Home / Articles / An Underdog’s Plaint and the Limits of Romantic Geopolitics in the Middle East
Khalid Elgindy, Blind Spot:America and the Palestinians from Balfour to Trump Brookings Institution Press, 2019. 262 pp + notes and index $25.99
Khalid Elgindy served for several years as a European-funded technical adviser to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. He observed permanent status negotiations with Israel from 2004 to 2009, and was a participant in the Annapolis negotiations of 2008. From 2010 to 2018 he was a resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the publisher of Blind Spot, his second Brookings Press book.
Before 2004, Elgindy occupied various political- and policy-related positions in Washington, D.C., both inside and outside the Federal government: professional staff member on the House International Relations Committee; policy analyst for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; political action coordinator for the Arab-American Institute; and Middle East program officer for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. A U.S. national whose parents emigrated from Egypt, Elgindy earned a Master’s in Arab studies from Georgetown University and a Bachelor’s in political science from Indiana University.
These bare-bones facts identify Elgindy as a rare bird: someone who, over most of two decades, has seen close up and personal the inside of Palestinian politics, the dynamics of Palestinian Authority negotiations with Israel, and shards of Washington government and think-tank life. As one of only a few individuals with comparable credentials, anything Elgindy has to say on the subject of U.S.-mediated Arab-Israeli diplomacy would be worth considering. That is true even if no surprises or valuable new insights emerge from the reading—of course, such emergence depends as much on the reader as on the author.
Some interesting details aside, very little is surprising in Blindspot to those long since inured to this subject matter. The book has the feel of a lawyer’s brief, which is to say that by selecting in argumentatively useful facts and selecting out or discounting inconvenient ones, an impression of support for a client’s interest can be created without recourse to outright mendacity or crude misrepresentation. This approach, as common in Washington as rabbits in a garden, is not odd for someone who serves as a board member for the Egyptian-American Rule of Law Association. It is also not different in type from dozens of books by other U.S. nationals, mostly Jews, who have over the years crafted lawyers’ briefs in support of the Israeli case.
As with most of the latter clutch of authors, not a hint of disingenuity shrouds Elgindy’s presentation. No blatant bullshistory, as I have named the deliberate distortion of history for argumentative purposes, can be found in the author’s century deep narrative, which is also refreshingly free of ideological cant and excessive verbal color. That does not mean that a great many lawyer-like sentences in the book are not arguable as to their accuracy or balance—they are—which makes this the kind of book the detailed correction of which would end up nearly as long as the book itself.
Nor does it mean that the argument taken as a whole is persuasive—on balance, it isn’t. This is not because of any malice aforethought; the book gives no reason to doubt the author’s sincere desire for a fair and lasting peace between the protagonists. The problem is that what Elgindy wishes had happened and still wants to happen in U.S. policy cannot, or at any rate, will not happen for reasons that sometimes go deeper than or beyond his analysis.
As such, Blind Spot is an underdog’s plaint, and a romantic one. It may appeal to many Americans who lack expert knowledge of the history he discusses, if only because Americans tend to sympathize with underdogs. That tendency helps explain longstanding American sympathies for Israel, and today helps explain a marked shift in those sympathies away from Israel.
To wit: When the optic of the Arab-Israeli conflict focused on the several hostile Arab states, and when the State of Israel was still young and of unknown vulnerability, Israel seemed the underdog in American eyes. With the state-to-state aspect of the conflict mostly settled, the Palestinian dimension thus thrust into the forefront, and Israel’s strategic fragility no longer a quotidian worry, the Palestinians seem to be the underdog in America eyes. The beginning of that shift can be dated to the 1979-82 period, and has been gaining energy ever since. Blind Spot wishes to give a further shove in that direction.
Blind Spot is based on two premises and makes essentially three related arguments. The first premise, made inter alia throughout the book, is that it is practically impossible to separate policy from politics, particularly when two out of three main negotiating parties are nestled in democratic political cultures. This premise is utterly irrefutable, even if Elgindy sometimes overuses it.
The second premise is that the core of the problem U.S. mediation has needed to overcome is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza (before August 2005). This premise forms the foundation for a large chunk of Elgindy’s argument throughout. This premise is not utterly irrefutable, and may in fact be wrong.
