The doomed Mideast ‘peace process’
‘WHOM THE gods would destroy,’’ the late Irving Kristol once observed, “they first tempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.’’ Maybe “destroy’’ was a bit strong, but there is no denying that American presidents seem irresistibly drawn to the belief that they can succeed where others have failed and conjure a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab enemies. This diplomacy has gone by various names - Oslo, the road map, Camp David, and so on - but time and again it has led not to the end of the conflict but to its intensification.
In his memoirs, former president Bill Clinton describes Yasser Arafat’s refusal to accept the extraordinarily generous terms for a permanent settlement offered by Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel at Camp David in 2000. That refusal led to a Palestinian terror war, the bloody Second Intifada, and when Arafat called Clinton in January 2001 to tell him what a great man he was, Clinton was bitter. “I am not a great man,’’ he told Arafat. “I am a failure, and you have made me one.’’
Of course, if Clinton was a failure so were the two George Bushes. Each made it his goal to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, each convened a grand international conference for that purpose, and each left the situation worse than he had found it.
In his first nine months as president, Barack Obama has shown every sign of succumbing to the same temptation. Two days after moving in to the White House, he named George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, his special envoy to the region. He pressured Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, into endorsing a “two-state solution.’’ He declared that “the moment is now’’ to achieve peace in the Middle East.
Unlike his recent predecessors, Obama has gone out of his way to signal a distinct coolness toward Israel and its interests. At a White House meeting with the leaders of American Jewish organizations in July, he suggested that because there had been “no daylight’’ between Israel and the United States when George W. Bush was president, there had been “no progress’’ toward peace.
In fact, there had often been “daylight’’ between Washington and Jerusalem during the Bush years. There had been plenty of movement, too, from the adoption of the road map to the Israeli “disengagement’’ from Gaza to the final-status negotiations that occupied much of 2008.
Still: Obama was right when he said there had been “no progress’’ toward Arab-Israeli peace under Bush. Nor had there been any under Clinton. Nor, as things stand now, will there be any under Obama.
Why? Because the “peace process’’ to which all of them, their sharp differences notwithstanding, have been so committed is not a formula for ending the decades-long war in the Holy Land, but for prolonging it.
In an important article in the current Middle East Quarterly, Daniel Pipes reviews the terrible failure of the 1993 Oslo accords, and homes in on the root fallacy of the diplomatic approach it embodied: the belief that the Arab-Israeli war can “be concluded through good will, conciliation, mediation, flexibility, restraint, generosity, and compromise, topped off with signatures on official documents.’’ For 16 years, Israeli governments, prodded by Washington, have sought to quench Palestinian hostility with concessions and gestures of good will. Yet peace today is more elusive than ever.
“Wars end not through good will but through victory,’’ Pipes writes, defining victory as one side compelling the other to give up its war goals. Since 1948, the Arabs’ goal has been the elimination of Israel; the Israelis’, to win their neighbors’ acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East. “If the conflict is to end, one side must lose and one side win,’’ argues Pipes.
Diplomacy cannot settle the Arab-Israeli conflict until the Palestinians abandon their anti-Israel rejectionism. US policy should therefore be focused on making them abandon it. The Palestinians must be put “on notice that benefits will flow to them only after they prove their acceptance of Israel. Until then - no diplomacy, no discussion of final status, no recognition as a state, and certainly no financial aid or weapons.’’
So long as American and Israeli leaders remain committed to a fruitless Arab-Israeli “peace process,’’ Arab-Israeli peace will remain unachievable. Let the newest Nobel peace laureate grasp and act upon that insight, and he will do more to hasten the conflict’s end than any of his well-meaning predecessors.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.