Politics & Policy

Picture Imperfect

Serious policymakers must get serious about the prospect for peace in the Mideast.

Would anyone argue today that the best way to stabilize the Balkans is reviving the Federal State of Yugoslavia?

Whether a united post-Communist Yugoslavia was a realistic political solution to Balkan tensions in 1991 is for historians to determine. It clearly is not today. Historical opportunities rarely linger. After the Balkan wars and their horrors, that window of opportunity and that possible political settlement are no longer available. Opportunities that statesmen failed to seize will not return. Certain arrangements succeed only under certain contingent historical circumstances. Unless seized at the right time, opportunities fade. History is not inevitable and neither is peace.

Not so, it seems, when it comes to the Middle East and the prevalent view that regional stability depends on peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Despite the failure of successive attempts at peacemaking, and despite the current lack of favorable conditions to renew peace efforts, there is a broad international consensus that bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a happy ending is both possible and urgent. Diplomats and policymakers even know the contours of a peace agreement: They assume that before long, an Israeli leader and a Palestinian leader, with the blessing of an American president (and possibly of the European Union and the United Nations) will seal a deal resembling the Clinton Parameters proposed in 2000. Armed with this faith, Western leaders periodically produce their own peace plans, in the almost messianic belief that if they can bring peace to Zion, its light will radiate far and wide.

A sense of urgency is gripping Europe’s leaders. Though divided by worldviews and sometimes even personal antipathies, British prime minister Tony Blair and French president Jacques Chirac have both pledged in recent weeks to solve the Arab-Israeli dispute. Blair, a Labourite, identified Palestine as the “core problem” of the Middle East; in his recent visit to Ramallah, he proclaimed, unperturbed by the civil war being fought under the windows of the presidential palace in Gaza, that “the next week will be critical” for peacemaking. Chirac, who presides over a right-of-center party, recently launched a Middle East peace initiative with Spanish Socialist prime minister Luis Zapatero, which forgot to mention the Roadmap and other principles to which the EU was formerly committed to. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, shares the same sense of urgency: The Palestine question, he said in a recent Timeinterview, is “the mother of all problems.” With the German presidency of the EU now looming, Chancellor Angela Merkel has similarly made an energetic commitment to the Middle East peace process.

For European statesmen, peace between Israelis and Palestinians takes precedence over all other diplomatic initiatives, because it is central to world peace; as the European Council’s final statement reads, “The EU is committed to overcoming the current impasse in the peace process and to easing tensions in the broader region.” With the PA prime ministers and foreign ministers shot at, and battles in the streets of Gaza, it is remarkable that Brussels still calls this “an impasse” But Europe could not do otherwise — sugarcoating the hopeless situation with such language is needed, if you believe that nothing can be fixed unless peace is first achieved in the Holy Land. How you achieve it is also indicative of a mindset: Israel is only expected to make the “necessary steps” for peace. How else could Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema, wish for Israel to make “constructive steps” on the Sheeba Farms to help forestall a crisis in Lebanon? The real steps to forestall a crisis in Lebanon are that the EU — and the rest of the international community — take their own commitments to U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1680, and 1701 seriously and realize that the Lebanese government is not under siege in the Serail because Israel is not making constructive steps on the Sheeba Farms. Besides, the U.N. has already adjudicated the issue in favor of Israel six years ago. Why does D’Alema call on Israel to make overtures? Is it not time that Europe hold the Arab side accountable too

Perhaps this is too much to ask. With so many enemies in the area, the French have so far threatened only the Israeli airforce with hostile action. And in its final act before its semester presidency is over, the Finland asked Israel to clarify its prime minister’s comments on its nuclear program, in light of EU troops’ presence in Lebanon. As if Europe and its troops were truly threatened by Israel, and not by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear designs. But asking for Israel to make amends is easier and it keeps the illusion going in Europe, that Israeli concessions will bring peace to the Middle East — and redemption to the world.–And judging by the wording adopted unanimously by the members of the Baker-Hamilton report — the Mideast-centric view is not uniquely European.

What unites this illustrious lineup of statesmen of different nationalities and political persuasions is not just a commitment to peace, but a conviction that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is — with the right mixture of pressures, incentives, and brinksmanship — possible, imminent, and crucial to the achievement of other important policy goals. This focus is certainly well-intentioned: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a human tragedy that deserves resolution for its own sake, regardless of the extent of positive repercussions it is bound to have on the region and beyond.

The question that serious policymakers must ask, though, is not whether all this is desirable. Of course peace is desirable. The question is whether peace is attainable at present. And on this matter, all historical evidence is against it. The peace efforts of the 1990s occurred under exceptional circumstances: The collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the aftermath of the Gulf War all contributed to unique conditions for peacemaking, which included an exceptional international consensus around the procedures and substance of peacemaking. But the collapse of the Oslo process in 2000 coincided with a return of turbulent times in which the unique conditions that could have given Palestinians a state and Israel its security simply no longer exist. While it is not wholly unreasonable to think that these circumstances may materialize again in the future, one should be once again cognizant of history: The previous missed opportunity for peacemaking occurred in 1947, when another rare set of historical circumstances created an ephemeral international consensus around the two-state solution. In 1947 there existed a rare alignment of forces that made a compromise possible: The end of the old world order, the new one not yet fully formed, opened a rare window of opportunity. History was made differently then by the will of men, but the chance was there for the taking.

Once that opportunity faded — challenged by the Arab refusal to come to terms with Jewish statehood and then overtaken by the events of 1948 — it took another 46 years before a new set of historical circumstances could make peace efforts realistic once again. By then, of course, the substance of a possible agreement between Israel and the Palestinians had been radically altered by half a century of conflict and international politics. But in the 1990s, again, an old order collapsed, giving way to a new world order that was not yet defined. The exuberance of that age was ephemeral, and so were the conditions that made peace possible. Promoting a two-state solution then was realistic, and even urgent. But once that narrow window of history closed, it is foolish to assume a new opening will reoccur soon. A new order of things has crystallized now, and with the return of history to the world stage, the curtains have fallen on the peacemakers.

Statesmen, diplomats, and policymakers should surrender themselves the fact that what was once possible, for but a season, is no more. Peacemaking belongs to yesteryear, and all that a realistic foreign policy can do is to ensure that the current bloodletting does not submerge our allies and subvert our interests in the region. Containment of our enemies and the management of conflict is all that our generation can hope for.

The chance to make peace in 2000 was turned down by the Palestinian refusal to come to terms with history and the limits it imposes on national dreams and fantasies. Their failure to embrace reality now makes the quest for a new opportunity futile, until the historical tide has turned again. Until then, any policy that center on Palestinian-Israeli peace in our times is futile, wasteful, and delusional.

– Emanuele Ottolenghi is executive director of the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels.

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