) was decidedly Arabist in orientation. So I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see Scowcroft’s column in today’s Financial Times. It repeats the flawed premises that have shaped U.S. involvement in the dispute for at least two decades. These flawed premises include at least the following: (1) Israeli-Palestinian peace will weaken extremist forces throughout the Middle East; (2) the U.S. role should be that of impartial arbitrator trying to push a fair, just, and practicable settlement on both parties; and (3) the creation of a Palestinian state depends on factors external to Palestinian society. Let’s take each of these in turn.
First, U.S. officials have to stop seeping an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement as something that could diminish extremist forces in the region. It is entirely the other way around. Without a dramatic weakening of extremist forces in the region, no Israeli government will make the security concessions necessary for a viable two-state solution or a lasting peace. In the meantime extremist forces will continue to ruin any chance for peace. The immediate object of U.S. policy should therefore be to weaken extremism in the region in order to achieve a lasting settlement of the Palestinian question, rather than wasting time and energy in a Sisyphean “peace process” that will always prove elusive so long as Islamist extremism remains a potent force. We should be making every effort to weaken Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon — chiefly by supporting the pro-democracy movement in each of those countries. It is vital to cut Hamas and other Palestinian terrorists off from their sources of outside support. A tall order? You bet. But it’s better to be realistic about a difficult challenge than sanguine about an impossible one.
Second, the indispensable role of the U.S. as mediator in the conflict has nothing to do with arbitration. Pretty much anybody could serve as arbitrator so long as they are credibly impartial. But our partiality to Israel is actually what makes the U.S. a valuable mediator in the eyes of Arab governments: We are the only one of Israel’s friends who could conceivably underwrite the risks of the concessions it will have to make. Because the U.S. has enough power to guarantee the survival of Israel, it can help deliver Israeli concessions. Nobody else can do that. That is why the Arabs — who have never perceived the U.S. as impartial — continue to insist on our vital role. That is why Israel has to trust that the U.S. will protect and guarantee its interests. Needless to say, no American government in living memory has done more to ruin Israel’s trust in America than the Obama administration, which — far from advancing U.S. leadership, as candidate Obama promised to do — has succeeded in making the U.S. practically irrelevant in the “peace process.” The performance of Susan Rice, ambassador to the U.N., has been particularly reprehensible in this regard, trying to curry favor with the Arabs by insulting the Israeli government, and predictably accomplishing only the latter.
Third, neither a peace a settlement, nor the declaration and recognition of a Palestinian state, will do anything to create a Palestinian state. The most essential obstacle to peace in the region is the persistent failure of the Palestinians to govern themselves under the rule of law and abide by the policies of a duly authorized leadership. A recent U.N. report gives reason for hope with respect to Palestinians of the West Bank at least — but not any time soon. A combination of factors, each of which would be enough to create insurmountable obstacles to effective Palestinian leadership at the top, will continue to impede progress towards a legitimate Palestinian state. One big problem — which makes Arab society poor ground for democracy in general — is that everyone’s sense of aggrieved “justice” trumps the rule of law and the will of the majority. Another is that the Arab mainstream almost totally accepts the premises of the extremist position (legitimacy of armed resistance to “occupation,” i.e. the existence of the state of Israel, etc.) and is therefore never in a position to stand up to the extremists. Yet another is that the hand of the extremists is artificially strengthened by pernicious outside influences from Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and now Turkey, which create the same dynamic that the Soviets created in the 1960s and early 1970s — namely to give the extremists hope that their ends can be accomplished by violent means rather than through peaceful negotiation. Still another is Hamas rule over 40 percent of the population of the Palestinian territories.
This combination of factors makes it basically impossible for any Palestinian leadership to make meaningful concessions for peace. That is why they always make at least one of their negotiating objectives (e.g., an end to Israeli settlement construction) a precondition to talks of any kind. They have to block negotiations and blame the Israelis for the impasse because they simply cannot negotiate. Hence, the U.S. embrace of the Palestinian demand that the Israelis halt settlement activity — as a precondition for talks — effectively entombs the peace process. And Scowcroft is right about one thing: a moribund peace process is not in America’s interests.
So, to sum it all up, since at least the early 1990s, the policy of the U.S. government towards the conflict has been based on (1) a confusion of cause and effect with respect to extremism in the region, (2) a misunderstanding of what it is that makes the U.S. role indispensable, and (3) a failure to appreciate the profound obstacles to peace in Palestinian political society. It is not “wishful thinking to think that this situation can continue for long,” as General Scowcroft claims. The policies he helped to craft almost guarantee that the situation will continue indefinitely, regardless how much more bloodshed it leads to.