Israeli Prime MInister Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House in Washington in 2010 (Source: Flickr/Office of the Prime Minister of Israel)
The world of statecraft is so fraught with risk that it is tempting, just to reduce the range of maddening uncertainty a tad or two, to assign either inevitability or impossibility to future propositions that are neither. The Arab-Israeli conflict has garnered its share of both over the years. For every “always” we have heard, and we have heard many, we have had to listen to a corresponding “never”—a sure sign of an apoplectic and not entirely useful discourse.
For most political Zionists during the early Mandate period, for example, some kind of suitable accommodation with the Arabs was thought inevitable. Labor Zionists had a theory of common class-based interests and they believed it for a long time, even after its premises became untenable. Then, by the late 1920s, Revisionist Zionists believed that accommodation with the Arabs was impossible, and they argued for war preparation on the earliest and best terms attainable to force the issue. Had they won their way within the Zionist Executive, a private understanding between that Zionist Executive and the Hashemite throne in Jordan, one that effectively limited the scope and stakes of the 1948-49 war, would have been impossible.
After the armistices that ended the 1948-49 war, and with the Palestinian refugee problem just born and still very raw, the bitterness of war persuaded most observers, local and otherwise, that anything like a genuine peace among any of the major protagonists was impossible. But then in due course, after the clarifying effects of three major wars, the peace treaties between Israel and Egypt (March 1979) and Israel and Jordan (October 1994) happened. That in turn persuaded a lot of people of the inevitability of Syrian and Lebanese treaties to come, of normalization between Israel and the noncontiguous Arab world, and, despite the failure of the Oslo Accords of September 1993 to lead to a quick resolution, many still believed that a peace between Israel and the Palestinians was inevitable.
Alas, then the sense of things turned back again. Yasir Arafat’s failure to take “yes” for an answer at Camp David in the summer of 2000 deflated expectations all around. The small war he began thereafter, called an intifada, made things worse. Hamas’s seizure of Gaza in June 2007 deepened the gloom as Palestinian politics fractionated and disappointed Israelis accelerated the country’s political turn to the Right. The gradual displacement of what had always been mainly a conflict of nationalisms by an overlapping conflict of religious cultures provided an accompaniment of echoing dirges to the deepening pessimism.
Into this chamber of gloom clambered the young Obama Administration in the winter of 2009, where it commenced a skein of diplomatic malpractice that soon reduced what mild hopes there might have been to dust—and spawned needless acrimony to boot. It did not really matter at the time, for, as those with experience of these things pretty much all agreed, conditions were not propitious for major progress. The best that could be achieved fell into the domain of what George Shultz once aptly termed the “gardening phase” of diplomacy. One could amend the soil, make improvements at the margins, and hope that the future would repay the investment.
Before the Obama Administration could complete its record of being the least successful administration in Arab-Israeli mediation since that of Lyndon Johnson, other misanthropies ensued. The Syrian Civil War caused it to dawn at least on a few that even had prior efforts to forge an Israeli-Syrian peace been successful, the advanced if not final collapse of the Syrian state, along with the last vestiges of civility in Syrian society, would have shredded any such agreement. That was not a distant worry sufficient to give up prematurely on the possibility of an Israeli-Syrian deal, but no one would argue that success then could have prevented the civil war later. Life-or-death stakes for a regime within its own borders will generally—perhaps always?—trump whatever arrangements it has sculpted with other states.
That civil war, along with the nervous interregnum of the Morsi regime in Egypt, reminded the wary and the experienced alike that no Arab-Israeli peace treaty could be worth more than the staying power of the Arab regime whose signature is affixed to the paper. Given the general state of the Sunni Arab regimes today in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring—not to exclude the Hashemite Kingdom (of which more anon)—one would have to be truly determined on delusion to miss the depressing point.
A Peace Process in 2016 Will Fail –- For Over-determined Reasons
The roller-coaster expectations ride of the past near century ought to suffice to show that nothing is inevitable and nothing is impossible when it comes to the Arab-Israeli situation. As with most such complex and emotionally laden matters, one is wise to hope for the best, fear the worse, but expect something in between. If solutions are elusive, management is nevertheless necessary, for the interests of all parties, including the United States, require it.
This is the basic framework with we should interpret the rise in recent weeks of a French-led United Nations initiative and, latterly, the visit of the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, to Israel just this week. These episodes, along with some faint orthogonal mutterings coming out of the back benches of the waning Administration, have raised hopes in some quarters that a peace process surge will adorn the last five months of the Obama Administration, even if the Administration leads the surge “from behind.”