It matters enormously to prospects for peace whether the fundamental Palestinian grievance against Israel and Zionism dates from 1967 or 1948, and whether that fact has changed, is changing, or will ever change. Blind Spot never directly engages this question. Rather, Elgindy asserts the former even as the text frequently contradicts the assertion with repeated references to U.S. backsliding and “denial” on the matter of responsibility for the refugee crisis and the right of return embodied in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 from December 1948. At one point praising the foresight of U.S. diplomat Jefferson Caffery, Elgindy writes: “Caffery was far ahead of his time in recognizing . . . . the centrality of the refugee issue to a political settlement” (p. 65). It cannot be both: If the U.S. sin of discounting the refugee issue and the right of return was and remains so central, then the post-1967 occupation cannot be as exhaustively important to the conflict as Elgindy claims.
Elgindy’s first argument follows from the second premise: that while Israeli and Palestinian protagonists share blame for the lack of a negotiating breakthrough, a flawed U.S. mediation strategy deserves blame as well. And what has been the flaw? Basically that the U.S. approach has leaned too far toward Israel and failed to consider the limitations and nature of Palestinian politics; had it not done so, Elgindy argues, the negotiations would not have been doomed to failure. But failure has allowed the deepening Israeli occupation of the West Bank, what some have called a selective unilateral annexation, to become an even more formidable obstacle to future progress. That latter conclusion is of course true; but it still doesn’t mean that the 1967 occupation exhausts Palestinian claims. It just means that any earlier claims will take longer to get to.
The second argument is shaped as a dialectical downward spiral: Failed but intrusive U.S. mediation weakened Palestinian leaders and institutions and contributed to the increasing dysfunction of the Palestinian leadership, which in turn has hindered prospects for a diplomatic solution. Elgindy contends that much of U.S. mediation, either at Israel’s behest or independently reasoned, has aimed to transform the Palestinian leadership into a partner that an Israeli government could accept. That attempted transformation has affected Palestinian politics in divisive and weakening ways, and he argues that this was no accident. U.S. policy deliberately sought to weaken the Palestinian side, he asserts, to deliver a settlement that was politically useful in Washington, given the imbalance in sympathies toward Israel and the Palestinians in Congress and the country at large. In his view, U.S. mediation could have succeeded had it instead sought to compensate for the vast inferiority of the Palestinian position with regard to Israel.
The third argument, which threads through the book, is that it is the imbalance in U.S. politics that has led successive U.S. administrations to view the conflict “solely through an Israeli lens”—that’s the reason, argues Elgindy, that U.S. mediation has consistently expected the Palestinian side to make most of the concessions necessary to achieve peace. Here the argument depends on no devil theory of the “Jewish Lobby” and its “Benjamins,” but on the plain reality that American Jewish political engagement and organized influence has until recently far overshadowed politically engaged advocacy on the Palestinian side. Here is where argument three elides with premise one.
Preoccupied with the Occupation
What to make of these arguments?
PA negotiators and supporters of the Palestinian position always claim that the real issue is the occupation of the West Bank. Many Israelis, and certainly most right-of-center Israelis, are not persuaded of this. Neither were successive U.S. administrations for a long time after 1967. The Oslo Accords marked the first time that the Palestinian national movement recognized Israel’s right to exist, and also the first time that Israel formally and explicitly recognized Palestinian national rights. Subsequent negotiations were designed in part to put these two pledges to the test by trying to operationalize them.
Palestinian publicists and supporters claim that the Palestinian side passed this test; most Israelis have concluded that the Palestinian side fudged its results by avoiding a clear and binding Palestine National Council vote on the matter. Recognition or no, the results of the summer 2000 Camp David summit persuaded most Israelis that Yasser Arafat would never have signed a final status agreement if it relinquished Palestinian rights to continue the conflict in order to move from the 1967 portfolio to the 1948 one. Elgindy relegates the “no partner for peace” argument from the Israeli side as a pretext for its own intransigence, but it is no such thing for most Israelis—including most left-of-center Israelis. The popularity of Hamas, even in the West Bank, is taken as supportive evidence—and why shouldn’t it be?
From the U.S. point of view, this same concern was a central issue before Oslo. What would be the point, after all, of mediating a negotiation if one of the parties was set on destroying the other rather than coming to an accommodation with it? It was on account of this unassailable logic that, yes, a good deal of U.S. diplomacy aimed toward the Palestinians was designed to render them logically valid negotiating partners. It is true, of course, that this objective was politically easy given broad American public support for the Israeli position. But in this case politics reinforced strategic judgment, not the other way around.
