Middle East Peace: So Why Have We Failed?
FP speaks with leading Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians who've tried to bring this decades-long conflict to an end.
More than 60 years after Israel’s stunning victory in the 1948 war that birthed the Jewish state, an end to the world’s most exasperating conflict seems more distant than ever. U.S. President Barack Obama is trying to drag both sides kicking and screaming to the negotiating table after nearly a decade of no progress. But is there still any reason for hope?
We asked leading Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians who’ve tried and failed to make peace to answer three crucial questions: What have you learned, who’s primarily to blame, and what’s your out-of-the-box idea to solve the conflict? Here are excerpts from what they told us.
National security advisor to U.S. President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981
Who’s to blame: The United States. On more than one occasion it pledged to become seriously engaged in promoting peace, but in fact its engagement has been more rhetorical than real, lacking in will to use the obvious dependence of both the Israelis and the Palestinians on American support.
Out-of-the-box idea: To announce to the world America’s commitment to a framework for peace based on four key points, namely (1) no right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel proper; (2) West Jerusalem as the seat for Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem as the seat of the Palestinian capital with some internationally based sharing of the Old City; (3) the drawing of borders between the two states along the 1967 lines, adjusted on the basis of one-for-one swaps as the frontiers; and (4) an essentially demilitarized Palestinian state with U.S. or NATO forces on the west bank of the Jordan River.
Head of the Palestine Liberation Organization‘s Steering and Monitoring Committee and the organization’s chief negotiator
What I learned: At the beginning of the peace process I honestly thought I knew Israel better. I used to believe that Israel’s fears and concerns were about security and recognition. But when Arab and Islamic countries offered recognition to Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and Israel chose to continue its colonization, I started rethinking Israel’s goals.
Who‘s to blame: If you ask me as a Palestinian, I would tell you the Israeli occupation. But it is also important to say that Israel has not been seriously challenged to stop its illegal policies against the peoples of the region. Therefore I also blame the third parties for turning a blind eye to Israeli actions and consolidating a culture of impunity, which allows Israel to continue creating facts on the ground. Without this blind support, Israel would have never been able to settle over half a million settlers within the occupied Palestinian territory.
U.S. ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush and ambassador to Egypt under President Bill Clinton; professor of Middle East studies at Princeton University
What I learned: Almost everything the United States tries to achieve in the Middle East is informed by what we do or fail to do in the peace process. When we are active diplomatically, Arab states are more willing to cooperate with us on other problems; when we are not active, our diplomatic options shrink. The Arab-Israeli conflict is not just another squabble among “tribes” over land; it has become a signature issue in international relations that encompasses dimensions of territory, security, historical rights, and religion. Achieving peace between Arabs and Israelis is a significant U.S. national interest.
Out-of-the-box idea: Nearly 43 years since the 1967 war, it is astounding that the United States has not articulated its view on what a final settlement should look like on borders and territory, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, security, and the like. Today, we have worn-out guidance on some of these issues — mostly focused on what we oppose — but we lack a clear vision of what we support. In other words, it is time for us to act like a great power in resolving one of the world’s festering and dangerous conflicts.
Gen. Anthony Zinni
Former head of U.S. Central Command and U.S. envoy to the Middle East peace process in 2001 and 2002
What I learned: By now, we should realize what doesn’t work: summits, agreements in principle, special envoys, U.S.-proposed plans, and just about every other part of our approach has failed. So why do we keep repeating it?
Israel’s ambassador to the United States; historian of the Middle East
What I learned: Calling this an Arab-Israeli conflict today is largely a misnomer. We have two states that have peace treaties with Israel. The largest antagonist is Iran, which is not an Arab state. But I’ve been studying the relationship between the United States and Israel for a long time, back since the 1967 war, when it was truly more of an Arab-Israeli conflict, and one thing that has struck me is the depth of the relationship between the United States and Israel. The relationship is truly deeper and more multifaceted than how I understood it in the past.
