A Beltway bromide that will not die is, “No one ever went broke betting against peace in the Middle East.” Of dull wit and unclaimed provenance, the saying nonetheless makes the rounds every time the White House reiterates its commitment to resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The initial media reaction scrutinizes the White House’s words for microscopic shifts in diction and emphasis, trumpeting each as a policy departure that could herald progress and, thus, additional news. Then the excitement subsides, as commentators recall that every president since Jimmy Carter has taken up this task, only to find it Sisyphean.
In mid-May, President Barack Obama used a special address to restate the urgency of peace in Israel-Palestine. At first the New York Times and Washington Post headlined front-page coverage with Obama’s phrase “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” as if this light retooling of Clinton and Bush administration language on the putative final borders of Israel and Palestine were a complete overhaul. Then, on cue, came the refrain that the “pursuit of peace” is noble, but futile. “The chance of a conflict-ending agreement…appears to be slim to none,” wrote ex-State Department man Aaron David Miller in Foreign Policy. Miller has penned several variations on this theme of late, following publication of his book The Much Too Promised Land (2008). “Nobody ever lost money betting against peace even in the best circumstances,” he told CNN in January. “It’s a giant root canal operation.”
Like many clichés, the world-weary dismissals of US-sponsored peace processes have the ring of truth, but they are designed to stop conversations and, in fact, critical thought. Why have a string of chief executives quailed before the challenge of Middle East peacemaking? The stock answer — because it is a challenge — is tautological, but casual listeners do not catch the circular logic. Miller is a highly sophisticated marketer of his chosen line, adducing details of Israeli, Palestinian and American politics to lend it more analytical heft. But at the end of his pieces the question hangs in the air: Why do the principal parties feel resolution of the conflict will bring such “extraordinary pain”?
It is more profitable to begin with a different set of pessimistic propositions: Israel does not want peace; the Palestinians cannot bring it about; and Washington does not care enough about the issue to level the imbalance of power. Every US administration since Carter’s has indeed found a way to illustrate these postulates — and, during its first term, Obama’s team has been no exception.
The standard history goes as follows: Obama rode into office atop a wave of optimism that he could succeed where others had failed. On his second day in office, he placed phone calls to the Israeli premier, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president and neighboring leaders to assure them of his commitment to a “durable and sustainable” ceasefire after the Israeli pummeling of the Gaza Strip in the preceding month. On his third day, he appointed retired Sen. George Mitchell as special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian file, later investing the senior statesman with a mandate to seek a freeze on Israeli construction of new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The USA Today editorial page captured the dominant mood, pronouncing that Mitchell’s appointment “signals a US return toward the role of honest broker.” Skeptics were scolded for their negative snap judgments.
Then, the conventional story goes, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel, bringing the far-right Avigdor Lieberman into his cabinet as foreign minister. With backing from both sides of the aisle in Congress, Israel thumbed its nose at the settlement freeze and, indeed, the entire project of restarting comprehensive talks through incremental, “confidence-building” steps. More beholden to his settler and right-wing political base than to Israel’s international protector, Netanyahu staged demonstrations of his defiance. He authorized breaking ground for new settlements in East Jerusalem the day before a state visit from Vice President Joe Biden. He ordered the brazen interdiction on the high seas of activist vessels bearing humanitarian aid to Gaza. Throughout, he placed the blame for the stillborn negotiations on the Palestinians and recurrently changed the subject to the Iranian nuclear research program.
The Palestinians, for their part, were kept away from the negotiation table by the schism within the PA between Mahmoud ‘Abbas and Hamas, one attempting to rule in the West Bank and the other in Gaza. Smarting from his Fatah party’s loss to Hamas in the 2006 legislative elections, and stinging from Hamas’ routing of his Gaza security men in 2007, ‘Abbas balked at Saudi offers of mediation. Hamas (and, by extension, Gaza) remained under international economic and diplomatic blockade for its alleged hostility to peace. The so-called Quartet of the US, UN, European Union and Russia continued to demand that Hamas recognize the state of Israel, renounce violence and endorse previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements. Without such measures, Gaza would languish under siege and Hamas would be excluded from any talks that perchance commenced.
