The Return of the Peace Processors

For decades, America’s foreign-policy establishment has, in the name of peace, incentivized conflict in the Middle East. Now that it’s back in power, can it learn from its mistakes?

Robert Malley, then-National Security Council senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf States, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Secretary of State John Kerry, and under-secretary for political affairs Wendy Sherman attend the Iran nuclear talks at a hotel in Vienna, Austria on June 30, 2015. POOL/Siamek Ebrahimi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Robert Malley, then-National Security Council senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf States, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Secretary of State John Kerry, and under-secretary for political affairs Wendy Sherman attend the Iran nuclear talks at a hotel in Vienna, Austria on June 30, 2015. POOL/Siamek Ebrahimi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Feb. 1 2021
About the author

Shany Mor is a lecturer in political thought at Reichman University and a frequent writer on politics, foreign policy, and Israel.

To many, the end of the Trump era feels like a restoration period, when old habits and frameworks can be put back in the position they held before the man from Queens came and upended the place. There is no doubt much truth to this idea, but it would be a mistake to see it as universally desirable. On foreign policy, there is likely no going back to the elite consensus from left and right regarding unfettered free trade and accommodation with China that reigned for decades before 2016. Something there has cracked open, and, in a quiet but palpable manner, there is no constituency in American politics right now that wants to put it back together.

Toward the less consequential but more emotive region of the Middle East, which has seen enormous change in the last few years, one might think that now too is a good moment to reevaluate the old habits of mind that were flung aside, sometimes wisely, sometimes with a reckless abandon, by the previous administration. But going by the signals sent by the Biden team—staffed, like their chief, by women and men with long careers—little reevaluation seems likely to happen: unlike with the issue of China, those now in the halls of American power seem set on gluing back together the cracks in the Middle East consensus. Perhaps it is because, also unlike with the issue of China, there is a large constituency that preferred things just the way they were.

The establishment conversation on Israel and its neighbors has been dominated for more than 30 years by members of a guild who have recently come to be referred to (often with a certain measure of snark) as the peace processors. Until recently, they have only ever been criticized from circles outside of official power (left-wing Israel-haters, right-wing isolationists, the Iran lobby, assorted Assad apologists, and so on); within the community of intellectuals, practitioners, journalists, civil servants, congressional-committee staff, and think-tank denizens who define the consensus on such matters, the dominance of peace-processor habits of mind have rarely been questioned. They’ve largely managed to escape partisan sniping too, a rarity in contemporary Washington. (Many of them are Democrats or moderate liberals, but a large cohort also served in the Reagan and both Bush administrations.)

To speak of the peace processors as one coherent group is, of course, a contrivance, even if a necessary one. Some came to influence in the Madrid and Oslo years under Presidents Bush, Sr. and Clinton, while others styled themselves resistors of the foreign-policy “blob” (of which they were actually card-carrying members) in the Obama years. They encompass a range of expertise and a range of opinions, but they all share a few intellectual commitments that are rarely questioned and that are handed down year after year as the guild admits new apprentices and mints new members.

The foundational premises that animate the guild’s work in the Middle East have been shown, repeatedly and consistently, to be simply wrong. The region has changed greatly since they were last in power; in recent years, nearly every pillar of wisdom about it has been upended by actual events. About certain of these failures of analysis we should be forgiving—there is nothing new or remarkable about making a faulty judgment about complex and chaotic political events that are by their very nature unpredictable.

But there is a difference between being accidentally wrong and systematically wrong. On Twitter, videos of John Kerry (formerly President Obama’s secretary of state, and now the new Biden administration’s climate czar) proclaiming that there would never be normalization agreements between Israel and the Gulf monarchies reappear almost daily. Kerry’s blithe confidence in predicting something would never happen that when it did it surprised (almost) everyone is embarrassing, but it isn’t the real problem. That problem is far larger. The establishment consensus he represents has been consistently wrong on the Middle East and in particular on Arab-Israeli peace in ways that are far from just accidental. The wrongness recapitulates itself time and again in the same set of biases, the same habits of mind. It survives and recurs in a way accidental wrongness could not because it stems from a larger perceived rightness within the group enunciating it.

The reaction of the peace processors to the repeated failures of the real world to live up to their expectations is damning; it speaks to an intellectual community that is blind to the realities of Middle East politics—this is often noted—as well as to any coherent theory of what peacemaking and negotiation actually entails, an observation that is much less often noted but is at the core of America’s failures to deliver peace over the last few decades. Instead, the processors have come to base their actions on a moral impulse, one that is never openly spelled out, and for good reason.


I. New Scores and Old Scores


The list of items that the consensus view has recently been wrong on is not short. Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, we were told, was going to lead to an explosion of violence across the Muslim world that might approach or even dwarf the second intifada (“a deadly provocation,” the journalist Peter Beinart wrote); when the recognition came a few years ago, nothing of the sort happened, and Israeli-Palestinian violence remains at its lowest point in decades. A fence separating Israel from the West Bank was doomed to fail because it didn’t address the real motivations of suicide bombers; after the fence was built, suicide bombing dwindled. Assassinating Hamas leaders was supposed to create even more terrorists, on a kind of cut-them-off-and-they’ll-grow-back-twice-as-strong principle; somehow, this too never came to pass.

