Mosaic Magazine

Why the Peace Process Will Continue

For the Obama administration, it’s a means toward a different end.

  

On April 29, John Kerry’s initiative to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace collapsed. This was the first such failure for the secretary of state, but it was President Obama’s third. 

On the very first morning after his inauguration in 2009, the president appointed George Mitchell, a former senator, as his “special envoy for Middle East peace.” Mitchell’s assignment was ambitious: a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement. After nearly two years of work, the veteran negotiator had nothing to show for his efforts. Facing the possibility of having to abandon a major White House initiative, the president decided, instead, to re-launch it. In September 2010, from the podium of the UN General Assembly, he set a new goal for Mitchell, more narrowly focused but still very ambitious: a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement within one year. This push, too, quickly dissipated. In May 2011, just eight months into the revamped initiative, Mitchell quit altogether.

And now Kerry. Forget about singles and doubles. When it comes to Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the president has struck out three times in a row. What next? Will he admit defeat? Or will he launch a fourth effort?

If the president were a Vulcan—those mythical figures of perfect rationality made famous by Star Trek—he, too, would quit altogether. By now it is obvious that the chances of success are nil. Even clearer, moreover, is that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is hardly the most pressing problem in the Middle East. The dangers from Syria, for example, are much greater. Conservative estimates now put the total number killed in the Syrian civil war at 150,000. That number represents approximately 34,000 more deaths than the Arab-Jewish conflict has caused in its entirety—a period of almost a century. That’s right: Seven major Arab-Israeli wars and many more lesser conflicts, including two intifadas, have killed far fewer people than the Syrian civil war.

And the death tally signifies only a small part of the story. Compare, for example, the Palestinian refugee problem with the Syrian refugee problem. The 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars produced, together, approximately a million Arab refugees. In the case of Syria, the UN has already registered 2.7 million refugees, and this figure, great as it is, does not include unregistered refugees or “internally displaced persons”— people, that is, who have been driven from their homes but who have found refuge inside Syria itself. Those numbers would more than double the UN’s count. 

Many of these refugees, perhaps most, will never return to their homes. The squalid camps into which they have been corralled will form a ring of misery around Syria, a permanent siege line that will define the politics of the Middle East for a generation and maybe longer.

 

Taking all this into account, a Vulcan would devote much more attention to managing the Syrian conflict than to brokering a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. And yet, if the last five years are anything to go by, the American president will not abandon his quest for the latter goal. Why? 

Part of the answer lies in the grip of dogma on the mind of this administration, which has been deeply influenced by the “realist” school of foreign policy. For adherents of this approach, the Palestinian issue has always been—and will always remain—the central strategic problem in the Middle East. The dogma rests on three key propositions, the three “R’s” of the peace process. 

First, American support for Israel, so the realists assert, reverberates around the Muslim world in a manner that redounds, uniquely, to the detriment of the United States. The peace process is a prophylactic device; it can mitigate the damage to American interests by muffling the reverberations. Its purpose, in this view, is not so much to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians as to broadcast the good intentions of America toward all Muslims. Even if it is destined to fail, the show must go on, for merely by existing it refutes the allegation that the United States is partial to Jews and prejudiced against Muslims.

Second, realists claim that in fact the peace process produces real, strategic results. To date, its greatest achievement was the Camp David accords of 1979, a strategic coup that, by ratifying peace between Israel and Egypt, the most important country in the Arab world, removed that country from the Soviet sphere and placed it squarely in the American camp. What was done before can be done again.

Third, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is said to be ripe for solution. If there is a main impediment, it is the Israeli government. Indeed, it was his failure to remove this impediment that caused George W. Bush to miss an earlier prime opportunity to broker a peace agreement. If only Bush had been willing to pound his fist harder on the desk of the Israeli prime minister, so the argument goes, he, too, like Bill Clinton before him, could have presided over another historic handshake on the White House lawn. 

 

False hope springs eternal, and so do false premises. In the case of the Camp David accords of 1979 and the Oslo accords of 1993, what the realist argument fails to recognize is that both of them followed, rather than led to, a bilateral agreement between the two parties. Moreover, when it comes to changing the strategic landscape, the analogy between the Egypt of Anwar Sadat and the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas falls totally apart, for the simple reason that the latter is for all intents and purposes already inside the American security system. The proper analogy to an Israel-Palestinian deal is not Camp David but the Israel-Jordan peace treaty of 1994—a thoroughly agreeable development but one that changed the strategic picture not in the least.