Back in Washington, its domestic agenda bedeviled by right-wing populist anger and a resurgent Republican delegation in Congress, the Obama crew was irked by Netanyahu’s snubs and vexed by ‘Abbas’ preoccupation with the split with Hamas. The Biden and maritime banditry incidents occasioned the usual spate of stories about a cooling of US-Israeli relations. Mitchell’s travels to the region became less frequent and his meetings more desultory, culminating in his resignation, billed as the natural expiration of his two-year mandate, on May 14, five days before Obama’s speech on the Middle East. Upon assuming his charge in 2009, the ex-senator had evoked his experience brokering the Good Friday accord in Northern Ireland, “We had 700 days of failure and one day of success,” in recognition of the difficulty awaiting him. Upon his departure, he said hardly anything. The frustration showed as well in Obama’s words on May 19. “Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks,” he said. “The world looks at a conflict that has ground on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate.”
Deadlock, indeed, seemed to prevail in the ensuing week, as Netanyahu whisked from venue to venue decrying the marker the mainstream press thought Obama had laid down. On May 24, he delivered a speech to Congress, vowing, “Israel will not return to the indefensible lines of 1967.” These demarcations had formed the tacit basis of every US-approved plan for a two-state solution; they are visible in any number of maps used by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators and long since made public. They are also, of course, the lines to which Israel is legally required to withdraw, posthaste, by UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) and its successor documents. But, in scorning the two-state solution he claims to embrace, the Israeli prime minister was merely sticking to the script written by the press, which had picked out Obama’s reference to “1967 lines” precisely in anticipation of such a riposte. The result was to prefigure commentary like Miller’s passing off the Obama and Netanyahu orations as so much political theater.
In any case, the foregoing narrative, like so much of the Washington banter, is banal — that is, accurate as far as it goes, but not terribly useful for understanding the matter at hand. No Israeli leader has chosen to make “painful” compromises on West Bank settlements, borders and Jerusalem, not to speak of the Palestinian refugee problem, because none has been forced to. The collapse of the moderate Zionist left and the increasingly hawkish tilt of the Israeli polity are important factors, to be sure, but domestic worries have not stayed the hand of previous Israeli premiers in making strategic retreats. Menachem Begin removed the settlements from the Sinai after peace with Egypt; Ehud Barak pulled troops out of Lebanon due to attrition in the fight with Hizballah; no less than Ariel Sharon uprooted the religious settlers of Gaza when he judged that move necessary to maintain the hold on the West Bank. But when it comes to the “final status” issues in the conflict, no substantial pressure has ever been brought to bear, certainly not from the United States.
To the contrary, since the late 1960s US administrations have acted, to cite Miller’s most famous aphorism, as “Israel’s lawyer.” The US has bobbed and weaved on settlements across the 1967 lines, despite the crystalline clarity of international law that no state may acquire territory by force or locate its citizens on occupied land. “Illegal” early on in US parlance, the settlements were then viewed as “obstacles to peace” and are now termed “population centers” for which Palestinians might receive compensatory swathes of desert from Israel proper. The US has reliably and consistently supported Israeli aggression in diplomatic forums, invoking Israel’s “right to defend itself” even as it counsels “restraint.” And Washington has been Israel’s banker as well, dispensing billions of dollars in annual aid, all of it now military.
The Obama administration has held true to form. Mitchell’s mandate for a settlement freeze was little more than a suggestion to a recalcitrant client, for when Netanyahu said no, the US had no gambit to compel a change of heart and no backup plan. The ballyhooed talks were simply held in abeyance, and when ‘Abbas objected, the US joined Israel in pointing to the Palestinians as the party that “walked away.” Meanwhile, the State Department dutifully explained to the press corps why the settlement freeze was not necessary, after all, and why the Palestinians should negotiate the territorial limits of their future state even as Israel continuously redrew the borders on the ground. Neither during this episode nor during the Mavi Marmara fiasco was there any hint that the White House appreciated its compromised position.