Then there is the less obvious but even more important case of the Golan. For decades, the consensus across the foreign-policy establishment was that an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights would yield a peace treaty with Syria and grant Israel real security of a kind that the strategically located plateau couldn’t. As recently as 2010, Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and for decades one of the most central figures in American Israel policy, wrote, in a New York Times op-ed that reads today like an abridged catalog of clichéd expert wrongness, that “nothing could better help Obama to isolate Iran than for Netanyahu to offer to cede the Golan.” Israelis opposed to a withdrawal from the Golan were regularly dismissed as land-hungry and short-sighted rubes who didn’t understand that in an age of missiles territory no longer mattered. But matter it did. For all the horrors of the Syrian Civil War in the past decade—barrel bombs, chemical weapons, kidnappings and beheadings, mass displacement, terrorist spillover in Western capitals—it’s almost impossible to imagine that it could have been worse. Yet a war at that intensity on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee would have presented any number of factions with too big a temptation not to carry out an attack on Israel and thereby turn a comparatively contained hell into full-blown regional bloodbath.

Israelis opposed to a withdrawal from the Golan were regularly dismissed as land-hungry rubes who didn’t understand that in an age of missiles territory no longer mattered. But matter it did.

Next on the list of wrong recent judgments is Turkey. One of the certainties of the early Obama years that has been definitively memory-holed relates to the positive role that the Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan was going to play as a modernizing, moderating, democratic Islamist. Despite a long record of public anti-Semitism stretching back decades to his student-activist days, and despite autocratic tendencies that were barely hidden even in the early days of his rule, he was routinely hailed in Western capitals as an example of how to make Islam and democracy work. (It can hardly be a coincidence that the peak period for this was in 2009-2010 when he was seen as “standing up” to Israel.) Obama himself chose Turkey as the first destination for his outreach to the Middle East, urging it in 2009 to “help bridge the gap between the Muslim and Western worlds.”

Erdogan is in fact an exemplary illustration of a larger tendency in American foreign policy debates the peace processors can’t escape: the way that those debates function mostly as projections of domestic political prejudices, prejudices rarely emanating from an ideology or any real theory of the world but instead nearly always centered, in the last three decades at least, around the personality of the current American president. Erdogan’s friendly relationship with both Barack Obama and Donald Trump is perhaps the most common foreign-policy thread across the two very different administrations. There’s an apparent irony there, but only because the Obama crowd and the Trump crowd were so eager to see in him the kind of leader who fit their respective agendas. It didn’t hurt in both cases that the people Erdogan seemed to upset most in domestic American circles—liberal internationalists in the Trump years or pro-Israel voices in the Obama years—were precisely the ones seen as blocking the reigning administration’s larger foreign-policy goals.

Still, the long record of wrongness didn’t begin in the Trump years and it didn’t begin in the Obama years either. Very few endeavors of conflict resolution (or conflict management) have had as much intellectual energy invested in them as the Arab-Israeli, and more specifically Palestinian-Israeli, problem. And few have had results more disappointing to the expectations of experts whose ideas were so smart, so worldly, and so time-tested that it was inconceivable to them that they could fail. And then fail again and again and again. But even that didn’t hurt as much as watching people with, in their own estimation, half the smarts and sophistication succeed.


II. Gonna Process Like It’s 1999


Few diplomatic battles anywhere have carried so much emotional and intellectual weight for those who are supposed to be helping to mediate them as the Oslo process of the 1990s. Perhaps that’s because nothing of that process unfolded the way it was supposed to. Hardly any of the certainties of the 1990s came to pass, and the stories the experts involved have told themselves about why this is have been more exercises in cognitive-dissonance resolution than real attempts to come to grips with the events that actually unfolded. (As I’ve written, the same dynamic of cognitive-dissonance resolution has unfolded in Israel with the Labor party in almost exactly the same way. The commonality shows us just how difficult it is to come to terms with a faltering worldview, especially in public. I hope I never have to.)

By achieving autonomy for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the Accords were supposed to lead to a reduction in violence on both sides. They did not. Instead they led almost instantly to a massive increase in violence, so that, mere months after the first Oslo agreement was signed in 1993, the first suicide bombing in Israel took place. And then the second a week after that and the third a few months after that.

At this point the first attempt to resolve dissonance appeared. Since suicide bombing was contrary to the expectations set ahead of time by the processors, who were then at the early height of their influence, the history of those expectations needed to be rewritten. Suddenly we were told that bombings were caused by “opponents of peace” and that everyone always knew that there would be a temporary spike in terrorism in the initial stages of the peace process. (I was never able to find a single expert supporter of Oslo who actually predicted this before, but somehow everyone knew it was the case after.) “Extremists fear that Palestinian self-rule will succeed,” explained a typical New York Times op-ed after a deadly spate of Palestinian bombings in 1994-95.

Since suicide bombing was contrary to the expectations set ahead of time by the processors, the history of those expectations needed to be rewritten.

Then, when the Israeli right returned to power in 1996-99, the tune changed again. Suddenly suicide bombings were no longer caused by extremists rebelling against moderates but by Palestinian frustration at the now-slowing peace process. “When people see that they are being given a chance to run their own lives and build their own country, they do not want violence,” wrote Anthony Lewis in a typical Times op-ed in 1997, seemingly unaware that the preceding three years of suicide attacks had come during a period of rapid and repeated Israeli withdrawals from Palestinian cities and towns in a process that was giving their inhabitants a chance to run their own lives. (This myth persists today; in 2018 the Brookings Institution, chief temple of Washington foreign-policy centrism, named the first reason for the second intifada to be “anger over a stagnating peace process.”)

Indeed, bringing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) into the occupied territories and allowing them to build proto-state institutions was supposed to give the Palestinians “something to lose,” in the popular formulation of the day. In short order the new Palestinian Authority ran its own education and health systems, issued passport and stamps, recruited multiple armed forces, built an international airport in Gaza, and drew in an unprecedented amount of international aid and investment—much of which was lost with the descent into suicidal violence in the second intifada.