That is not how Elgindy sees it. He writes, for example, on the aftermath of the summer 2000 Camp David failure: “The view that Arafat intransigence and Palestinian militancy were the primary drivers of the conflict, rather than Israel’s continued occupation, took center stage under George W. Bush” (p. 12). He clearly means to suggest that this view was and remains wrong, but at the time, certainly—if not necessarily still today—the balance of the evidence suggested its validity.
Similarly, Elgindy’s argument that the deliberate U.S. weakening of the Palestinian position was a flawed judgment is itself a flawed judgment based in part on an analysis that conflates essentially different time periods with different strategic priorities. He mentions Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s September 1975 pledge to Israel that the U.S. government would not deal with the PLO until it recognized Israel’s right to exist and accepted UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. He then writes that this pledge “reflected Kissinger’s belief that excluding and weakening the PLO would ultimately benefit the peace process” (p. 10).
That is correct as stated but wrong as intended, for all this took place at a time when the peace process primarily referred to settling the state of war between Israel and the Arab states. That was a prospect with major geopolitical implications in a Cold War setting, and was clearly in U.S. national security interest regardless of politics. Kissinger’s view was that a so-called comprehensive approach to the problem would grant veto power to the Arab rejectionists who opposed any accommodation or recognition of Israel. That included the PLO at the time, whose rhetoric and violent behavior marked it as the uber-rejectionist.
It helped enormously that Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin took the same view as Kissinger. As a result of their joint marginalizing of the Palestinians and the Arab state rejectionists, U.S. mediation was able to produce a 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. That treaty in turn created a new environment which, eventually, made the 1993 Oslo Accords possible, and Oslo then made the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of October 1994 possible. These developments, taken together, represented a major diplomatic triumph of U.S. diplomacy beyond the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. They also proved wrong the view that no significant amelioration of the conflict as a whole could happen without tackling head on the Palestinian dimension of it.
In other words, Elgindy has Kissinger’s attitude correct but his judgment of it wrong—even if, as Elgindy argues, excluding the PLO acted as a goad to more terrorism. Elgindy seems to imply that justice for the Palestinians should always have overridden the U.S. superpower’s near-term concern with its own security interests. The world just doesn’t work that way, which is why, as noted, the argument as a whole is redolent of the romantic.
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the 2005-08 period occurred in a transformed context thanks in large part to the success of U.S. diplomacy, including success more broadly in and beyond the Middle East. The Soviet Union had gone out of business, and U.S. success in the first Iraq War had enabled Washington to convene the 1991 Madrid Conference, during which most of the Arab states—including Saudi Arabia—sent delegates to sit in the same room with Israeli officials. The symbolic aura of the conflict has never since been the same.
The PLO as Partner
To simplify somewhat, this new constellation increased pressure on the PLO—whose headquarters before the Oslo Accords were in far-away Tunis—even as it decreased pressure on the United States. That alone goes far to explain why the PLO became a partner to Oslo, ambiguously dangling recognition of Israel in the process, and why those Accords were negotiated initially without the knowledge of the U.S. government. Arafat’s aim was to entreat a new U.S. mediation that would deliver important Israeli concessions while minimizing the need for Palestinian concessions in return. A so-called U.S.-PLO dialogue had begun in December 1988, in the last month of the Reagan Administration, and its existence provided an on-ramp, Arafat thought, to a useful relationship now in the first year of the Clinton Administration—since every U.S. administration lunges at the peace process for political reasons, regardless of the state of play in the region or the world. From the Palestinian perspective, Oslo had worked at the least to get Arafat to Ramallah from Tunis, where his tactical options multiplied manifold.
The proverbial $64,000 question at the time, of course, was whether a U.S.-mediated negotiation following on Oslo could produce a final-status peace accord. During the Rabin-Peres era in Israel there was no question that both Israel and the United States wished for such a success. The open question was whether Arafat was engaging to reduce Israeli positions for future leverage, or was prepared at some point to sign on the dotted line for something like half a loaf. Already by 1993 this question had a long history.