As I have taken pains to make clear, nothing is impossible. But such a surge is improbable and its success, were it to come about anyway, is about as close to impossible as one can get. Why is this? The answer is that prospective failure is over-determined. Let us count some of the reasons.
First, the Obama Administration has long since forfeited any suasive power it began with in both Israel and among the relevant Arab parties. Arabs and Israelis are capable of starting peace processes on their own (witness Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem and the Oslo Accords as exhibits A and B) but they have shown too little capacity to finish them on their own. To turn two piers into a bridge has always required U.S. mediation, the purpose of which was to reduce the risks to each side of moving from an uncomfortable status quo to an uncertain new circumstance. Confidence in U.S. mediation is now at a post-1967 low among the parties who matter. (France never possessed such a resource to begin with among the Arabs, and has had no such cache in Israel since May 1967.)
Second, the Palestinians are still, since June 2007, divided geographically as well as in most other relevant ways. They do not have one gun or one voice; they have not experienced their Altalena incident. This is not just an irritant; it is a show-stopper.
Third, while there has been some interesting movement in Israel just right of center lately, the current Israeli Prime Minister has never shown any serious interest in negotiating for peace with the Palestinians. He has made tactical gestures to alleviate various pressures, but he has never, it would seem, been tempted to pick up the phone, call the President (any President), and say, in effect, “OK, I’m ready to move, and I’m willing to consider some significant concessions: What can you do to deliver enough benefits to protect my posterior from my domestic critics who want to serve me as tomorrow’s dinner entrée?” Some argue that the fragility of Netanyahu’s coalition prevents him from acting, but in the past firmer control has not led him to act.
Fourth, a high-profile peace process has to involve Jordan at one point or another, and more pressure on the King and his court right now is just not a good idea. Jordan needs to be protected from the ill winds blowing out of the desert right now, not exposed to more of them.
And fifth, even should Egypt wish to carry the surge forward—a vastly superior proposition for all concerned than anything coming out of a Europe than can barely manage its own affairs—Egypt today lacks the heft to do the job. Though it is the largest Arab state as always, it also has very large troubles. It cannot define effectively Palestinian “red lines” in a negotiation and have the Palestinians, the Saudis, and other interested actors buy into them easily, or at all.
If you wanted a sixth and seventh reason, I could supply them; but surely the over-determined nature of the prospective failure of any peace process surge this year needs no more evidence. And please let us never say—and I really do mean never—that trying can anyhow do no harm. It most certainly can, and poorly prepared efforts in the past have on more than one occasion done real harm, not least by causing the deaths of innocent people.
What It Would Take for a Peace Process to Succeed in 2017-18
But what about next year? What about after the Obama tenure is over and something like a clean slate emerges in Washington at least? Were we to hope for the best, if only as a thought experiment, what would the best look like?
Before getting down to details, it’s worth reminding ourselves of a few basic rules of thumb.
The first of these is that the bureaucratic obsession with process must not be allowed to obscure the purpose of any exercise. From a U.S. point of view, in any case, a new Administration would need to understand what U.S. interests are, how much effort and how much risk they are worth to pursue, and how much presidential or secretarial capital, if any, ought to be invested in an initial water-tester. The answers to such questions are not obvious, and need to be looked at afresh in the context of changed and changing U.S. interests in the region as a whole.
Second, it remains true that the United States, or any mediator for that matter, cannot want peace between Israelis and Arabs more than the principals want it. No amount of exquisitely skillful U.S. diplomacy can persuade responsible leaders to do anything that cuts across the grain of their sense of national survival. It can reduce their risks, but it cannot transform the fundamental reality in which they believe they work.
Third, therefore, the sine qua non of success in this sort of thing is the existence of leaders on both sides who are willing and able to deliver. That means they need to be powerful enough politically to withstand opposition to their policies, and they need to want to move beyond the status quo to a better place. With Egypt, Sadat and Begin fulfilled those conditions, and U.S. mediation provided the bridge both to seal the deal and to help protect it from storms all these years since. With Jordan, King Hussein and Yitzhak Rabin fulfilled those conditions. On the Palestinian side things have never quite lined up. Arafat was able but not willing; Abbas has arguably been willing but is not able. Israeli policy hasn’t helped him become able, to be sure; but it’s not clear that any Israeli policies would suffice for that purpose under present circumstances.
If these rules of thumb define the basic parameters of the possible, what does it tell us about the shape of a potentially successful effort come 2017 or 2018?
