This piece first appeared on the Middle East Channel at ForeignPolicy.com.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process was finally re-launched this week following an almost year-and-a-half long hiatus during which new governments took office in both Israel and the U.S. Arguably the most remarkable feature of such a long-awaited resumption of talks (albeit indirect ones) was the absence of not only any fanfare surrounding the occasion but also of almost any expectation that these might produce results.
Sadly, this skepticism is more than justified. Many point to the format of the talks - that these are so-called proximity talks rather than direct negotiations--as being indicative of how deep into retreat the prospects for peace have sunk. In fact, these are not even real proximity talks, which normally imply ongoing mediation by a third party between two parties ensconced in the same location though in different quarters. The process launched by Special Envoy Mitchell might be more accurately described as indirect and mediated talks.
Tantalizingly, such a U.S.-driven back-to-back negotiating format, were it to be embraced as a new methodology, could actually be promising. The U.S. is better positioned to extract concessions from both sides, and delivering a yes to the U.S. is an easier political ask for the respective leaders. The back-to-back approach could also help compensate for the deep asymmetry between the parties and correct the false sense that these are two equal sides negotiating.
Alas, the American mediator is apparently committed to viewing "proximity talks" as a fallback rather than a preference and as a way-station to the resumption of direct negotiations between the parties.
Much of the focus has been on how wide the gaps now are between the parties. That description needs deconstructing for a moment. When more closely considered, it is clear that the Palestinian negotiators are the same people as in previous rounds and that their negotiating positions, including the flexibility on display, have remained consistent. The new found chasm is almost exclusively a product of the regression in the negotiating position of Israel's new/old Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (as gleaned from his public statements on Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, settlements, etc.).
The almost universally held expectation in the region for these resumed talks is that they will collapse. The interesting subjects for speculation therefore become when, under what conditions, who will be blamed, and what will come next, especially from the Obama administration. Both sides already seem to be positioning themselves for both the blame game and for the post-negotiation failure phase of subsequent U.S. moves. Week one was rather confirmatory in that respect. Israel's right wing ministers competed with each other in declaring their filialty to settlement construction in East Jerusalem and to demolishing Palestinian homes while the PLO cried foul and U.S. officials chimed in with what one imagines will become an oft-repeated mantra of "chill out."
While almost no one is betting on success, the market on causes for failure includes some more interesting and dramatic prophecies. Might a new round of violence be launched as an ultimate distraction, could Israel introduce its own initiative involving some minimal pull-back in parts of the West Bank, or might September's expiration of the partial settlements go-slow occasion a new crisis? All of the above are possible, as is the much discussed prospect of the U.S. presenting some kind of plan of its own. Even that, perhaps more hopeful option, tends to lack a clear articulation of what might be new in a plan this time around and how it might deliver success.
It's hardly surprising then that the chorus of skeptics, naysayers, and non-believers is so deafening. But among that choir none have been more articulate, piercing in their critique, and justifiably paid attention to than Aaron David Miller. Writing here at Foreign Policy, Miller described "the false religion of Mideast peace," and in so doing he set off a fierce debate.
Miller was a long time peace policy practitioner serving six presidents, and his book, The Much Too Promised Land is one of the most informative and the most entertaining of the recent histories of American peace efforts.
Anyone serious about getting something done this time in the Israeli-Arab arena must be able to answer the challenges that Miller poses - which is what the rest of this piece will attempt to do.
To recap Aaron's argument, he rebuts what he claims are the three articles of faith of the false religion of Middle East peace, namely that it is a core U.S. interest, that it is only possible through a serious negotiating process based on land for peace, and that America has to be key in delivering it. I would suggest that the first half of Miller's essay, his attempt at refuting this being a core American interest, is simply wrong. The second half of his essay which deals with the assumptions and mechanics of peace-making is correct in most of its critiques but is too often addressing the wrong question and chooses not to offer prescriptions for what to do instead.
In denying the U.S. national interest impetus for resolving the conflict, Miller finds himself in unusual company. He is also apparently a recent convert to this belief. Part of the more dogmatic pro-Israel community have made linkage denial a pillar of their own religion - the idea being that Palestinian and Arab-Israeli issues do not have a costly effect for America in the region and beyond. Often that entails invoking a straw-man version of the linkage argument: that achieving Arab-Israeli peace would produce the pixie dust that could then be showered onto every other problem to make it melt away and disappear. This is of course nonsense. What is more serious is that this continues to be the gift that keeps giving for rallying anti-Americanism, it undermines America's allies and its own standing, and is the iconoclastic litmus test issue for so much of the Arab and Muslim world.