In the period after the October 1973 War, as Elgindy reports, Arafat privately communicated enticingly moderate aims to the U.S. government through a series of contacts, lest the PLO be excluded from critical postwar diplomacy. For years thereafter many U.S. diplomats took these statements at face value, rather than as tactics of desperation, and persisted in believing in Arafat’s ultimate willingness to conciliate long after he withdrew such statements in frustration over not being able to establish a formal opening to the U.S. government. That partly explains the backdrop to the decision to open a U.S.-PLO Dialogue—the hope that PLO moderation would return, this time for keeps. But with the ups and then the downs of Oslo in the post-September 1993 period, no one knew Arafat’s inner red lines—possibly not even Arafat himself.
In other words, what Elgindy assumes lawyer-like to be the case—that the Palestinian side wanted peace and would have signed if only U.S. mediation had compensated for Palestinian weakness vis-à-vis Israel—was actually the key open question. No one will ever know what Arafat might have done had the terms been more to his liking, but the terms offered by the Israeli side at Camp David in the summer of 2000 drew not even a response from Arafat. Generous as they were under the circumstances, Arafat rejected them out of hand as a basis for discussion. What he was thinking at the time is to some extent beside the point, because most Israelis drew a logical conclusion from his behavior, which included not only his diplomatic non-engagement but his soon starting a small war—the second intifada—that took more than 1,700 Israeli lives, nearly 80 percent of them civilians.
It is ironic that in a book emphasizing U.S. cluelessness about the importance of domestic Palestinian politics and that emphasizes the supposed key role of U.S. domestic politics, Elgindy has so little to say about the impact of Israeli opinion or politics on the U.S.-Palestinian-Israeli triangle. But is the cluelessness point correct in the first place, and is the postulated key role of U.S. domestic politics in shaping U.S. mediation strategy correct, as well? Well, it’s complicated.
Clueless in Gaza
The fact of U.S. diplomatic cluelessness about the domestic politics of other countries is hardly revelatory. Especially when it comes to non-Western societies, it’s very close to what we as Enlightenment-lite universalists do best. As I have written, “American leaders rarely seem to feel any particular need to know all that much about a country before they invade it—from Vietnam to Iraq to Libya, and several other places in between.”
Worse, Americans tend to default to Manichaean two-valued frames of reference about almost everything foreign. The key decision-makers in U.S. foreign policy are, after all, politicians who are rarely competent in the subject, and none have ever been area experts. Professional diplomats in the service of the U.S. government do typically understand the domestic politics of others and how it shapes their foreign policy behaviors, but the influence of that knowledge generally rises only so far in the decision-making chain—often not far enough. To ask people in and around the White House to distinguish between the nuances of Palestinian politics, with all of their ideological, personal, and extended-family convolutions, is usually a bridge way too far for people who cannot usually even articulate the difference between a Sunni and a Shi`a, an Arab and a Muslim, or an Arabic and a Farsi speaker. Elgindy captures the essence when he reports President Reagan’s response to a 1981 briefing about Palestinian politics: “But they are all terrorists, aren’t they” (p. 109)?
That said, this obliviousness near the top does not explain much of U.S. peace process mediation behavior toward the Palestinian side over the years. What really explains it has already been noted: the need to produce a Palestinian interlocutor with minimal non-rejectionist characteristics conducive to a potentially successful negotiation with Israel. That was the main purpose of the U.S.-PLO Dialogue, a gamble worth taking because, as had been understood from Kissinger’s time forward, an unreconstructed rejectionist form of Palestinian nationalism was a nonstarter for any U.S. mediation strategy. The political aspects of this, however real, amounted merely to decoration.
Which brings us to the second matter, via the question of Hamas. It is certainly true that high-level U.S. decision-makers dismissed the significance of internal Palestinian politics on a fairly regular basis, just as after March 2003 they repeatedly botched understanding Iraqi politics, a subject that impinged far more directly on U.S. interests. If that were all Elgindy meant to establish in Blind Spot, he could be judged successful. Yet Elgindy underplays the way in which that tendency contributed to what has been perhaps the worst mistake of U.S. diplomacy in this area in recent years: U.S. encouragement that the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections should go forward even with the participation of Hamas.