And yet, following the collapse of Kerry’s peace initiative, diehard realists are now weaving a similar fiction. Today’s situation, they insist, is also ripe for solution—were it not for the current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Just as the Clinton administration made clear its wish that Shimon Peres vanquish the same Netanyahu in 1996, so now, we are assured, a peace deal is just one changeover of Israel’s government away—so tantalizingly close, in fact, as to justify yet another American-led peace initiative. 

 

As the president contemplates his next steps, it is impossible to say how seriously he will take the doctrine that the Palestinian problem is the central strategic issue in the Middle East. However, that doctrine is only one of the two motivating factors that could incline him toward continued peacemaking, and the second factor is even more compelling than the first. In brief: continuing the Israel-Palestinian track will allow the president to stake a claim to the moral high ground in his fight with Netanyahu not over the Palestinians, but over Iran.

The interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program that was struck last November eased economic sanctions on that country in exchange for a short-term freeze of (part of) its nuclear program. But that deal also laid Obama open to the accusation that he had stabbed Israel in the back. During a closed-door briefing, Kerry lashed out at his Senate critics (thus inadvertently acknowledging the threat they posed to the administration): “You have to ignore what [the Israelis are] telling you,” Kerry expostulated, “stop listening to the Israelis on this.”

Kerry’s outburst, which undoubtedly expressed the true feelings of the Obama White House, made for bad politics. Since trust of Israel runs high in Congress and among the American people, hostility toward the Israeli government is best expressed through subtler means.

Pursuit of the peace process is just such a means. Not only does it offer Obama a politically safe tool for hammering Netanyahu, it also allows him to mobilize a loose coalition of allies: Americans, Europeans, Israelis, and, especially valuable, liberal American Jews, all of whom regard Jewish settlements on the West Bank either as illegal, as an injustice to the Palestinians, as a threat to the democratic character of Israel, or as all three. This coalition can be reliably expected to endorse any criticism of Netanyahu by the Obama administration as long as it is couched in the language of peace. 

And that language is readily at hand in a fourth “R”—rescue—that has been added to the traditional three “R’s” of the peace process. John Kerry, for one, has proved especially adept at deploying this theme. Recently, he has expressed his deep concern that Israel is at risk of becoming an “apartheid state.” On another occasion, he has voiced his fear that Israeli policies are laying the groundwork for a third intifada. On still another, he has worried out loud about the strength of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS). The message in each case is that Israel is on the road to ruin, and its best friends are those who understand it, who love it, and who will rush to save it—from itself. 

 

Why is this so important now? I have already hinted at the answer: another battle with Congress is looming over the next round of negotiations with Iran. Last fall’s interim agreement expires in July, at which time it will either be extended for another six months or be replaced by an altogether new agreement. Already, reports are circulating that the West is prepared to make still more concessions to Tehran, allowing it to proceed ever closer to nuclear breakout. If these reports turn out to be true, Obama will face bitter opposition from Congressmen and Senators, mainly but not entirely Republican, who are guaranteed to accuse him once more of betraying and abandoning Israel. The defensive strategy of the White House will then focus on the Senate, where Obama will seek to split his critics. That task will be made easier if doves, especially liberal Jewish doves, testify loudly and continuously to the administration’s profound friendship for the Jewish state.

The secretary of state and his supporters portray the administration’s criticisms of Netanyahu as heartfelt statements of their concern—the same concern that drives their reiterated hopes of reviving and reinvigorating the failed peace process. It may be so; but the rescue theme also serves the president’s larger purposes. On one level, it neatly sidesteps the commonsensical observation that peacemaking in the current circumstances is nonsensical by generating a sense of urgency to forge ahead; after all, no one blames the fireman who rushes, against all odds, to save a burning house. On another level, it helps keep Netanyahu distracted and tied up; the tighter he is wrapped around the Palestinian axle, the more freedom of movement Obama will enjoy on Iran.

And so, the very special brand of love that prompts the Obama administration to rescue Israel from itself is likely to be increasingly on display as the debate over the Iran negotiations heats up. One might think that, if he were absolutely certain of failure, the president might be persuaded to abandon efforts to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; but that consideration has never swayed him till now. It is safe to say, then, that we can expect the four “R’s” to run parallel to the Iranian nuclear negotiations—like a rickety old sidecar bolted to a sparkling new Harley.

____________________

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.

 

Comments

  • jobardu

    Another good analysis from Michael Doran. Yet the author leaves out some key facts and observations :

    1. “The 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars produced, together, approximately a million Arab refugees”, and approximately 2 million Jewish refugees (and victims)who were ethnically cleansed from Arab countries. Not a minor omission, especially immediately following the Holocaust.

    2. Actions speak louder than words. Obama has worked hard to sever ties between the US and Israel so his opposition to Netanyahu is little different than his opposition would be to any Israeli leader.

