Politics & Policy

The Tragedy of the Peace Process

Why the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" creates more conflict than it solves.

When the right-wing Benyamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel the first time round in 1996, Clinton-administration officials barely disguised their bitter disappointment. For the next three years, relations between the U.S. and Israel would be dominated by tempests-in-teapots such as what an Israeli bulldozer might have been doing in a particular neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Let’s grant that the Likud party’s policy of Jewish settlements in occupied territories is an obstacle to peace. That should never have been allowed to draw all attention away from the far more deadly and intractable obstacles to peace on the Palestinian side. Alas, history is repeating itself.

After Labor came back to power at the end of Clinton’s term, Yasser Arafat was able to secure almost every concession that Palestinians could ask for at Camp David in 2000 — and promptly rejected the deal. Weeks later, Arafat unleashed the “second intifada” — not a popular uprising like the first, but an organized campaign of suicide bombings that would kill a thousand Israeli civilians in just a few years. The concessions Israel had made for peace, including withdrawal from 90 percent of the West Bank, had proven suicidal.

Many of these same Clinton hands are back at the helm of the “peace process” now, but they hardly seem to have learned from its failures. The Israeli decision to build hundreds of new housing units in a heavily Jewish area of East Jerusalem was “condemned” by the Obama administration. The reaction revealed the personal animus that Obama’s advisers feel toward Netanyahu, a hostility that is a relic of the Clinton administration and an extension-by-proxy of U.S. partisan politics. The reaction also demonstrated that U.S. officials still don’t understand what they themselves have done wrong.

Let’s reiterate that Israeli settlements in the West Bank over many decades have proven a disaster for Israel and everyone else. The mid-1970s alliance of Israel’s secular, security-minded conservatives with an amalgam of religious parties — the future basis both of the settlers’ movement and of the Likud coalitions — created a new set of problems for Israel. This alliance saw the occupied territories not as bargaining chips for a peace settlement, but as land that was both necessary for secure borders and vital to the Zionist birthright. As Bernard Avishai recounts in The Tragedy of Zionism (1985), the project to annex the occupied territories into a “Greater Israel” brought to a fatal point the inherent contradiction between the democratic and nation-state aims of Zionism. How could Israel remain both Jewish and democratic within borders that contained an Arab majority?

But what of the Arabs? After 1967, successive Israeli Labor governments (under Golda Meier and then Yitzhak Rabin) had hoped to trade the occupied territories for peace, but the Arabs simply were not interested. The Arab League adopted the “three no’s of Khartoum”: no peace, no recognition, no negotiation. What they wanted was “justice.” And “justice” meant an end to the “occupation,” in the sense Arabs had used the word since 1948, the sense in which they still use it today, which is to say the occupation of any inch of Arab land by any Jewish state.

In every negotiation, then and now, Israel has aimed to settle the grievances that were born in 1967, which amount to little more than a complex border dispute. But the Arabs remain focused on the grievances of the 1948 War of Independence, which relate not to Israel’s extent, but to its existence as a Jewish state. Arafat could not agree to the U.S.-Israeli peace offer at Camp David because he could not give up on the “right of return” for the descendants of the refugees of 1948. Naturally, the right of return for millions of Palestinians living in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and the occupied territories would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state no matter what its borders. The Arabs’ “recognition” of Israel as a Jewish state is meaningless if they don’t give up on the right of return — and no current Palestinian leadership can do that, even if it wants to.

It is crucial to grasp that even if the Palestinian negotiators were to give up on the right of return and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state on Arab land, they would not be able to bind rejectionist extremists, who would then quickly embrace terrorism, forcing Israel to implement the hated security measures and military operations to finally bring peace and security not through compromise but through devastating military power. This is the cycle that must be broken, and only the Palestinians can break it.  But their society suffers from a profound political infirmity. It is not quite a democracy because everyone’s sense of “justice” trumps the rule of law, the will of the majority, and minority rights. It is not quite a dictatorship — or a state of any kind — because there is no monopoly of violence. Indeed, Hamas has always specifically said that there can be no monopoly of violence so long as the resistance to the “occupation” continues — and remember that when Hamas says “occupation,” it is not talking about territories occupied in 1967, but rather about the existence of a Jewish state on any land claimed by Arabs.