This is neither the time nor place to replay this disaster, for which the Palestinian Authority and, to a lesser extent, the Israeli government were co-complicit. Suffice it to say that those elections were predicated on the terms of the Oslo Accords, and the Accords were based, as noted, on the exchange of mutual recognition between the sides. Since Hamas repeatedly, totally, and sometimes violently refused to recognize Oslo or Israel, the logic that allowed its participation was thin, to put it generously. But the Bush 43 White House, obsessed with its democracy-intoxicated “forward strategy for freedom,” decided to support the elections going forward anyway. Elgindy selects exactly the right quote from Bush’s memoir: “Whatever the outcome, free and fair elections would be the truth” (p. 186).
It might have been a good idea despite its yawning illogic had Hamas lost the election. That outcome would have taken its reputation and clout in Palestinian politics down several pegs. But Hamas won and, after fending off various efforts to rob it of its electoral victory, on June 14, 2007 it staged what amounted to a coup d’état in seizing Gaza. So it is true, as Elgindy argues, that flawed U.S. policy abetted the division in Palestinian politics that still poses the greatest obstacle to the development of a coherent, moderate Palestinian negotiating position—and that effectively neutered any advantage to progress that inhered in the movement from Arafat to Mahmoud Abbas as PLO leader. But it did so not deliberately but by mistake. Elgindy’s argument here fails to draw a strong and explicit connection between Bush’s critical error and the burdens it has since bequeathed, those burdens including a series of bloody but so far inconclusive spasms of Hamas-Israel violence.
There is a reason, perhaps, that Elgindy downplays the connection. The manifest popularity of Hamas, at least at that point in time, bears witness to the fact that Palestinian opinion still gravitated toward an uncompromising attitude toward the existence of the State of Israel. That contradicts Elgindy’s premise that the occupation is the problem. He resolves the contradiction by delicately sideswiping it.
The behavior of the Bush 43 Administration testifies to another truth inconvenient to Elgindy’s argument: While Congress has long been and still remains vulnerable to the importuning of pro-Israel sentiment, not just from the Jewish Israel lobby but also from mostly evangelical Christian Zionists, the Executive Branch is not. As a rule, until very recently, the Executive Branch has determined U.S. policy in which Israel has some role by reckoning its hard strategic interests, and the Legislative Branch has been left with the softer factors. Elgindy never mentions this distinction, and suggests that an Israel lobby able to shape U.S. policy at its center goes back all the way to the 1920s.
As anyone familiar with the history knows, core U.S. policy toward Israel, as determined overwhelmingly by the Executive Branch, has oscillated over the years. With the exception of President Truman’s confused but ultimately pro-Israel posture at a critical moment in May 1948, U.S. policy was not particularly friendly to Israel until at least the advent of the Kennedy Administration. The Israel lobby, such as it was during Israel’s first nineteen years, certainly did not like that the U.S. government refused to sell Israel weapons, or that it voted for UN General Assembly Resolution 194. It certainly disliked Eisenhower Administration policy toward Israel during and after the Suez Crisis of 1956. In more recent times, it did not like the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia, or conditioning U.S. loan guarantees to deal with the arrival of Russian Jews on Israeli settlements policies, and one could go on and on. Nevertheless, the Israel lobby was able to prevent none of this, because the power of the Congress to override Executive Branch judgments on such matters is modest. Since Elgindy comments on all of these episodes inter alia, it is something of a mystery how he can write that “Israel’s special relationship with the United States remained immune to the ups and downs of the peace process” (p. 4). Yes, in mostly “soft” ways the relationship remained amorphously “special,” but it was hardly immune to bilateral conflict and sharp disagreement over “hard” peace process issues.
Elgindy’s assertion that U.S. officials tend “to view the peace process through the lens of its special relationship with Israel and American domestic politics” (p. 4) is another exaggerated half-truth. It is certainly true that the Palestinians, as wards of the Arab states until after the 1967 War, did not occupy much space on the mental map of American officials as the ur-events if 1948-49 grew distant. But that has not been the case for many years. Palestinian terrorism began to change that in the early 1970s. Certainly by the time the U.S.-PLO dialogue was established in December 1988 that lens was varied. Elgindy nevertheless writes that the Palestinians “have a few strategic assets to offer the United States and whose cause still engenders considerable hostility on Capitol Hill.” Still? Really?
It has been at least a dozen years since that statement made any simple sense, and Elgindy himself belies as much in passing remarks such as, “Carter and his Secretary of State, Cyrus R. Vance, had a deeper appreciation for the plight of the Palestinians” (p. 96). In the Democratic Party sympathy for the Palestinians and criticism of Israel is by now longstanding, and both have grown rapidly in recent years thanks in large part to the shortsighted, utterly stupid Republican-Likud initiative to politicize support for Israel within American politics—a stupidity that was afoot, it should be remembered, before the current occupant of the Oval Office made it both broader and vastly worse.