President Obama stayed on message again in his May 19 speech, which, the overheated reporting notwithstanding, was scarcely more than a bland rehash of Clinton and Bush administration policy. The US backs a two-state solution, and favors a phased approach to getting there. “Territory and security” are to be tackled first. Never mind that, from the Oslo process of the 1990s to the “road map” of the Bush years, the phased approach has not only failed to achieve peace but deepened Israeli control of the West Bank and, in particular, East Jerusalem. Postponing the talks on borders, settlements and Jerusalem only renders these issues more intractable, since Israel is constantly changing the terms of reference by building settler homes, bypass roads, walls, fences and “border” terminals. The focus on “territory and security” reprises the plan for a provisional Palestinian state, meant to quiet international clamor while dodging the core of the question. Obama deviated from his predecessors’ discourse only in tone, warning Israel that time is running out for the best possible deal. Even here, his attorney’s remonstrations were open to interpretation. He said, for instance: “The fact is: A growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River.” On paper, this sentence reads like a distillation of the “demographic threat” literature in Israel, which posits that Palestinians (counting Palestinian citizens of Israel) already make up a majority of the population between the river and the sea. If Israel wants to have a Jewish majority, it must divest itself of the West Bank. But when reading the speech out loud, Obama stressed the word “west,” making the sentence sound like a half-joking slap at the right-wing Israeli nostrum that Palestinians already have a state in Jordan.
Such US dithering, like Israeli intransigence, is not a force of nature. It is a political choice enabled by the fact that Washington has paid no strategic cost for its Israel-Palestine policy since the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Much as Arab chanceries and former State Department Arabists protest, Arab states have taken next to no action since then to prise a more even-handed position out of their US ally. Arab states have more often cooperated with US-Israeli initiatives, the glaring case in point being Egypt’s enthusiastic enforcement of the siege upon Gaza under the deposed autocrat, Husni Mubarak. To be sure, there are numerous former and current policymakers who believe an “honest broker” stance to be a vital US interest. Their ranks may include such prominent personages as Gen. David Petraeus. And the peace process industry in Washington was overjoyed to hear Obama, in his inaugural remarks on the conflict, identify Israeli-Palestinian peace in exactly these terms.
But the US national interest is also no tautology; Middle East peace does not magically become a top US priority because Obama or well-known realist scholars say it is. The national interest is rather the sum total, ever fluctuating, of the balance of forces within the national security state, the corporate elite, the political class and their ideological appendages, as well as various lobbies. One discerns the reigning contours of the national interest from the patterns of action by the powerful over time. In the last four decades, the US has acted multiple times to secure Israel against external peril, including the Camp David agreement with Egypt, and to shield the Jewish state from international opprobrium. It has not acted to effect Middle East peace, if by that phrase is meant an inclusive and lasting solution to the problems created by Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948 and its invasion of the remainder of Palestine in 1967. If Obama truly believed such a solution to be crucial for America’s security, would he have dropped the whole topic as soon as Israel’s prime minister turned down his first proposal?
No, with regard to the question of Palestine, progress has been pushed by the insistent demands of the Palestinians, not by the good will of Israel or the clever formulas of the US. The 1990 conference in Madrid, the secret Oslo parleys and the eventual Israeli recognition of the PLO were all byproducts of the 1987 intifada, which first taught Israel that Palestinians would not acquiesce indefinitely in military dictatorship. Sharon’s “disengagement” from Gaza was belated realization of the same lesson. Israel and the US can succeed in perpetuating the status quo only if Palestinians allow it.
In the spring of 2011, amidst revolution on Israel-Palestine’s southern border and bloody repression to the north, the Palestinians have put three cats among the already scattered pigeons: First came word of ‘Abbas’ intent, applauded instinctively by the vast majority of the world’s nations, to declare a Palestinian state “unilaterally” by asking the UN General Assembly for member status in September. Obama inveighed against this idea on May 19 and on his subsequent tour of Europe. Second, with the assistance of the post-revolution Egyptian foreign ministry, ‘Abbas and Hamas reached a modus vivendi that may lead to power sharing down the road. Egypt also relaxed the closure of its border with Gaza. Third, and perhaps most consequential, on May 15 thousands of Palestinians residing in Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza marched to their respective boundaries with Israel to agitate for the right of return for Palestinians made refugees in the 1948 war. (Fourteen Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli soldiers.)
If there is movement toward justice and peace in Israel-Palestine in the remainder of the Obama presidency, history will see these Palestinian undertakings as the impetus. Don’t bet on anything else.