Stuck on the Wrong Road to Peace

In thrall to a moral impulse rather than a real strategy for peacemaking in Israel, America’s peace processors won’t stop, won’t learn, and won’t succeed.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with U.S. envoy Martin Indyk to discuss peace talks with Israel on September 17, 2013 in Ramallah. Thaer Ghanaim/PPO via Getty Images.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with U.S. envoy Martin Indyk to discuss peace talks with Israel on September 17, 2013 in Ramallah. Thaer Ghanaim/PPO via Getty Images.

Last Word
Feb. 25 2021
About the author

Shany Mor is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a research fellow at the Institute for Liberty and Responsibility at Reichman University.

I was delighted to hear that two writers I hold in especially high regard, Michael Doran and Michael Koplow, would be authoring responses to my essay “The Return of the Peace Processors.” (Part of me hoped they would comment on an issue of peripheral importance to my essay but on which both of them have a lot to say, namely Turkey’s role in the U.S.-Middle East dynamic.) In my original essay, I tried to focus on one particular intellectual tradition within the American discussion of Israel and its conflicts with its neighbors. In choosing that focus, I deliberately left out a great deal. Both of my interlocutors ding me for it, Doran slightly and Koplow significantly more, so let me defend myself in due measure against each one.

My argument looks closely at the group of Middle East experts I call the peace processors, at how they and only they think and speak. It’s a contrived limitation on the discussion, which I fully admit. Doran asks me to broaden my scope to look beyond the peace-processor camp and allow into my discussion ideas that are politically a bit to the right and a bit to the left (in American terms at least). He says, in effect, hey, these things aren’t isolated. You can’t even begin to understand how rough it is to be a peace processor (and, implicitly, an American Jewish liberal) without understanding that they’re under constant and unremitting pressure from left-wing anti-Israel obsessives. And then, looking right, he wants to bring into the discussion Republicans, particularly in the first Reagan and last Bush administrations (not Trumpists), who pushed against the assumptions of the peace processors from within the establishment.

In effect, though not in words, Doran argues that the isolation I have performed is not just artificial (which, again, I accept), but that it misses the point.

I have never shied away from writing about the intellectual passions of anti-Israel obsessives on the left, be it in the form of theology or just plain vanity. I tried to leave all that outside the discussion of the peace processors, who I think are motivated by a very different impulse. I still think that is sufficient for a coherent, critical approach to the peace-processor mindset. But there is no doubt that Doran’s contribution enriches the discussion, broadening it in scope and time, and embedding it in a larger intellectual tradition I neglected to treat in my essay.

 

Michael Koplow, the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, is a serious thinker who brings to the Israel discussion two things often lacking: a firsthand knowledge of the region outside Israel and its immediate neighbors, and an analytical framework for processing events in Israel that encompasses more than the passions of internal American or American Jewish politics. I was very curious to see how he would engage with the thesis of my essay or with my critiques of the Center for a New American Security report he co-authored recently—a report that I criticized for adhering too closely to peace-processor dogma. I was disappointed to discover both little engagement with my core thesis as well as a string of misrepresentations of the individual cases I examined.

The cases first. Koplow challenges two critiques I made of the peace processors. On the Golan Heights, I referred to the decades-long consensus prior to the Syrian civil war that Israel should be willing to withdraw from that strategically vital territory. I wrote that “as recently as 2010”—that is, only one year before the civil war broke out—processor-in-chief Martin Indyk was claiming that “nothing could better help Obama to isolate Iran than for Netanyahu to offer to cede the Golan,” an argument that is astonishing because it manages to get both Syria and Iran wrong. (Indyk’s op-ed, less than 1,000 supremely self-assured words, manages to get the Palestinians, Hizballah, and the “Arab street” wrong too.)

Against my characterization of the processors’ view of the Golan, Koplow brings up a tweet from the former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro nine years later averring that the Syrian civil war means the Golan will be staying in Israeli hands for the time being. Did I claim anywhere that peace processors were still pushing for a Golan withdrawal in 2019? My claim here, as elsewhere, wasn’t that a specific policy objective was still being advanced, but instead that a specific mindset informed the discussion. Before the collapse of the Syrian state, there wasn’t just a universal consensus that Israel should cede the Golan, there was unanimity in the peace-processor world that Israelis opposed to such a withdrawal were, as my article put it, “short-sighted rubes who didn’t understand that in an age of missiles territory supposedly no longer mattered.” What does the Shapiro tweet change about my claim?