Who’s to blame: I don’t think assigning blame is productive, but I think the main obstacle is getting the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table. It’s quite extraordinary: We now have a situation that existed before Oslo in ’93 and before Madrid in ’91 — we can’t get the Palestinians to sit down face to face with us and discuss the issues.
Out-of-the-box idea: As an ambassador, we don’t generally do out-of-the-box ideas. If you ask me what the key to moving forward is, I would say that Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, must feel that they have more to gain by participating in negotiations than not. If they believe that by staying out of negotiations they can win concessions over issues such as East Jerusalem, why would they participate in what can be a drawn-out, uncertain process?
Former Israeli Knesset member and co-author of the 2003 Geneva Accord, a model agreement for a two-state solution
What I learned: There are majorities on both sides that would support any peace treaty, but that was not enough. I did not appreciate the significance of small minorities that were ready to pay a very high price to torpedo any peace process.
Who‘s to blame: The leadership on both sides that were not courageous enough to get to the moment of truth. On both sides, there was always a feeling that they had room for maneuver: Let’s wait for the next American president; let’s wait for the next government on the other side. The combination of Yasir Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu after the assassination of Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin was also very problematic. I believe that had Rabin not been assassinated, we could have had peace by now.
Special envoy for Gaza disengagement during George W. Bush‘s administration; former World Bank president
What I learned: I first approached the peace process thinking it was solvable — that if you came up with a reasonable plan, each side would think that it was in their enlightened interest to follow it. I thought rationality would prevail. But to my great sadness, the notion of some perfect peace plan has not emerged. What’s desperately needed is an intervention by, frankly, our country and the president. Absent that, I think it’s unlikely you’re going to see a near-term solution.
Out-of-the-box idea: If the United States were to take a very straightforward and unyielding line, it would help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if he wants to do a deal, and it would certainly help the Arabs come together. But that’s certainly not a new idea.
Special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs from 1998 to 2001
What I learned: There is no such thing as a good idea — merely ideas that might work at a given time. Palestinians opposed the two-state solution until the late 1980s; after they accepted it, Israel refused the notion of a Palestinian state until the turn of the century. Today, it seems more of an Israeli than a Palestinian priority.
Who‘s to blame: Americans, Palestinians, and Israelis were all to blame for the failure of the 2000 Camp David talks. That conclusion can fairly be extended to peace efforts as a whole. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have been prepared to fully own up to the fears and needs of the other. As for the United States, it historically has been overly sensitive to Israeli and excessively ignorant of Palestinian politics. It failed to reconcile its multiple and often contradictory roles: as midwife of a putative deal, honest broker, and Israel’s closest ally.
Chief U.S. interpreter for more than two decades during Arab-Israeli peace negotiations
What I learned: A lot of diplomats consider constructive ambiguity as a viable tool, but I believe there is no such thing as constructive ambiguity — there is only destructive ambiguity.
Out-of-the-box idea: I would tell the Arabs and Israelis, “I’m not going to need this or want this more than you do.” One of the biggest mistakes in U.S. diplomacy is when we look like we want a settlement more than the parties.
Top advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Who‘s to blame: The United States and Israel in the last year basically reshuffled the whole arrangement so that everything is back in debate; everything is an issue. That’s why the conflict is far more complicated than it used to be four years ago, and even two years ago.
Out-of-the-box idea: I’m not sure it’s possible to turn the world backward. But if it’s possible, I would tell today’s leaders to stick to the Roadmap. There will never be a final solution to the conflict here if there is no security. The Palestinian government under Salam Fayyad has made a dramatic improvement in the way they are acting against terrorism. It’s not 100 percent, but relative to what it was five years ago, there’s no comparison. One part of the doubt, the hesitation — even the resentment — toward the Roadmap was the view that this sequentiality of security, then politics is impractical: The Palestinians will never meet those obligations. What’s happening now shows that if they want to, they can.