Yet the peace processors seem uninterested in why the decision to forgo all these gains happened, why it was so popular at the time, and why so few Palestinians have criticized it even now, twenty years later, when the dire consequences are so clear. It is, for reasons that are never clearly enunciated even as they are widely understood, considered egregiously impolite to challenge the Palestinians on the wisdom of their decisions, both in how they managed the interim period of the Oslo era and in the pointless sacrifice of all that had been achieved in a nihilistic rage. In fact, it’s considered impolite even to speak of these as Palestinian decisions at all.


III. Peace Process, What Is it Good For?


What is a peace process supposed to achieve anyway? To put the question differently, what is the goal of mediation in situations of conflict? We might say that a successful mediation, whether it be between labor and management, a divorcing couple, or two warring states, advances a solution that will be more beneficial to both parties than open confrontation could be for either.

The application of this basic truth is pretty straightforward in conflicts that don’t involve Israel. Put Israel into the mix, however, and the principle dissolves. Instead, we have a system that appears designed to produce conflict. This is most apparent in the consistent shift for peace proposals since the failure of Oslo to adopt positions that are closer to Palestinian demands and farther from Israeli ones. Since 2000, when Arafat refused peace at Camp David and launched the second intifada, every single peace initiative—whether formal offers at Taba in 2001 or from Olmert in 2008 or at the Kerry-mediated talks in 2014 or informal plans such as Geneva in 2003 or various plans from various interested parties in Europe and elsewhere—has offered the Palestinians better conditions.

In other words, the side that rejected a negotiated peace offer, initiated a violent confrontation in the wake of this rejection, and was defeated in that confrontation keeps getting better offers. If we did not know the names or nationalities of the belligerent parties in this conflict, it would be obvious to one and all that this approach to conflict resolution, whether morally just or unjust, can only lead to more and not less conflict, to more and not less violence. Yet it is an unspoken, unchallenged consensus among those who pour all their intellectual energies into the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

There is no need to know anything about Israelis or Palestinians to know that this approach is doomed to fail. You could know not one single word in Hebrew or Arabic and still you would know enough.

This is not a method anyone would consider anywhere else. This is not actually a theory of conflict resolution. It is not a peace process in any way we might recognize. There is no need to know anything about Israelis or Palestinians to know that this approach is doomed to fail. You could know not one single word in Hebrew or Arabic and still you would know enough to recognize that it cannot work.

And for the twenty years since Camp David it has not worked.

How then does this method of peacemaking remain with us? It remains because it is buttressed by an ahistorical story, a fable told within the processors’ guild, of what went wrong over these last twenty years that ignores the perverse incentives this method creates and instead focuses invariably on three excuses for why Oslo didn’t succeed: the Rabin assassination, the “inexorable rightward shift” of Israeli politics, and Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank.

It’s commonly claimed that the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzḥak Rabin, who led the peace process from the Israeli side, brought about a right-wing government that opposed the process and sabotaged Oslo. As Martin Indyk put the view in a 2015 interview, “Things went downhill dramatically from that point on and the Oslo process has never recovered.” The problem is that’s just not true. The assassination didn’t strengthen the Israeli right, dramatically or not. In fact, the Likud was weakened in the polls after the murder and only began to recover months later, after a spate of suicide bombings in Israeli cities in February-March 1996. If anything, the murder of Rabin pushed the consensus Israeli positions on nearly all the major issues of peace to the left of where they were, something the Palestinians could have exploited to their benefit had they not embarked on a bombing campaign in early 1996 and had they not six months later turned their uniformed armed forces against the IDF in the so-called Tunnel Riots.

The second excuse for Oslo blames its failure on the “rightward drift,” to use the phrase Aaron David Miller, one of the architects of Oslo and another major figure in the American-Israeli establishment, uses to describe Israeli society over the last twenty years. Israel has indeed elected more conservatives than liberals (so have Britain, Germany, and others) in this time, but that narrative doesn’t explain what those who tell it think it does, because it again obscures the consistent shift in Israel’s basic diplomatic positions to a more, rather than less, accommodating stance on nearly every issue pertaining to the Palestinians. Prime Minister Rabin went to his grave opposing full-fledged Palestinian statehood; indeed, as late as 2000, consensus positions on the Israeli left were that Israel would maintain a permanent presence in the Jordan Valley, that many settlements would be annexed, that a final border between Israel and a future Palestinian entity on the West Bank would look nothing like the 1949 armistice line, and that a united Jerusalem would remain in Israeli hands. But by 2014, an Israeli government of the right was negotiating a final-status accord with concessions reaching beyond nearly all of these positions.

Now we arrive at the third excuse, which holds that Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank has killed or is killing the peace process. The evidence usually expressed for this point is the raw number of settlers living on West Bank land. As the Brookings scholar Khaled Elgindy put it in a Vox interview a couple years ago, “You’ve gone from something like 270,000 Israeli settlers in 1993 to now more than double that, around 630,000.” Though this number has indeed increased, it remains an odd way to present the problem, making sense only when you consider that other, more important indicators don’t support the case at all. The number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank was largely unchanged in the Oslo years (about 120 both before and after), and the amount of West Bank land built up in settlements also didn’t change very much, remaining between 1.5 percent and 2 percent, depending on how you count these things. Moreover, the demographic balance between Israelis and Palestinians didn’t change very much either (between 12 and 15 percent of the West Bank population is Jewish, depending on whether eastern Jerusalem is factored in), because—this is the most crucial point here—just as the number of Jews in the West Bank grew and grows, so too did and does the number of Arabs, thanks to a process known as parents having children. In fact, the place where the demographic balance changed most during the same period is inside Israel, where an Arab minority of 18 percent has grown to just over 20 percent. The annual number of Israelis migrating from Israel to the West Bank—in other words, those actually settling—has declined by roughly two-thirds since the 1990s even as Israel’s population nearly has doubled.