The second example concerns Turkey. Koplow is rightly proud that he saw the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan for what he is nearly a decade ago. Koplow has an advantage; he is an expert on Turkey who actually knows what he is talking about. For the community of diplomats and commentators I’ve been calling “peace processors,” however, there was a much simpler heuristic at play in 2009-10, even if few will admit to it. Erdogan was then perfecting his anti-Israel roadshow, spinning wild tales about Israeli atrocities and making scenes at international conferences. The smart set was always explaining, with varying degrees of contrived dismay, that he would exploit “anger at Israel” to increase his influence on the “Arab street.” But this was never more than projection, as the streets he used all this “anger” to impress were less Arab and more K and J.

Indeed, it was around this time that Israeli officials found themselves on the receiving end of lectures from administration officials about how Erdogan represented a moderate, democratic Islam that could be a model for the region. As with the consensus on the Golan, the consensus on Erdogan has been forgotten as events rendered it untenable. Yet in both cases the moral impulse that sustained it remains. Koplow engages not at all with the impulse and very little with the wrongness, and instead furnishes hyperlinks that are supposed to disprove claims I never make. These are bookended by baseless and contradictory speculations about my politics. The description of me has having “an axe to grind” with Barack Obama is especially odd, as I have been for years an admirer and supporter of the former president and I remain convinced that, Israel aside, his was one of most successful administrations of the postwar era.

But this discussion need not be centered around speculation over my grinding axes. Let’s instead focus on the CNAS report I mentioned in my essay.

 

There, I tried to give the report a thorough examination, a charitable read, and a polite response. I made a few stylistic critiques—mostly unaddressed in Koplow’s response, except for his assertion that the report is more critical of the Palestinians than I give it credit for—and moved on to its policy recommendations.

I raised two substantive challenges to the recommendations of the report. First, the report never acknowledges that the main reason the many interim accords between Israel and the Palestinians never ended up resolving into a final-status peace treaty was because the Palestinian side rejected resolution at every juncture. Any time there was an option to reach an agreement that would involve a genuine reconciliation with the existence of a Jewish state and a termination of claims, they said no. And there was no constituency—either in Palestinian domestic politics or in the broader pro-Palestinian community of aligned regimes and Western activists—pushing for any such agreement to be accepted.

The caginess in the language of the report is, unfortunately, a reflection of this trend. Palestinian decisions in it are passively described, always hedged by references to how Israeli or American action pushed them there, which reveals the unwillingness to come to terms with this one salient fact about not only the peace process but the entire Arab-Israeli conflict.

I don’t raise this because I am, as Koplow would have it, “dwell[ing] in the past,” but because I don’t believe you can propose a solution to a problem while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge that problem. If you went to the doctor with a rash on your shin, and she put your arm in a sling, you might be taken aback. If you came back with an even bigger rash, and she put your arm in a cast, you might start asking some questions. If you came back again and she proposed reconstructive surgery on your elbow, you’d get a new doctor.

The second challenge I raised had to do with the way the CNAS report moves the goalposts on final-status issues. Oslo laid out six final-status issues to be decided in full negotiations: statehood, borders, settlements, Jerusalem, security, and refugees. The report short-circuits this process and calls to impose conditions that radically prejudge four out of six (statehood, borders, settlements, Jerusalem) of those issues, and all in favor of Palestinian positions and against Israeli ones. Only on two (security, refugees) does it recommend leaving things up to the parties to negotiate themselves. Not coincidentally, these are the two where an American position would likely be much closer to the Israeli one. In other words, tip the scales on matters likely to go against Israel, and remain silent on matters likely to go for it.