    In essence, Obama is telling the Jewish people his usual euphemistic eyewash “If you like your Israel you can keep your Israel” I suspect that Obama and his close allies will reap a windfall from Arab leaders following the fall of Israel.

    3. Most societies are led by elites and the Jewish elite is living a life of delusion.

    In my own synagogue I was treated like a Cassandra and ostracized when I pointed out the unsupportive policies of the Administration, the resulting threats to Israel and consequently, the threats to the Jewish people.

    Some Evangelical friends of mine regularly ask me why the Jews don’t stick up for themselves, and why anyone else should stick up for them if they won’t. A spin on Maimonides saying about being for yourself.

    Given the blindness of too many Jewish leaders it might be the most humane thing to quietly start arranging a plan B, a location where Jews can go after the fall of Israel.

    • StanleyT

      Great post, thank you.

  • Steve David

    Yeah, for Obama the “peace process” is a means to a different end all right: The end of the Jewish state of Israel. By the way, the author of this incisive piece of gibberish fails to cite one example of who in the Arab world holds America in higher regard (or, more accurately, lower contempt) because we have abandoned Israel.

  • DF

    I have nothing near the writer’s credentials, but as a concerned amateur watcher living in a flat world, I think a few things seem to be overlooked:

    1) Doran’s comments about the dangers of Syria sound to me like tactical rather than strategic thinking. I cringe when I write about body counts in this way, but what are the chances of an American intervention in Syria ending up like the one in Iraq, the Soviet and American meddling in Afghanistan or the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982? The dangers of intervention on the ground seem much higher than any of the other possibilities considered in this article.

    2) The strategic capital to be gained by the US through a Palestinian Israeli settlement: even though the Saudis moving out of the implied US-Israeli-Saudi alliance against Iran, it seems to me to be a political realist move borne out of the Americans making no progress on the Palestine issue and the US courting Iran for an agreement. It seems also to me that progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be CPR to the Saudi peace plan. Reviving the vision set out in this plan would change the Middle East configuration completely and if it does not change the American direction, it likely would alter the framework of the talks in Iran to a situation that favours the West, Israel and pro-Western Arab countries.

    3) Another reason that #2 is important has to do with the fact that guns cost money, require people who are willing and able to provide them, and have the means of getting them to the places that they are intended to go. I am not talking here about whether the US can or would be willing to shell out the kind of cash it would take to try to put out fires in Syria, although this too is important. Here I am referring to Russian and Chinese interests, which aren’t even hinted to in this article.

    4) Finally, a word about what Doran terms “false hope”. Let’s face it, the important features of what a permanent settlement in Eretz Yisrael/Palestine would look like has been known for at least two and a half decades. This includes sticky issues such as Jerusalem and the Right of Return. I, an amateur, know of five drafts that are open source whose differences are tweaks. Lord knows how many classified versions there are that will only be known to our children when they are old. A consistent small majority of Palestinians continue to support a two-state solution, despite the poisonous propoganda to which they are exposed in their education and media. consisThe key question, then, is why it is not working.

    What is seems to be standing in the way is the distorted state of both Israeli and Palestinian politics: Netanyahu cannot silence his coalition partners whose major constituency are Jews living in the West Bank and their supporters within the Green Line nor can he present a peace plan to his own constituency that isn’t a sure thing. If he does, he will forfeit his career or perhaps his life. He should know. He contributed to the atmosphere that did in the last last PM who tried it. On the Palestinan side, even if we dismiss right wing Jewish demonizing of Abu Mazen and recognize that he has in practice assisted Israel in fighting terrorism, is in favour of educating Palestinians on that the right of return is unrealistic, etc.; he is still the head of an unelected government, his own party has a minority mandate and anyway Israel’s negotiating partner is the PLO, which is still recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, not the PA. How is that not distorted? It is no wonder that neither Bibi nor Abu Mazen are prepared to say ‘yes’.

    5) For the number of times that Israel has spat him or his delegates in the face, it is a wonder that he does not to a Ford/Kissinger style reassessment. I don’t think Israel’s influence in Congress can explain this. I think it has more to do with an accurate perception of the Obama administration about Israel’s right to exist.

    • Y,

      Nice recitation of administration talking point while ignoring the article entirely.

      To start:

      1) The argument that American involvement in Syria will include ground troops is nil. Since no one has supported it and suggested it. You (and the admin) are creating a false dillema.

      2) There’s very little that would change in the ME with any form of peace apart from that little corner of the Levant. Iran would still be doing what it is doing, the GCC would still be repressive absolute monarchies with no economy apart from oil, and nearly all the rest of the Arab states would still be mostly economic basketcases with repressive dictatorships. And Islamism would still threaten everyone.