Thus, the argument that settlements are making partitioning the land into two Jewish and Arab states impossible—an argument beloved of Kerry (“we see the hope of peace slipping away”) and Obama and many others—sounds plausible until you realize that this isn’t some imaginary notion that can’t be tested but rather a specific hypothesis that can and has been. For all the growth in settler numbers, Israel did agree to withdraw from most of the West Bank and to evacuate most of the settlements in 2000 at Camp David and again in 2001 at Taba and again in 2007 at Annapolis and again in 2008 in the Olmert-Abbas talks. Settlers and their champions in the Knesset did not make life easy for the prime ministers who made these concessions, but they were powerless to stop them.

What stopped the concessions from becoming real was Palestinian rejection. Yet we have an intellectual edifice that obscures this fact and endeavors instead to recreate over and over the same incentives to rejection that will lead to more of it.

The dominant mental image of the theory that settlements block a two-state solution is always of “time running out,” that what might be possible now won’t be when the number of settlers reaches some undefined “point of no return” when it will become impossible to effect a practical partition. But along any parameter that could be thought to be such a point, all the dramatic changes happened well before Oslo and very little (with the exception of road building, a topic worthy of discussion but not in this essay) has happened since. The demographic balance in the West Bank, the percent of land built up by settlements, the number of settlements—all these did change in dramatic and consequential ways between 1967 and 1993, and especially in the periods 1977-1984 and 1990-1992. But if a two-state solution was possible 25 and fifteen years ago, it is still possible now. Moreover, the “time running out” claim isn’t even taken seriously by those making it. If it were, it would be a reason for them to apply pressure consistently not to the Israelis but to the Palestinians: sign a peace deal now for more land than you can possibly hope to achieve in a deal later. Somehow, that pressure never comes.


IV. Habits of Speech, Habits of Mind


How have so many people who really should know better gotten so confused about such a basic understanding of how mediation, bargaining, negotiation, and conflict resolution work? How have they talked themselves into an understanding of power that is so removed from human behavior? The establishment denial of Palestinian agency isn’t just a product of a patronizing and Orientalist mindset, and it isn’t just a reflection of the fact that the Palestinians are the much weaker side in the conflict. It is, more than anything else, a reflection of the fact that the peace process is not just based on a broken theory of mediation, but isn’t actually about mediating between two warring peoples at all; nor is it even about the national liberation of the Palestinian people. It is, rather, a moral stance in the minds of the peace processors, a moral stance not so much concerned with rescuing the defeated Palestinians, but instead concerned with restoring a balance to the region by rescuing the victorious Israelis, morally and spiritually fallen by their very victory. (Why victory makes Israel morally fallen, I’m not sure, because no one has ever managed to explain it to me. That Israeli triumph is a kind of impurity is treated as definitional, and is clearly separate from the dilemmas, say, of the occupation—witness the baseless hand-wringing prompted by Israel’s apparent success at coronavirus vaccination just this past month.)

This thinking is revealed by a few habits of speech so ingrained in the consensus they are barely noticeable to those who speak them. These habits serve not only as signals of membership in a community of thoughtful thinkers but also as markers of sophistication to the outside world, as some counterintuitive bits of wisdom that prove you’re a deeper thinker.

The first habit: when Israel has done something which appears to have improved its position vis-à-vis some enemy or rival, you need to furrow your brow and like a parent who is more disappointed than angry assert that this move will not achieve its goal but rather backfire on Israel because—well, because anything really. It will harden opposition. It will empower the radicals. It will create more resentment. It will miss the root causes of the problem.

This habit has one huge underlying—indeed probably unconscious—function: it transmutes moral and emotional discomfort into dispassionate analysis.

This habit has one huge underlying—indeed probably unconscious—function: it transmutes moral and emotional discomfort into dispassionate analysis. After all, asserting as a simple fact of the world that Israel cannot win by pursuing something—often something plainly in its own reasonable interest, like, say, the elimination of terrorists—rather than stating a desire held by the observer saves a lot of awkwardness and questions asked about why the third-party mediator is so invested. I don’t have a dog in this race, the attitude goes; I’m just predicting the future. But strangely the predicted future always happens to satisfy the mediator’s own feelings, and, more damningly, that future rarely arrives.

The second peace-processor habit of mind instructs the expert to never take what Israelis or Arabs say at face value but rather to interpret it for them. This tic is quite peculiar because, for the most part, both Arabs and Israelis tend to be remarkably honest about their aims, means, and fears in the conflict. (This goes double when their leaders are speaking to their own peoples in their own native languages.) But it seems as if their honesty makes the mediators uncomfortable. Thus, to take the recent normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab world as an example, the absence of existing diplomatic relations between those countries was often described in Western media as the result of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, rather than as the result of the openly stated and long-standing Arab consensus that Israel’s existence was illegitimate, that its presence shouldn’t be accepted, that it shouldn’t appear on maps, shouldn’t be traded with, shouldn’t even be referred to by name. Along similar lines, it’s now a common practice when translating into English vox-populi segments of Arab public opinion on the conflict to translate the word “Jew” as “Israeli,” making the hatred everyone is keen to deny or minimize a bit more palatable.