The “peace process” rests upon a false premise, namely that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have equal standing within their own societies and are equally able to keep the promises they make. This ignores the fatal weakness of Palestinian institutions. The Bush-era Dayton mission seeks to build up the security forces of the PLO (now more often called the “Palestinian Authority”) in the West Bank in order to establish the monopoly of violence necessary for basic social order. Tony Blair’s principal mission is the strengthening of Palestinian institutions. The outlook for both projects is hardly rosy, and in any case, they cannot be expected to produce results in the near term. So in the meantime, the political infirmity of Palestinian society, which fatally weakens its representatives in any negotiations, is swept under the rug, in the hopes that it will fix itself. This basic error is part of the tragic pattern of U.S. policy since the early 1990s, and it is perhaps the most fatal flaw of the peace process.

The spat between Obama and Netanyahu would have been unimaginable with a Labor government in Israel. For Obama officials, Dick Cheney might as well be prime minister of Israel as Bibi Netanyahu. But Labor isn’t available to lead Israel now. This is because the failure of Camp David in 2000 broke the party as a coalition leader and it was finally annihilated in the elections of 2009, another casualty of the Clinton-era peace process on which it had staked everything. Because Labor was willing to follow the U.S. in ignoring the weaknesses of Palestinian institutions, and in granting diplomatic dignity to a group of unreformed terrorists as if that alone could transform them into legitimate political leaders, Labor may never rule in Israel again. Israeli politics will now oscillate between two parties — Kadima and Likud — created by Ariel Sharon to secure peace through military strength.

The entire Israeli electorate has shifted to the right. That — and a lot of dead bodies — is what the “peace process” has wrought. The old Clinton hands are miserable having to deal with Likud now, but they are reaping what they sowed. In this sense, blaming a right-wing government in Israel is partly an act of blame-shifting, albeit a sadly unwitting one.

Never mind the fact that no Israeli government — Labor, Likud, or Kadima — has ever given up on construction activity in Jewish areas of East Jerusalem, where one-fourth of the Jewish population of the capital now lives, and which not even the Palestinians expect to get back in a final settlement. Never mind that Netanyahu agreed to halt new construction in Israeli settlements a year ago. Never mind that he has lifted nearly 200 internal roadblocks and checkpoints within the West Bank, unleashing perhaps the greatest surge in Palestinian economic activity in a century. And never mind that Palestinian negotiators have refused to talk to Israel for more than a year. Because the U.S. feels increasingly vulnerable to Arab indignation — reasonable or unreasonable — it will increasingly be tempted to “condemn” Israeli actions regardless of the intrinsic merits of the case.

The results were easily predictable. Now the Palestinian negotiators have added to their list of preconditions for talks the demand that Israel halt all housing construction even in Jewish areas of East Jerusalem. U.S. mediation has degenerated into a strategy of forcing Israel to meet Palestinians demands in order to get the Palestinians to negotiate at all. This can only entice the Palestinians to expand their list of grievances, and that is what they are doing.

At the root of the Obama administration’s misguided approach is a general confusion of cause and effect in the prospects for a two-state solution. In her speech before AIPAC Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that “a two-state solution would allow Israel’s contributions to the world and to our greater humanity to get the recognition they deserve. It would also allow the Palestinians to have to govern to realize their own legitimate aspirations. And it would undermine the appeal of extremism across the region.” Clinton is a smart and capable diplomat, but she has this all exactly backwards.

The Arabs’ acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, the demonstration on the part of the Palestinians that they can govern a state of laws, and the waning of extremism across the region are on the contrary essential conditions for a viable two-state solution. They are part of the necessary foundation for peace. Indeed, after Saddam’s expulsion from Kuwait in 1991, it was progress on all three fronts that made it possible to launch the Oslo process in the first place. Today those goals have receded as far as ever. And it is the peace process that has pushed them away.

Palestinian society has yet to escape the poisonous legacy of Yasser Arafat. His strategy all along was to foment political chaos among his people in order to make the occupied territories ungovernable by Israel. Now, apparently, the Palestinian territories can hardly be governed even by the Palestinians. The net effect is that no matter what group of Palestinians shows up to negotiate for peace, its members will represent nobody but themselves, and in any case there are no Palestinian institutions strong enough to compel them to keep the promises they make.