As to process versus substance, there is no great mystery here. For some years now the basic shape of an agreement—concerning, essentially, borders, security, right of return, Jerusalem, and water—has been a known quantity. Even the character of at least some of the basic tradeoffs has been rehearsed time and time again. The negotiators know each other. They know that in some respects they can and cannot trust each other—in other words, they know the limits of good will set against not-so-good realities. Obviously, a substantive deal isn’t done until it’s entirely done, and no one should gainsay the difficulty of getting it done. But this is not impossible; this is, actually, the easier part.
As to wanting to move, here hope is hinting. As noted in passing above, some things are changing in Israel. Without going into detail in a short essay, suffice it to say that an argument long made left of center in Israel has now penetrated to right of center. And that is the recognition that for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic, it cannot stand pat. Time is not on its side. Every time an initiative comes Israel’s way from the European Union, or Egypt, or the United States, and the head of state essentially does a Nancy Reagan “just say no,” hackles increasingly rise in his shadow.
Voices right of center in Israel today increasingly favor an Israeli initiative that will give rise to a two-state solution. They are ready increasingly to compromise boldly. Ehud Olmert was a Likud pioneer when he started this trend, but now his views have become far more common. Netanyahu may not agree, yet; but his coalition worries might be about to shift: If he does not find a way to embrace this new trend, he may find himself not only without a coalition but also without a job come the next election.
What Abbas wants is hard to say, but it hardly matters because whatever he wants he cannot get with the decrepit power at his disposal. There needs to be one Palestinian voice and one Palestinian gun to even imagine a successful resolution of the conflict. That is still true no matter what may change on the U.S. and Israeli sides. How could that come about?
Unfortunately, there is no easy or pretty way to do this. There are a few variations on a hard way, however, which involves yet another clarifying act of violence (and which I have mooted before).
That way is for the IDF to seize Gaza, root out and destroy the Hamas political and military infrastructure, and hand the Strip over to a pre-prepared Palestinian Authority force backed by a supplementary Arab League expeditionary force. In other words, Israel can supply the Palestinians’ Altalena incident for them, since they are in no position to supply it for themselves. If Hamas were to attack Israel first, say in the context of a fight between Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon after the Syrian Civil War comes to some kind of rest, that would help the optic.
Obviously, this sort of thing would have to be discreetly cooked and coordinated in advance. The recipe for the cooking would have to be the Arab Peace Initiative, or some closely hewn variant thereof. That would require leaderships not only in Ramallah and Jerusalem who know what they want and know what they are willing to sacrifice to get it, but also leaderships in Cairo, Amman, Riyadh, and Washington who are prepared in their own interests to facilitate it. Certainly the diplomatic part would be a lot tougher than the military part. It would not be at all easy, but it would not be impossible either.
Such an arrangement, were it to become feasible, bears implications for making any agreement stick. Any agreement would have to be implemented in phases, and during implementation an agreement would be vulnerable to critics—armed critics, no less—possibly on both sides. The best, and perhaps the only way, to protect an agreement from blood-on-the-saddle detractors is to cocoon both protagonists in a larger, sufficiently powerful and capable organizational matrix. On the Palestinian side, that means the Arab League in name, but Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and perhaps the Emiratis in practice, with maybe a few Moroccans thrown in for spice. On the Israeli side, a not exactly symmetrical cocoon might consist of NATO or some other joint U.S.-European undertaking, but it would have to have teeth, credibility, and staying power, and it would probably have to closely liaise with and support the Arab League component.
Both cocoons would in practice limit the freedom of action of leaderships in Jerusalem and Ramallah, perhaps for some time. That would not be easy to swallow in either town, but one suspects especially so on the Israeli side. But if the rewards were sufficiently attractive, it could happen. After all, if there is a Zionist slogan, it is this (in common if not entirely accurate English translation): “If you will it, it need not be a dream.” Zionists know that nothing is impossible; otherwise the State of Israel would never have been born. They also know that nothing is inevitable, that if a people want something, they have to work and sacrifice for it. By now plenty of Palestinians have gained a similar understanding, often the hard way.
This is a tall order, to be sure. But there is no use indulging in process for its own sake after January 2017. Unless the parties understand the real barriers to success and what it will take to overcome them, a new process will only waste time and aviation fuel. The next President and Secretary of State, whoever they turn out to be, will not be able to afford that kind of waste. And they should not casually inflict unanticipated hardships on the local protagonists just to satisfy some quixotic do-gooder reflex. Remember: from the building of castles in the sky bricks soon fall.
 The Altalena was the name of a ship carrying weapons to the Irgun, a Jewish paramilitary group in the then-new state of Israel in June 1948. Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered an attack on the Altalena to assert the government’s monopoly on the use of military force. It is sometimes said that the Palestinians need their own version of the Altalena so that authority over the use of force is not split between multiple Palestinian entities.