The same habit of translation happens when the Israelis speak too. Their openly stated concern about security is never actually understood to be about security; no, it’s at best a negotiating tactic. That holds true both vis-à-vis the Palestinians and vis-à-vis attitudes towards Israel’s understanding of its main regional adversary, Iran. The assassination widely attributed to Israel of an Iranian nuclear scientist this autumn couldn’t possibly be because Israel is genuinely concerned about the threat posed by Iranian nuclear weapons. No, it must instead be some complicated three-dimensional chess move intended “to undermine the possibility of a quick U.S.-Iran détente once the president-elect, Joe Biden, takes office in January,” in the words of the Guardian. The head of the new administration’s Iran portfolio, Robert Malley, another veteran of the peace process, agreed, arguing that the assassination was intended to “make it all the more difficult for [Trump’s] successor to resume diplomacy with Iran.” (When Malley was recently criticized for his positions on Iran, a who’s who of peace processors popped up raging in defense. “Smears” or “dissembling” came the cry from Indyk; “petty, political, smack[ing] of hypocrisy,” Aaron David Miller thought. The common theme of the fraternal order rushing to Malley’s defense was the deeply held conviction that none of the criticism could possibly have been made on any other basis than extremely bad faith. Dennis Ross, envoy to the Middle East under multiple administrations over the past few decades, was more or less alone in addressing the content of the criticism, mostly regarding Malley’s positions on the 2015 nuclear deal.)

At the same time, it goes without saying that Iran’s many threats to wipe Israel off the map are just bluster. Only someone quite unsophisticated and uncouth could take those seriously or use them as a basis for serious policy considerations. This, it will be remembered, was the same attitude taken to Yasir Arafat and his many pronouncements throughout the Oslo period that he had no intention of reconciling himself to a Jewish state, that he remained committed to a “jihad for Jerusalem,” and that the Accords were merely a “despicable truce” comparable to one the Prophet Mohammad had signed and subsequently abrogated. In each interim agreement, Arafat, in exchange for new territorial concessions from Israel, committed to revoking the Palestinian Charter calling for Israel’s destruction. The withdrawals happened, but the Charter’s revocation never really did. It would have been a purely symbolic act, much less onerous than withdrawing from territory, but the Palestinians were never able to deliver on it, and (or perhaps because) the peace processors were nearly unanimous in dismissing its importance. Yet for Israel to insist, as it has recently, that a Palestinian statement of full recognition be part of any peace deal can’t possibly be a lesson learned. No—that’s just a clever pretext to torpedo the whole deal.

So ask yourself: who was better equipped to see Arafat’s rejection of peace? The people who spent seven years telling us not to get caught up in his melodramatic bluster and his love of symbols? Or the people who were spoiling the party by constantly questioning why the most basic condition of peacemaking—an acceptance of the other side—had not been met? And who for that matter has been better equipped to explain costly Iranian misadventures in Syria and Lebanon over the past decade? Those who told us not to take seriously the bloody fervor of Tehran’s anti-Israel rhetoric? Or those who understand that such fervor is at least part of how the current regime there conceives of its interests and goals?


V. The Unspoken Moral Impulse


If you want to see a great example of how the consensus habits of mind among America’s foreign-policy experts continue to incentivize rejection, and continue to confuse their own moral impulses for strategic analysis, the best place to look is in a glossy new report called “A New U.S. Strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” issued by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), another highly regarded Washington think tank. I don’t mean this sarcastically. The report is the best-written and most seriously considered engagement on the issue from within the peace-processor guild. Its authors are not Israel-haters or one-staters, but three respected Washington analysts who clearly care about American interests a great deal and want what’s best for Israel as well. (I’ve met two of them a few times and enjoy their company and their expertise very much.) Their primary intellectual commitment is one I happen to share, namely that Israel cannot be expected to survive and thrive unless it can find a way to end its long-term military and (especially) civilian presence in the West Bank—and that American policy should be geared to incentivizing the steps that lead to an Israeli withdrawal from most of this territory. Their report is meant to serve as a blueprint for the Biden administration, and it reflects better than any other I have read a consensus that has forgotten everything and learned nothing.

Their report is meant to serve as a blueprint for the Biden administration, and it reflects better than any other I have read a consensus that has forgotten everything and learned nothing.

The shibboleths are all there. Israeli politics have “moved even further rightward over the past two decades.” Charts and figures focus on the raw number of settlers without adverting to more relevant statistics like the number of settlements, the demographic balance between Israelis and Palestinians in the territories, or the percentage of built-up land—presumably because these numbers wouldn’t support the implicit case being made. And the report’s description of the Oslo years lays out Israel’s contributions to the stalemate in clear and active sentences while hedging passively on the contributions of the Palestinians. (That description ends with two paragraphs about how American and Israeli policies “have only exacerbated the problems in Palestinian politics,” though there is no mention of how Palestinian terrorism has repeatedly weakened moderates in Israel.)

Meanwhile, the PLO is credited repeatedly with having recognized Israel’s legitimacy (each time to serve as the moderate foil to the more radical Hamas, which has not), but no mention is made of its failure to fulfill its basic obligation under Oslo to nullify its charter calling for Israel’s destruction, or for the unwillingness of even the most moderate Palestinian leadership to accept any wording in a final-status agreement that would indicate a full mutual recognition and termination of claims.

What’s more, in nearly 100 pages, I could find no mention of the central fact of the peace process’s failure, namely that the Palestinian side rejected final-status offers repeatedly and consistently whether they came from Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, Ehud Olmert, or John Kerry. The occupation and its long duration are mentioned at least 28 times, with zero references to how it started (an Arab defeat in a war whose openly stated goal was the elimination of Israel) or why it lasted (the refusal to make a full peace with Israel). No serious discussion is given to the consequences of the explosion of terrorism against Israeli civilians that began as soon as the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, including its effect on Israeli public opinion.