The most recent Democratic Administration made this shift clear from the get-go, although not in a helpful way. As I noted nearly six years ago,
The early first-term Obama guys . . . screwed up the Arab-Israeli diplomatic portfolio big time by making strident public demands on Israel that exceeded those coming from the Palestinian side—mainly about housing developments in East Jerusalem. These rookie mistakes pushed the Palestinians further up the demand ladder than they wanted to go, effectively putting them out of reach of agreeable connectivity with Israel. The result was a first-term track record, measured conventionally by success at nurturing the peace process via direct diplomacy, that was the worst of any American administration since the October 1973 War.
Elgindy’s memory of the early Obama months is not of the screw up but that the threatened pressure on Israel abated. It mostly did, and part of the reason was indeed political. But the other part of the reason was that the Administration righted itself, partially at least, acknowledging internally that it had fumbled in its early forays.
Elgindy’s “memory” is weak in other ways, too. At one point, Blind Spot avers that, by 1949, “American policymakers from the president on down had a firm grasp of the nature and scale of the Palestinian refugee problem, including Washington’s own moral responsibility for its creation” (p. 46). Presumably that responsibility flowed from U.S. support for the creation of the State of Israel, whose responsibility for the refugee problem is assumed. (Logically, that would put the Soviet Union in the same boat, for without Moscow’s support for partition the resolution would have failed.) But what about Arab and Palestinian responsibility? Had the Arab and Palestinian side not rejected partition and decided instead to start a war, there would have been no refugee problem. Elgindy mentions that moral responsibility not at all, an odd omission for a book called Blind Spot. Well, maybe not so odd for a lawyer’s brief.
Could They? Would They?
Elgindy’s argument, looked at as a whole, basically importunes U.S. policy to pressure a useful ally on behalf of what remains a non-state organization (albeit with a territorial and institutional presence) that has historically been hostile to the United States, and that has dried blood on its hands with respect to U.S. diplomatic personnel. Why? Presumably because the United States has a near if not manifestly vital interest in solving the problem. That presumption is arguable.
It would of course be a good thing if the problem could be solved once and for all, but even if it were it would not change the fundamental geopolitical realities of the region or the stakes of American interests as they collide with them. A solution would not heal Syria, normalize Iraq, reform Egypt, make the current Saudi leadership sane or responsible, or make the Iranian challenge disappear. It would not dramatically ease or advance the U.S. bilateral relationship with any of the Arab states. It would just be… nice.
Moreover, the reason that U.S. mediation has failed up until now is not because of a lack of U.S. pressure on Israel, but because the Palestinian side has not given U.S. diplomats any particular good reason to run the risks of applying even greater pressure. Yes, some of those risks are political in nature, but others are best described as diplomatic tradecraft best practice. You don’t let a weaker party trick you into carrying its water unless you see an overriding purpose for it in the offing. All such risks would easily be offset for practical purposes if U.S. mediators had reason to believe that a successful negotiating outcome was likely. But it isn’t.
Alas, the problem here, in the Abu Mazen era, has not been a PLO completely frozen in a rejectionist mode. In the Annapolis negotiations, to which Elgindy was privy, the Palestinian side did during 2007-08 what Arafat never did: actually negotiate on the key issues. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer was, if anything, even more generous to the Palestinians than the one presented by Prime Minister Barak at Camp David in 2000. And unlike Arafat then, Abu Mazen responded, as Elgindy accurately relates, in a way that would have allowed Israel to annex most of the settlements in the West Bank, and hence allow the majority of settlers to remain where they were. The negotiations foundered over other issues, but its dynamics unquestionably represented a significant step forward over all that had come before.
No, the problem since at least 2007 has mainly been the pairing of the weakness and division on the Palestinian side, a problem that Elgindy acknowledges is mostly homegrown, with the Israeli political lurch to the right. Between the few but weighty final-status issues for which no compromise settlement is yet in sight, the dysfunction on the Palestinian side, and a manifest and growing lack of desire on the Israeli government side, U.S. diplomatic mediation failure is very much over-determined.
