Stephen M. Walt

What Middle East Peace Requires: Magnanimity

It’s no fun being a killjoy about the new “peace talks” between Israel and the Palestinians, but I would have to put my brain on the shelf to be optimistic. See David Gardner in today’s Financial Times and this recent post by Richard Falk for more reasons to be gloomy, as if there weren’t enough ...

Photo thumbnail: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo thumbnail: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s no fun being a killjoy about the new “peace talks” between Israel and the Palestinians, but I would have to put my brain on the shelf to be optimistic. See David Gardner in today’s Financial Times and this recent post by Richard Falk for more reasons to be gloomy, as if there weren’t enough already.

But seeing all the obvious obstacles raises an obvious question: What does U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry think he’s doing? Kerry may not be Mr. Charisma, but he’s not stupid. So why has he chosen to put himself on this well-worn path to failure? No doubt it is partly because he knows unconditional U.S. support for Israel and the continued colonization of Palestinian land is deeply damaging to broader U.S. interests. No doubt he understands that current trends threaten Israel’s long-term future. He’s also getting pressed by J Street and other moderate pro-Israel groups here in the United States that know the window for a two-state solution is closing and that the alternative is Israel as an apartheid state.

One suspects Kerry is also troubled by the plight of the Palestinians themselves, who have been victimized by nearly everyone over the past century. There’s probably a lot of ego involved too, along with the siren song of achieving diplomatic immortality should he defy the odds and somehow pull this off. Heck, if President Barack Obama can get a Nobel Peace Prize on spec, then Kerry can be forgiven for thinking he might finagle one too.

Bottom line: Kerry has lots of reasons for undertaking this quixotic crusade. But he may also be doing this because he genuinely believes that circumstances are oddly propitious for deal. Here’s what I think may — repeat, may — be going on and why it is still misguided.

First off, even hawkish Israelis are worried about the “demographic problem,” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent warnings about the “one-state solution” reflect that concern. Serious Israelis are also worried about their eroding image worldwide, and the European Union’s largely symbolic decision to ban grants to Israeli entities on the West Bank is an important bellwether in this regard. Even a passionate advocate of “Greater Israel” — which Netanyahu surely is — might see some value in cutting a deal now, especially if he thinks he can get one that is heavily skewed in Israel’s favor.

Israeli and U.S. officials may also believe that the time is ripe to coerce Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) into accepting a one-sided final status agreement that formally ends the conflict but gives Israel almost everything it wants. Abbas is not especially popular and has been neither bold nor clever in the past. He’s abjectly dependent on outside support, and the rest of the Arab world is distracted by events in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. Indeed, at this point the wealthy Arab regimes in Qatar and Saudi Arabia would mostly like the Palestinian issue to go away. So you can easily imagine Netanyahu and Kerry convincing themselves they can twist Abbas’s arm hard enough to make him sign.

Ironically, Abbas’s most potent source of leverage would be to threaten to dissolve the PA entirely, forcing Israel to bear the full costs of the occupation, and to launch a full-blown campaign for Palestinian civil and political rights within “Greater Israel.” But he’s not going to do that because the Palestinians would still prefer a state of their own and Israel would never grant such rights without a long and bitter struggle. Moreover, dissolving the PA would eliminate the lucrative patronage networks that Abbas & Co. now control.

If this interpretation is right, then we’re going to see a new push for a “Palestinian state” that is barely “viable” and hardly meets the definition of sovereignty at all. In other words, precisely the sort of “state” that Netanyahu sketched in his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University. There may be various formal or informal references to the “1967 borders,” but this formulation is largely meaningless given all the changes that have taken place over the past 46 years. Israel will insist on keeping the major settlement blocs, including Ariel and Maale Adumim, which were deliberately constructed to bisect any future Palestinian entity and to preserve Israel’s control over key West Bank aquifers. It will insist that the future Palestinian state be demilitarized (and thus incapable of defending itself) and further demand that Palestinian airspace be open to Israeli military aircraft. Israel will also try to maintain a military presence in the Jordan River valley for many years to come, further truncating a future Palestinian government’s independence. The Palestinians will be compensated for these various concessions with land swaps (albeit less valuable land than they used to have) and with a big slug of money designed to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians (and no doubt line the pockets of Fatah’s leaders).

In short, Kerry and Netanyahu are hoping they can engineer a one-sided deal that Netanyahu can hail as a “final end to the conflict,” thereby heading off the dreaded “one-state” solution and rehabilitating Israel’s international image.

There’s only one problem: A deal of this sort won’t work. To create a truly lasting peace, the parties need an agreement that is “renegotiation proof.” Both sides need to be relatively pleased with the outcome, and neither side should see itself as having been abjectly humiliated by the final terms. An agreement that you signed only because you were coerced into it is an agreement you’ll be looking to renege on as soon as you think you can get away with — and it wouldn’t be a genuine “final status” agreement, no matter what the ink on the treaty said.

Paradoxically, this situation places the greater burden on whichever side is stronger because the stronger side has to resist the temptation to extract every last concession that its superior power could impose. If the stronger side is smart and farsighted, it would offer a generous peace and maybe even give the weaker side more than it originally expected, thereby giving the weaker party more reason to welcome the agreement and signaling a genuine desire to live together in the future. With luck, generosity of this sort buys goodwill and thus buys time for peaceful and mutually beneficial ties to develop over time, thereby marginalizing potential spoilers and obviating any desire to renegotiate later.

When the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist at the start of the Oslo process, it was reluctantly accepting that it had lost the decades-long struggle against Zionism. It was formally acknowledging that Israel wasn’t going to disappear and that Israel would get roughly 78 percent of the land laid out in the 1947 U.N. partition plan. The PLO was also admitting that it would have to be content with the remaining 22 percent. Unfortunately, the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian leadership bungled the Oslo process and squandered the single best chance to end the conflict. In the meantime, Israel continued to expand settlements throughout the West Bank, insisted that “Jerusalem will not be divided,” and demanded that any future Palestinian state be placed under restrictions that no other state in the world is forced to endure. In recent years, it has added the further demand that the Palestinians formally recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” Far from offering their defeated partners a generous peace, Israel’s leaders have continued to haggle over every prior issue and create new ones in the bargain.

My fear: Even if a deal is somehow reached and the doves fly across the White House lawn nine months from now, it won’t be a true end to the conflict. If the terms are blatantly one-sided and if Israel continues to seek concessions from its far weaker Palestinian neighbors, the deal will not produce a lasting peace. Instead, it will be but a temporary respite, and conflict is likely to resume at whatever point in the future the balance of power shifts.

In his The Second World War, Winston Churchill summarized the “Moral of the Work” in four Churchillian phrases: “In War: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Goodwill.” The victors in the long conflict between Zionist Israelis and Palestinian Arabs would be wise to heed those maxims, and if I were John Kerry, I’d spend a lot of time over the next nine months reminding them about the last two.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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