The blindness continues. The report attempts to solve the problems its authors wish to diagnose but not the problems that the region actually confronts. It includes a special section on “U.S. Options to Induce Israeli Policy Changes” but, revealingly, no such section on inducing Palestinian policy changes. There is more text in it on legal processes by which the United States could certify that the PLO doesn’t support terrorism than on, say, the actual question of whether the PLO supports terrorism. Even worse, the report advocates restoring funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), though nothing could be more inconsistent with a goal of two states for two peoples. UNRWA is an agency without parallel in any other conflict zone that—by maintaining the fiction that descendants of displaced Palestinians, including those with Jordanian or even Palestinian citizenship, are still refugees—expands the conflict rather than helps to resolves it.

On top of that, the report departs from two major precedents that it claims to be upholding, and in ways that indicate its authors are unaware of that departure, so deeply have they drunk from the peace-processor well.

The first of these paradigm shifts can be understood by peeking at the section in the CNAS report on policy recommendations, which ends with a call for America to adopt four “key parameters consistent with UNSCR 242,” the landmark 1967 UN Security Council resolution:

—Two states, with borders based on the June 4, 1967 lines, adjusted with mutually agreed-upon land swaps on an equal basis.

—Safeguards for Israeli security concerns, consistent with Palestinian needs for sovereignty and security, constructed on the foundation of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

—Two capitals in Jerusalem.

—A just and agreed solution for Palestinian refugees.

But of these four points, three don’t appear in the cited resolution 242 at all. In fact, they mostly contradict it. That resolution explicitly does not determine the June 4 lines as a basis for a future border, both to preserve ambiguity and because they too were the result of “acquisition of territory by force” on the part of Egypt and Jordan. It never mentions two states or land swaps. It never mentions Palestinian sovereignty, demilitarized or otherwise. And it never mentions two capitals in Jerusalem. It does mention refugees, but the language seems to apply to all refugees from the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The departure from the Oslo framework is equally dramatic. The two sides are expected to arrive at a “just and agreed solution” on one final-status issue—refugees—while on another—security—“safeguards” for Israeli concerns need to be counterpoised by “Palestinian needs.” No such reticence is shown for any other final-status issues. In fact, the report explicitly prejudges the others—statehood, borders, Jerusalem, settlements—all to the advantage of one side, the side that happens to be the one that didn’t live up to its treaty obligations during the peace process, rejected every attempt to broker final-status deals in the past, initiated a violent confrontation after the most famous such rejection, and was defeated in this confrontation. Where has this ever worked? How could it?


VI. Disincentivizing Israeli Withdrawals


I’ve already explained the perverse incentives the peace-process consensus creates for the Palestinian side. The incentives are almost as damaging for the Israeli side. A peace process, in both my view and the processors’, should create incentives for Israel to continue the withdrawal from the territories that it began in the 1990s. The current consensus does the opposite: it disincentivizes Israeli concessions in almost every conceivable way. If Israel withdraws from a territory in exchange for some material or symbolic concession from the other side, according to the pattern established by the peace processors, it somehow shouldn’t actually expect to receive this parallel concession. If it accepts a brokered final-status offer that the other side rejects, whatever concessions it made in this round of negotiations become the starting point for the next round. If the complicated and unwieldy interim status quo remains in place because of the rejection of a final agreement by the other side, Israel is solely responsible for those inconveniences. And if it withdraws from a territory unilaterally, Israel is still somehow held responsible in the public eye as an “occupier” by a definition of occupation newly invented for this purpose alone, one that has never been used in similar circumstances anywhere else.

The result of this isn’t just a process that pushes the Palestinian side into a corner of endless conflict and occupation. It is a process that means Israel is much less likely to withdraw.

The result of this isn’t just a process that pushes the Palestinian side into a corner of endless conflict and occupation. It is a process that means Israel is much less likely to withdraw. The past few years have been the quietest for Israel in terms of personal and national security in its whole history (or at the very least, as quiet as the decade after 1956). At the same time, since 2005 Israel has not carried out any territorial withdrawal of any kind, which, at sixteen years and counting, is also the longest such period in its history.

A functioning peace process, by contrast, would build on the wisdom of the actual UN resolution that the CNAS report claims to honor and incentivize both a termination of belligerency from the Arab side as well as further territorial withdrawal from the Israeli side. The hallmark of the peace-processor approach, exemplified by the CNAS report, has been the opposite: reward Palestinian rejectionism and ensure that Israeli withdrawals—whether partial or full, in agreement or unilateral, staged or final—only increase Israel’s moral responsibility and blameworthiness for whatever disputes and problems arise. It is, again, a method that could hardly be better designed to fail, and absent the moral impulse that still finds Israel’s victories and successes to be a source of discomfort, would never be attempted. But here the consensus is that peace is not peace unless we get to see the Israelis in pain. This is of course not a diplomatic concept but a moral and possibly theological impulse—and not one we should be embracing.


VII. The Sour Grapes of Abraham


The last few years show us both a way out of this impulse-ridden consensus and evidence that few who hold it seem willing to take the step. The peace-processor method was upended by the peace plan that the Trump administration released in January 2020. Guild members widely panned the document, the brainchild of Jared Kushner and a small cadre of officials far outside the Israeli-Palestinian expert consensus. Their initiative, it is fair to say, did not lead to any great diplomatic breakthrough settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. But it did represent a real rupture with a twenty-year dynamic that had become toxic for both sides. And for all the mockery it garnered from the coterie of peace-processor veterans, it did lead to four new Arab-Israeli agreements, plus, in the weeks before the Biden administration took power, a new public approach from the Palestinian Authority on issues where until recently there had been a blanket refusal to even consider budging, such as pay-for-slay prisoner subsidies and UNRWA funding.