Given the political infirmities of Palestinian society, the “land for peace” formula at the heart of the Oslo peace process was a recipe for disaster. Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in the interest of peace and got a second Lebanon war instead. It withdrew from most of the West Bank, and was repaid with a thousand Israeli civilians dead. It withdrew from Gaza, forcibly uprooting thousands of Jewish settlers, and the response was thousands of rockets fired at its civilian population, attacks that continue to this day. Still, despite these horrifying object lessons in the flaws of the “peace process,” the Obama administration acts as if the peace process has no flaws at all and if Israel would just make a few more concessions, everything would be okay.

The Obama administration appears to be operating under a profound misappraisal of what it is that makes the U.S. an indispensable mediator in the crisis. Anyone could perform the role of arbiter. But only the U.S. can perform the role of underwriter. Only by underwriting the transaction risk for Israel can the U.S. deliver Israeli concessions. The whole idea of “land for peace” is that Israel will have to make painful territorial concessions, forcibly uprooting perhaps 200,000 settlers, and giving up secure borders, in exchange for vague Arab promises that can easily be broken. Only the U.S. can provide Israel the reassurance it needs to accept what would otherwise be a prohibitive risk. The U.S. performed this role very well in the 1970s (thanks to Henry Kissinger), which is what led to the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. It performed the role poorly in the 1990s, which is what led to the last decade of conflict and to the demise of the Israeli Left. Unfortunately, it is the latter that now serves as the model for U.S. policy.  The perception of American bias in favor of specific Palestinian demands can only lead them to harden their positions, which is part of the reason that Clinton failed to conclude a deal at Camp David.

We need to step back and realize that it is simply inconceivable, after what has happened in the last ten years, that any Israeli government will allow a truly sovereign state to arise in the West Bank. As Netanyahu admitted Monday, given the consequences of Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon and from the Gaza strip, Israel simply cannot and will not risk the rise of a terrorist state in the West Bank, just a few miles from all of its major urban centers, and walking distance from the heart of Jerusalem. The Gaza disengagement definitively proved that Israel cannot risk disengagement from the West Bank. Until the Palestinians fix the political problems of their own society, there is nothing the U.S. can do to underwrite the risk of a two-state solution.

Hence, as Netanyahu made quite clear, a Palestinian state in the West Bank would for the foreseeable future have to live with an Israeli military presence along all of its borders — including its border with Jordan. In other words, any Palestinian state in the West Bank — any “two-state solution” — would look a lot like what Gaza is today: a state under siege, a humiliating prison for its population, and an endless source of grievance from one end of the Muslim world to the other. Indeed, an Israeli security presence on the Gaza-Egypt border was part of the original idea of the Gaza disengagement, but that proved internationally untenable, and the result was the rise of a Hamas terror-state in Gaza. Under current circumstances, the plan for a Palestinian state in the West Bank is a recipe for war. Gen. David Petraeus recently testified that U.S. backing for Israel puts U.S. lives and strategic interests at risk. But that risk will not pass with the implementation of a two-state solution. It may indeed grow far worse.

For the moment, the Palestinians appear, if anything, even less interested in a Palestinian state than the government of Israel. Their posture of preconditions to talks amounts to a reprise of the “three no’s of Khartoum.” More important, they have yet to demonstrate that they can govern their institutions at all, and international charity lets them off the hook of having to provide for the well-being of their people.

The Israelis are playing along with a “peace process” they no longer truly believe in, partly in order to placate the Americans, but mostly in order to give the Palestinians enough rope to hang themselves by proving yet again that they cannot be trusted with their end of the “land for peace” bargain. Israelis have internalized the lessons of Oslo’s failure.

The most remarkable thing about the Gaza war of a year ago is how little opposition it engendered within Israeli society. I arrived in Tel Aviv on the day that the cease-fire was declared. In the following two weeks, try as I might, I was unable to uncover a single Israeli who was willing to criticize the government’s action. I was reminded of what a Sharon adviser said in the course of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza several years before: A final peace agreement would now have to wait “until the Palestinians turn into Finns.”

However long that may take, Israelis have for the moment lost all patience with the Palestinians and their apparently endless grievances. Israel’s youth no longer believe — as they did 20 years ago — that the conflict is Israel’s fault. The “peace process” has created a new generation of fighters.

– Mario Loyola is a former foreign-policy counsel to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.

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