The world is addicted to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But are never-ending negotiations only delaying a day of reckoning?
- By Aaron David MillerAaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.
In an extraordinary editorial last week, the New York Times all but called for the United States to stop wasting its time on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and to just move on. In another world, such advice might be not only emotionally satisfying but quite practical too. Process works better than peace does for both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas; both sides get stuff without having to make real commitments. And John Kerry is the security blanket that makes that possible.
So why not take the blanket away?
From Kerry’s perspective, I sort of get why he doesn’t want to do that. You can’t get to a conflict-ending agreement now — a judgment I’ve been making since 2003, to the dismay of many who cannot abide my negative analysis. But through process, you can avoid violence and keep hope alive.
There is yet another reason for the survival of almighty process: America and the world are constitutionally incapable of walking away from it. That was the case in the more than two decades I put into working on Middle East peace, and it’s truer now than ever before. There are several reasons why.
Sometimes I get the feeling that the entire world regards the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians as the fulcrum of modern civilization. It’s an extraordinary testament to the durability of this issue that, with Egypt in a chronic mess, Syria melting down, Libya in a modified state of failure, Vladimir Putin threatening to gobble up more of Ukraine, and Asia beckoning for more attention too, the peace process continues to exert the pull that it does.
This is, thanks in no small part, due to the veritable peace-process industry that keeps the drums beating. This industry comprises defenders and detractors of the Jewish state, who are intent on keeping the issue relevant for years to come; religious leaders and believers, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian alike; and diplomats from around the world who make their living on the subject (I speak from personal experience). And of course, there is the media, which sees this as a constant source of news — a story that keeps on giving.
All these actors combined together provide a potent force for a perennial peace process. Even if outcomes never come about, the peace lobby will keep the fire burning.
Kerry is a key member of this lobby. In short, he is addicted to the peace process. I know the feeling. He truly believes that it’s in the U.S. national interest not just to keep this thing alive but also to make it work. He believes that this really is the last chance for peace, and he believes that he has the trust of the parties and the will and skill to pull it off. Plus, he believes that an agreement is his ticket into the Secretary of State Hall of Fame.
You cannot just walk away when you believe such things. Kerry couldn’t fake being OK with quitting. He just cares too much. And so he is doing everything he can to buy time, hoping that something will happen to rescue the process: for instance, a U.S.-Iran deal on the nuclear issue, or Bibi magically disappearing (the former only a bit more likely than the impossibility of the latter).
To be sure, America has threatened to walk away before. The iconic moment most often cited is James Baker giving the Israelis the White House phone number during congressional testimony in June 1990, saying, "When you are serious about peace, call us."
But today’s circumstances are fundamentally different than they were back then. In June 1990, there really wasn’t any kind of process from which to walk away. Nor did the Arabs and Israelis have 20 years of negotiating under their belts. In any event, Baker’s comments didn’t have a notable impact. It wasn’t until 18 months later that, in the wake of the Bush administration’s victory over Saddam Hussein, the Madrid process got serious. Then, Baker used the threat to walk away again — and much more effectively. He had something to lose, and so did the parties. They knew it, and he scared them.
Kerry isn’t Baker, however; he is too invested to throw up his hands — which, while certainly risking the entire process, might send something of a wake-up call to the parties that he isn’t going to protect them anymore. And the president, I suspect, will not order the secretary of state to do so. The collapse of the process probably scares them both more than it does Bibi and Abbas, which is not a good thing.
It is more than likely, then, that the process will truck on. In the immediate term, either Kerry will try to get an agreement on extending some version of the original deal, or the parties, for their own purposes, will come up with a face-saver to get past the so-called April 29 deadline by which some kind of framework for a permanent status is supposed to be reached.
But even if neither of those things happens and the process does break down, it still would not be dead. The peace lobby is too strong for the process not to live on in some form — and the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ lives and futures are too inextricably linked.
If anything could force the two sides to finally bring this conflict to a conclusion, it very well might be the dangers inherent to their proximity to one another. As morally unacceptable and politically incorrect as it is to admit, our efforts to keep the peace process alive, while intended to avert violence, may only be delaying a day of reckoning.