How did the relative inexperience and lack of sophistication of the Trump team serve them so well? Because it allowed them to break the peace processor-driven cycle of incentivizing conflict. They didn’t conceive the Arab-Israeli dispute as solely an Israeli-Palestinian one. They treated normalization as something, well, normal, not something that might be achieved only after a ritual purification. They didn’t reward Palestinian rejectionism with even better terms each time. More than anything, they accepted that there was an Arab-Israeli conflict and that Israel had won—and that this was, on balance, a good thing and not a sin to be expiated. If they can be credited with having a worked-out theory of peacemaking, it was a pretty unimaginative and conventional one, at least by the standards of conflicts not having to do with Israel.

But the Washington foreign-policy club, stuck in its cognitive dissonance, can’t recognize good things even when they happen right in front of their faces, and those who do, like, to be fair, some of the CNAS report’s authors, seem unable to draw any usable lessons from the success they grudgingly acknowledge.

So now peace with Gulf monarchies doesn’t count as actual peace because they’re non-democracies? Such thinking would seem to render Israel’s peace with Egypt and Jordan worthless.

“This isn’t diplomacy, and it isn’t peace. It’s cynical,” wrote the usually interesting analyst Shadi Hamid in a Brookings roundtable that saw only a single contributor come out and praise the deals. “The word ‘authoritarian’ is worth highlighting here,” Hamid continued. “It’s hard to imagine an Arab country, if it were democratic, striking a peace deal with Israel today.” So now peace with Gulf monarchies doesn’t count as actual peace because they’re non-democracies? Such thinking would seem to render Israel’s peace with Egypt and Jordan worthless, to say nothing of America’s own diplomatic breakthrough with Iran in 2015, support for which still serves as a totem for membership in the club of serious foreign-policy thinkers. By the same logic, the Oslo Accords, which created a quasi-authoritarian regime ruled by Yasir Arafat, also shouldn’t count—nor would a complete and immediate implementation of a two-state solution, which would legitimize similar Hamas and PLO regimes in Gaza and the West Bank.

This is merely one of half-a-dozen ways of denying reality that popped up after the normalization agreements. Let me go on about them for a minute, because they make clear just how unimaginative the current establishment is, and how fearful it is of employing positive incentives to get anything done. The new Arab-Israeli peace accords aren’t real peace, many, like Daniel Levy in the American Prospect argued, because the UAE and Bahrain “have never been at war with Israel, never so much as fired a shot in anger.” Again, the comparison with Israel’s two previous Arab peace agreements shows how empty the claim is. Egypt and Israel signed an agreement in 1975 permanently renouncing war as a means of solving their conflict. Did this render the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty phony? Israel and Jordan last fought each other in 1967, and in fact Israel intervened on Jordan’s behalf in 1970 to deter a Syrian invasion. Did this make the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty somehow fake?

Here’s another variation on the theme: the 2020 agreements are not real peace, we are told, but rather just weapons deals. (Parallel to the UAE-Israel agreement was a $35 billion American sale of F-35 jets to the Emiratis, now under review by the new Biden administration.) OK, sure, weapons deals they may be, but they’re still much less significant than the biggest weapons deal of them all, which was—surprise—the Egypt-Israel peace mediated by Jimmy Carter in 1979, which similarly allowed the Egyptians access to American weaponry.

Some of the other objections to the deals seek to deny that there was ever an Arab-Israeli conflict, or at least what its nature was. Relations between the countries were already going on behind closed doors, we’re told; normalization changes nothing. To celebrate it is, as Levy put it, “to miscategorize the codification of an existing reality as being a breakthrough toward forging a new reality,” But relations were going on behind closed doors precisely because of the Arab rejection of any Jewish sovereign presence in the Middle East, as manifested in boycotts, support for terror, and, for many decades, a refusal even to utter the name “Israel.” Besides, the sudden flourishing of business exchanges, academic exchanges, and most notably in a time of global pandemic, mass tourism would seem to argue against the notion that relations were already “normal” before. For Israelis of Moroccan descent, the ability now to visit the country their parents and grandparents fled raises a particularly emotional and complex prospect that would be filling long think-pieces about a new Middle East if so many people weren’t so mobilized behind the proposition that the whole thing is a sham.

Finally, detractors of the 2020 agreements point to all the benefits that Arab governments who have made peace with Israel have accrued and deride the whole thing as some sort of bribery. This is particularly odd, and particularly revealing, as peace was always supposed to be beneficial for the parties making it. And if there was sweetening of the deal, this too is nothing new for peacemaking in general and for Arab-Israeli peacemaking specifically. On the contrary—it is how peacemaking works and has always worked. Only people who have no knowledge of that would argue otherwise.


VIII. Daylight Saving Time


All of which brings us to the last time the peace processors took command of the American government—to 2009 and the mad dash for “daylight,” the then-fashionable word for demonstrating some public distance between America and Israel, which resulted in a string of performative crises, many centered around the personalities of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. The term was made famous by a statement of Obama’s from early in his tenure. “Look at the past eight years,” he said, referring to his predecessor’s close ties with Israel. “During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”

Thus injecting daylight between the U.S. and Israel—how it sounds like a middle-school dance—was supposed to restore American credibility in the Arab and Muslim world so damaged by the adventurism of the Bush administration. Daylight was supposed to reinvigorate the peace process by incentivizing concessions—concessions from an Israel nervous about losing the cover of its closest ally—rather than rewarding the status quo. Daylight would show the Palestinians that the U.S. was a serious, dispassionate mediator they could work with. Daylight was supposed to motivate moderate Arab regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to make partial gestures towards normalization with Israel. Daylight was supposed to show Israel the tough love it needed to get off its own self-destructive path of settlement and occupation.