The situation, then, still stands today as many have long described it: Arafat could have but wouldn’t; Abu Mazen would but can’t. And aside from a lack of strategic motive—seeing as how none of America’s Arab partners now considers the Palestinian problem a high priority compared to the desire to secure American protection from and pressure against Iran—there is little any U.S. administration can really do about this. Nothing the U.S. government can do, or ever could do, could really offset the huge imbalance of power between the Palestinians and Israel, not even freezing U.S. aid to Israel. Nothing any U.S. administration could do at this point in time could really rebalance Israeli politics in a way conducive to a settlement. And what the U.S. government could do, in coordination with its allies, to eliminate the key crippling division on the Palestinian side is a very hard pull that, it is fair to say, has been beyond the imagination of recent administrations.
It took nearly fifteen years after Oslo for the promise of genuine Palestinian moderation to begin to emerge, if tentatively and mainly in private. Alas, it emerged into a situation that forced it almost immediately into a straitjacket fashioned by Hamas. And in the meantime, the center of gravity of Israeli politics moved significantly to the right, and not just for reasons having to do with frustration over the peace process. Comedians like to say that in their art form timing is everything. There is nothing funny about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but timing, it seems, has played no less critical role a role in it.
Pondering Mission Near-Impossible
Under the circumstances, one would think that placing a high U.S. policy priority on the Israeli-Palestinian problem makes little sense, for it combines a mission near-impossible with an absence of strategic urgency from the U.S. perspective. And yet the current Administration flamboyantly promises “the deal of the century,” with the President’s Orthodox Jewish son-in-law in charge of securing it. And how has the Administration gone about laying the groundwork for this deal of the century? By screwing the Palestinians in every way imaginable, and by encouraging the Israeli coalition government in its worst instincts.
This is what happens when diplomatic relationships become hostage to partisan fulminations and fantasies. If ever an American diplomatic initiative in this part of the world bore a potential to make things dramatically worse, this is it. From what is known of it, the proposal essentially demands that the Palestinians surrender all of their political aspirations in return for a pile of money that comes with an amortization schedule. Just because Trump and Kushner can imagine no aspiration more precious than making money does not mean that Arabs and Israelis take the same view. There is a story about an elder brother selling his birthright for a pot of lentils, and it is an Abrahamic story that Arabs know well. That tale will not repeat in the shadow of a U.S.-sponsored deal of the century.
George Orwell wrote in 1939 that, “We have now sunk to such a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” Since I consider the Kushner plan a depth charge likely to do great damage if ever allowed out of its box, and both myself and my readers intelligent enough to pass Orwell’s muster, let me conclude by restating what should be obvious, but often isn’t. Six intertwined lessons may be distilled from past U.S.-mediated Arab-Israeli diplomacy. All still apply.
First, progress toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible, but only when the discomforts of the status quo for both sides exceed the imagined risks of change.
Second, decisive progress toward peace is possible only when the United States acts to reduce the risks of change to the status quo for both sides.
Third, under any circumstances, there must be leaders on both sides capable of controlling their own political minions and willing to do so.
Fourth, it is a mistake to think that diplomacy can do no harm if it fails; but it is also a mistake to think that diplomacy can never do good even if it fails.
Fifth, diplomacy has an autonomous dynamic that, once set in motion, cannot be known in advance; but wider social and political contexts also exert unpredictable influence on ratifying and implementing any agreement that might be reached. Wallace Stevens once wrote that, “Our paradise is the imperfect.” So, too, is diplomacy’s paradise the uncertain.
Sixth, hoary claims of linkage between Israeli-Palestinian issues and wider regional and global ones are overblown; what linkage there is tends to work from outside the conflict upon it rather than the other way around. Thus, American weakness and aloofness in the region today collectively undermine the reputational power of U.S. mediation in Israeli-Palestinian problems. That reality renders a mediation failure even more over-determined than it otherwise would be.
These are lessons Mr. Kushner might ponder; Mr. Elgindy, too.
 The inability or unwillingness of U.S. decision-makers to even try to make distinctions either among or within Arab countries is illustrated vividly in Michael Scott Doran, Ike’s Gamble:America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East (Free Press, 2016), and in a minor key related only to Syria in my “U.S. Decision-Making in the Jordan Crisis of 1970: Correcting the Record,” Political Science Quarterly (Spring 1985).