As I point out in my essay, the authors of the report claim to draw these recommendations from UN Security Council Resolution 242, a claim that is verifiably untrue, as the resolution nowhere mentions a Palestinian state, nowhere calls for a divided Jerusalem, and scrupulously and deliberately does not call for a return to 1949 armistice lines.

But — to return to my core argument — getting particular facts wrong isn’t even the real problem here. The problem is that the authors never explain why the US should take positions that prejudge four out of six final-status issues, and why in all four cases the positions should be so lopsided against Israeli positions. If there is a theoretical reason for prejudging final-status issues, why not prejudge all six (for example, with a clear statement that there will be no “right of return”)? This is the kind of thing that merits an explanation, one that since it didn’t come in the report itself might have come in the response to my article. Incredibly, Koplow writes of my critique of the report’s policy recommendations that “to portray it as the newest iteration of the Oslo plan is a head-scratching mischaracterization,” but he’s clearly been scratching way too hard. My entire critique is three paragraphs long, and one of them actually begins with the sentence “The departure from the Oslo framework is equally dramatic.” Who is mischaracterizing whom here?

I wrote in my essay that the report “attempts to solve the problems its authors wish to diagnose but not the problems that the region actually confronts.” I didn’t expect a response to my article that would rebut critiques the authors wished to receive but not the ones I actually made.

 

In my essay, I tried to show that the establishment consensus disincentivizes Israeli withdrawals. If Israel withdraws according to the framework of an agreement it made with the Palestinians, it’s not supposed to actually expect the other side of the agreement to be held up (see under, extraditions or, more recently, vaccinations). If it withdraws unilaterally and asks for nothing in return, it is still somehow considered an occupier under a new purpose-built definition of the word. If it begins a staged withdrawal, with further stages of withdrawal contingent on a final-status agreement, then any failure to reach an agreement is definitionally Israel’s fault, and the long duration of the interim arrangements is a stain on Israel alone.

More on that last point. As I said originally, “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.” This refers to the awkward, overlapping, and complex arrangement of powers in the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C (and H1 and H2, but let’s leave that aside for now) left over from the Oslo II agreement. This interim arrangement was supposed to last for five years, at most, until final-status talks produced a permanent settlement. As an interim arrangement, this arrangement might have made sense, but as a stable status quo for twenty-five years, its complicated geography, confusingly shared powers, and challenging legal structure have been extremely problematic.

Koplow latches on to my use of the term “status quo” to launch into a broadside on settlement construction. But the term there refers only to the complex legal geography of Areas A, B, and C, something settlement construction hasn’t changed in the slightest, happening as it does only in Area C. Somehow, he derived from that description that I argue that Israel is in a “holding pattern,” though, as with the claim that I believe the CNAS report is pure Oslo, I can’t find the basis for this anywhere in my essay.

The same goes for another feature of Koplow’s argument. He writes that “Israel’s government has now for the first time publicly advocated for unilateral West Bank annexation.” But this isn’t true at all. Every Israeli government since 1967 has maintained that in a final peace agreement it intended to annex some of the West Bank territory conquered from Jordan. In 1977, the Likud swept into power on a platform of annexing all the West Bank (this never happened). Rabin fully expected that parts of the West Bank would become part of Israel at the end of the interim process. And the qualifier “unilateral” is doing less work than might be supposed. Ehud Barak publicly advocated unilaterally annexing at least 8% of the West Bank after the failure of Camp David and Taba. In 2006, the center-left coalition that took power under Kadima won an election on a platform of unilaterally withdrawing from some settlements deep in the West Bank and unilaterally annexing others close to the armistice line (also never happened).

This same old anxiety about the same old annexation talk is part of the meta-narrative I discussed in my essay—the one where Israel is always seen as “drifting rightward” even as its positions on political settlements with the Palestinians actually drift left.

It’s important to note what is happening here. The peace-processor consensus responds to each new Palestinian rejection by moving the goalposts toward the Palestinians, as this is the only way to make sense of these rejections without having to come to terms with the real (and openly stated) reasons for them, namely the refusal to come to terms with the existence of a Jewish state and the insistence on irredentist demands like the right of return. Acknowledging Palestinian rejectionism as a cause of the diplomatic impasse means taking seriously what Palestinian leaders and public opinion have been telling us consistently for decades. It’s far easier to assume that talks failed in 2000 (and 2001) (and 2007) (and 2008) (and 2013) (and 2014) because what Israel agreed to wasn’t enough.