People tend to remember the daylight era for its big public spats over settlement construction or its manufactured crises about supposedly precedent-defying slights and insults that ended up being comparatively unremarkable. But daylight was bookended by two significant policy moves which in many ways are much more instructive about the mindset of the peace processors than the noisier crises.

The very first move the new Obama administration made regarding Israel was to renege quietly on the previous administration’s commitments regarding borders. The Sharon government had agreed in its 2005 disengagement plan to withdraw all Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip, as well as remove four settlements from the north of the West Bank, without getting hardly anything in return from the Palestinians or any Arab state. What Israel did receive, however, was a crucial letter from President Bush committing the United States to the position that a future border between Israel and Palestine would not follow the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Jordan.

By 2009, Israel had a new right-wing government led by someone who actually opposed the 2005 disengagement and was thus not particularly interested in its success. More importantly, it had just fought a war with a Hamas-ruled Gaza that had been precipitated by massive rocket fire into southern Israel of exactly the kind opponents of the disengagement had predicted. At such a time and in such a circumstance, there was no move which could have more effectively discredited to Israelis the idea of further withdrawals from territory for anything less than a full peace treaty than for the American administration to renege on the one commitment that was still seen as the sole positive gain from the now unloved (by both the country’s wider and elite populaces) disengagement. Which of course was precisely the move the new administration took as part of a bold initiative to show how different it was.

Bolder still was that administration’s push, in its last days in 2016, for a UN Security Council resolution that explicitly departed from the cautious ambiguity of previous agreements and instead took rather explicit stances on a few of the final-status issues.

This in mind, it was amusing to see the reaction to the Trump peace plan of 2020 by former Obama officials and their peace-process predecessors. The Trump plan, they argued, circumvented the negotiation process and sketched out a solution that was to one side’s advantage; it upended decades of consensus and agreed policy; it was advanced not with a realistic aim of peace but rather to lock in terms now that would be a baseline for any future process. (“It had no timeline or deadline or operational component,” Aaron David Miller wrote, and “lurking not so far beneath the surface is the administration’s expectation” that one of the sides “will not engage.”) And it had less to do with diplomacy than with upsetting perceived or real domestic political rivals. All of which was true about the Kushner document, but equally true about the UN resolution the Obama team had pursued at the end of its time in power.

Since the modern peace process began, the Obama team was the first American administration to produce exactly zero accomplishments on matters of Arab-Israeli peace.

In between these two initiatives at the very beginning—reneging on America’s previous commitment—and the very end—the UN resolution—of the Obama presidency, there was a consistent if strange status quo between it and Israel of solid security cooperation and often embarrassing public spats. There was something else that didn’t get much notice at the time, something that only becomes noticeable once you zoom out of the exhausting and often barren American foreign-policy debate (a debate that ends up mostly about which president you’re culturally mobilized to hate more): since the modern peace process began in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, the Obama team was the first American administration to produce exactly zero accomplishments on matters of Arab-Israeli peace.

It’s true. Gerald Ford secured disengagement agreements (with significant Israeli withdrawals) in both Sinai and the Golan. Jimmy Carter brought Begin and Sadat to Camp David and mediated the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Ronald Reagan had a spotty beginning in the region, but his administration eventually got an Israeli withdrawal from nearly all of Lebanon in 1985 and mediated the Taba withdrawal after a long impasse between Israel and Egypt. The elder Bush convened the Madrid peace conference and oversaw the first direct talks between Israel and Syria and Israel and Jordan. (His administration also orchestrated a loud and painful spat with Israel over settlement construction that, remarkably, achieved all of its goals, mobilizing just enough Israeli public opinion to result in the election of a more moderate coalition that ended the establishment of new settlements—an achievement which has largely held now for 28 years—while reinforcing American credibility with key Arab allies. Something similar, perhaps, was what the Obama team was hoping for but could not remotely pull together.) Clinton, as we know, presided over the Oslo process (an achievement if not a success), as well as the Israel-Jordan peace agreement (both an achievement and a success). Then the younger Bush reached a broad international consensus on the Roadmap peace plan and secured an Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza as well as what was supposed to be a precedent-setting Israeli withdrawal from settlements in the West Bank. And Trump of course oversaw the agreements to terminate states of war and establish full normalization between Israel and four Arab states.

Thus, to watch with each new normalization agreement the Twitter meltdowns of Obama administration alums (notably Tommy Vietor and the always-superior-despite-being-always-wrong Ben Rhodes) is to gain an inside view of epistemic closure among people who know that they are so much smarter, so much more world-wise, so much more attuned to diplomacy in both theory and reality than everyone else—and who simply can’t fathom how others have succeeded where they so egregiously failed.

As President Biden puts together his new administration, these are the sorts of voices loudly pushing for an early dramatic move back to performative gestures that would indicate a restoration of their old consensus. They no longer use the word daylight, but in the items that top the list of their priorities—renewed UNRWA funding, a return to the Iran nuclear deal without conditions—we see once more a focus not so much on tangible interest as on moves that will give them a purifying distance from Israel and its supporters in America. As for the quieter peace processors, they’re still plugging away, mistaking their desires for actually good policies.

But as long as they do, as long as they feel their job is to rescue a fallen Israel, morally compromised by its own hard-fought victories, they will continue to misunderstand the Middle East. Foreign policy isn’t about purifying ablutions but about the realistic pursuit of interests, both strategic and ethical. The new administration has a chance to restore America to an internationalist attitude toward the world, and, if it listens, to take a healthier attitude toward the Middle East. It should not return us to the dark path of daylight.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Joseph Biden, Oslo Accords, Peace Process, Two-State Solution