      3) Tried to read this several times, and it doesn’t make any sense in any language I’m aware of.

      4) Yeah, the parameters for an arrangement that very few will accept are indeed widely known. There’s in fact a slight majority to the rejection of said parameters in Palestinian polls, and whenever one polls for specifics one always gets a supermajority opposed on both sides. See “Getting to No” on the American Interest. IMHO, The problem is mainly the offered deals don’t make any sense for either side.

      5) Yeah, it’s Israel who has spat Obama on the fact. Not, say, those clamouring for a “third intifadah”.

  • Beatrix17

    Why does Abbas insist on the “right of return” for 5 million people—the few
    living refugees and all their descendents? The UN created two nations, Jewish and Arab. Why do the Palestinians say that all of Israel belongs to them?

    Because the Arabs believe in WAQ. Any territory once under control of Muslims forever
    belongs to Islam. In the 600s, after Jews had been in Israel for over 2000 years, Arab marauders attacked and controlled Israel (called Palestine) followed by 600 years of Muslim rule under the Ottoman Empire. According to WAQ, Israel is a Muslim nation.

    Until the West faces the fact that it’s not just Israel that isn’t Western and Christian, but neither are the Arab Muslims, no Western leader will be able to help establish peace.

  • Jules

    Jobardu – Israel is not going to fall and any Plan B is an illusion today, just as it was in the days of the Holocaust. In the words of the poet Chaim Guri “a people does not flee from the fortifications of its life”.

  • Beatrix17

    Articles showing that Jews have a historical right to Israel miss the point. Islamic marauders invaded Israel in the 600s and from 1301-1922, the Islamic Ottoman
    Empire ruled Israel,which had been named Palestine by the Roman conquers. According to WAQ any land ruled by Islam always belongs to Islam.

    Muslims believe Islam was the first religion, and that the Jews and the Christians tried to bring Islam to the world and failed. That’s why they are a dhimmi people and why
    Abraham, Jesus and Jerusalem belong to Muslims who have superseded the failed religions.

    Palestinians aren’t the equivalent of black people in the 1960s South. That was propaganda by Arafat. Palestinians belong to a people that are 500 million strong in the Mideast to Israel’s 6 million, and 1 ½ billion strong worldwide.

    The West is trying to impose Western history on two nations that are neither Western nor Christian.

    Jordan and Egyptian agreements with Israel simply state that they will no longer shoot at each other and will discus security matters. There is no friendship. Palestine, in order to have peace, would have to acknowledge that Israel belongs to the Jews, and they would have to interact with Jews as equals. They cannot do this, but they might agree to Hudna, a ten year peace. Non-Muslims are suspicious of this, but Egypt’s agreement has lasted 35 years,. It may be enough.

  • df

    Beatrix- On the Right of Return, see #4 of my previous post. We Jews also believe that Eretz Yisrael forever belongs to the people of Israel. But this does not erase the question of whether ruling over 3 million people who don’t want you as their boss erodes the character and values of your own society without adding to your security.

    Most Arabs have also accepted that they can’t make Israel go away. Abu Mazen has said many times publicly to his own people that the refugees need to realize that they need to throw their rusty keys away, because the Jews who live where their houses were are not leaving. No Arab leader seriously believes that more than a few thousand refugees will be admitted into Israel and only a fraction of the five million in the diaspora will return to Palestine if it is actually created.

    It is necessary to distinguish rhetoric and symbols from actual reality, the two may not correspond .

    The Right of Return has centrality to Palestinians more or less similar to the Temple Mount is as a symbol. As I have noted, there are real possible solutions being seriously considered by responsible leaders. Do your own surfing and you will find them.

    Jobardu – I suggest that you read and think about Chaim Guri’s thoughts about the continued occupation of the West Bank.

    • Beatrix17

      After the Holocaust, Jews were often treated with contempt for not fighting back, and so when they got to Israel, Jewish soldiers had miraculous victories. The Arabs lost physical battles, but are winning the 60 year old propaganda battles.
      Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan were actually hudnas (temporary truces while the other side prepares for war). Both Egypt and Jordan refuse friendship, but Israel has given them no reason not to maintain peace.

      Israel does not want to continue ruling over the Palestinians, but neither Arafat nor Abbas have responded to generous peace offers because they’re afraid of being killed by theirown people. Hamas has already offered Israel a hudna agreement, which Israel refused because it enables Hamas to prepare for war, But with the right kind of American support it may work. And Arab egos are salved because they’re outsmarting the Jews. Israel can make peace—they’ve done it twice before.

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