But rather than justifying this moving of the goalposts with a coherent argument about conflict resolution, the consensus simply denies that any such shift has happened. The peace processors are on a moving train, but convinced the platform is pulling away from them.

Pretending that radically altered positions have always been part of the consensus is also integral to the “inexorable rightward shift of Israeli society” narrative. It is why referring to the supposed rightward shift in positions regarding the occupation, Palestinian statehood, and Jerusalem rather than the real and dramatic leftward shift that has actually taken place in the positions of the Israeli public and elites is such a crucial token of membership in the peace processor guild. (By this I mean that it’s not just a question of bourgeois American Jews needing to look down on their Israeli cousins, and on the elements of the wider American Jewish public that some of them seem obsessively embarrassed about and resentful of—though, of course, it is that too.)

 

The question that the CNAS report never answers—in the process serving as an excellent example of what the peace processors never deign to acknowledge—is why exactly the baseline terms of any agreements need to be so much better for the Palestinians and so much worse for the Israelis than the rejected offers of Camp David and Taba. I should think this would merit a discussion somewhere in the CNAS report, and, failing that, somewhere in Koplow’s response. Since it apparently didn’t, I’ll repeat here what is the central thesis of my essay: there is no theory of peace process, no coherent notion of mediation, and no precedent in conflict resolution that would indicate that this dynamic could work. I ask in the essay if there is any other example in the history of mediation where the side that rejects a peace offer, initiates a violent confrontation, and is defeated in that confrontation gets offered better terms. Is there any theory of peace process, any doctrine of mediation that holds that this is a path that could lead to a resolution of conflict? Would it be tried in any other arena? Of course not. The idea that it could work runs counter to any and all accumulated knowledge we have about conflict mediation and resolution. You do not need to know anything about Arabs, Jews, or Americans to comprehend that, and in fact the less you know about them the clearer this conclusion becomes.

How, then, has this strange view come about? Here I’d like to expand on my essay a bit. The perverse incentives of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy became entrenched not in the 1990s—the Oslo years—or in the 2010s—the Obama years that I supposedly loathe—but in the decade in between, the 2000s.

In the 1990s each Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank was celebrated as a “liberation” by Arafat, and the attendant security loss Israelis faced on their buses and in their markets were seen by dispassionate foreign-policy types as a calculated and necessary risk. But after 2000, and increasingly so as memories faded, only talk of Israel’s long-term occupation became considered relevant. The complexities of Areas A, B, and C were no longer seen as an interim situation agreed upon by both parties but some devious Israeli architecture of control. Even a complete Israeli withdrawal, as happened in Gaza in 2005, was redefined in this period as an occupation on account of Israel’s partial blockade, which actually only began two years later after the Hamas coup. Meanwhile, the rush for “daylight” in 2009 depended on reneging on the very commitment a previous administration had made to Israel in exchange for unilateral withdrawal. This approach may very well have been cathartic for some in Washington, but it certainly never managed to incentivize any further Israeli withdrawals. And it was in the same decade that the consensus practice of meeting each Palestinian rejection with better terms as a baseline became the norm too. Does any of this incentivize a termination of belligerency on the part of the Palestinians? Or does it accomplish the opposite? Here too, the results are unequivocal.

There is nothing in the CNAS report to indicate that these lessons have been learned, and nothing in Koplow’s response to my critique of the report to indicate that its authors have dedicated much thought about them. Now, just because something has never worked in the past doesn’t mean it can’t work in the future. But the burden of proof lies with those who ask us to ignore precedent, theory, and centuries of accumulated knowledge. Instead they reveal themselves in thrall to a moral impulse. A moral impulse is hard to refute, harder still to falsify. But a moral impulse that is too embarrassed to state itself clearly in moral terms is probably not a very good one to begin with. The moral embarrassment about Israel is, to use a term of Koplow’s he applies to me, the “tell.”

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Oslo Accords, Peace Process