Miller's version of denial comes perilously close to tackling this straw-man obfuscation. He claims that the region has become nastier and more complex and there is no simple fix or magic potion. Breaking news! But is the unresolved conflict a debilitating and complicating factor for America of low or high significance? It is clearly the latter. In perhaps the most perplexing claim in his essay, Miller takes issue with the predictions made for years by State Department colleagues, "An unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict would trigger ruinous war, increase Soviet influence, weaken Arab moderates, strengthen Arab radicals, jeopardize access to Middle East oil, and generally undermine U.S. influence from Rabat to Karachi." But most of those things have happened. Arab moderates are weaker, radicals are stronger, U.S. influence is undermined, there have been wars (okay, the Soviets are no longer around but Russia is reemerging, and the oil argument was always tangential).
The ongoing Palestinian and Arab grievance and how that interacts with American foreign policy is central to all of the above. It has become even more so since 9/11 as has been recognized by every U.S. Centcom commander in the intervening period. Much was made of the prepared testimony by current Centcom head Gen. David Petraeus before the Senate Armed Services Committee recently. Petraeus claimed:
"The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [area of responsibility]... The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world."
The denialists (not Miller) wasted no time in going after Petraeus. Yet in the weeks that followed and in clarifying his case, Petraeus never stepped back from his basic, obvious, and logical assertion. At the Woodrow Wilson Center last month, Petraeus explained that the unresolved conflict wasn't putting U.S. soldiers at risk and that of course Israel is an "important strategic ally," and that he should have recognized that [pdf]. Then Petraeus said this: "...[T]he fact is that I did, indeed, offer, during the transition to the new administration, our view that the lack of progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace is, indeed, something that does very much shape the environment." Petraeus in other words stuck to his guns.
In stating this, Gen. Petraeus was simply repeating his own testimony from a year earlier (albeit this time in a more charged U.S-Israel political environment), and following a mantra developed by his three predecessors at Centcom since 9/11 - Gen. Tommy Franks, Gen. John Abizaid, and Gen. William Fallon, everyone of whom made the same basic assertion.
Gen. Abiziad, for example, in Senate testimony from 2006, argued for the U.S. to, "focus on three strategic objectives... defeat al-Qaeda...deter Iranian designs for regional hegemony... finally, we must find a comprehensive solution to the corrosive Arab-Israeli conflict."
That the uniformed military sees it this way should hardly be surprising. Take just one of the many for instances - this recent New America Foundation report on al-Qaeda Central and the internet by Daniel Kimmage, which found that the al-Qaeda affiliated as-Sahab's websites were having difficulty getting an audience for their Pakistan/Afghanistan-related postings as Gaza and the Palestinian issue were attracting the lion's share of attention.
Indeed the post-9/11 enhanced urgency of addressing this issue was something belatedly accepted by the Bush administration when it launched the Annapolis peace effort and has been continued with greater determination under President Obama. Linkage was the driving logic behind the Iraq Study Group led by Messrs. James Baker and Lee Hamilton, devoting one third of that report to how the region impacts America's Iraq effort and focusing most intensively on the need to for an American role in resolving Arab-Israeli affairs.
Recently, Secretary Clinton has taken to including the following remarks in her speeches about the region:
The lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians... destabilizes the region and beyond.
I told some of you this, that one of the striking experiences that I had becoming Secretary of State and now having traveled something on the order of 300,000 miles in the last 15 months and going to dozens and dozens of countries, is that when I compare that to my experience as First Lady, where I was also privileged to travel around the world, back in the ‘90s when I went to Asia or Africa or Europe or Latin America, it was rare that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was raised. Now it is the first, second, or third item on nearly every agenda of every country I visit.
What does that mean? Well, it means that this conflict has assumed a role in the global geostrategic environment that carries great weight.
Having started from this premise, Miller goes on to explain why he considers that even if it were a priority, America cannot lead the parties to achieve a negotiated peace. He contends that the political risk is too high for the local leaders, even life-threatening, that there are no longer strong leaders, and that America no longer has the carrying capacity. America's reach is limitedby the U.S. not owning the issue, its loss of mystique, and the limits imposed by domestic politics.
Structural flaws in the peace process do indeed exist. Miller is right in pointing them out, and there is little to disagree with in his conclusion that pursuing the same format of peace process that has been tried for so long will not succeed. In calling for a profound re-think, Miller is doing a service for any future peace effort.
The particular peace architecture in which the U.S. is still engaged was begun in 1991 (at the Madrid Conference) and gelled in 1993 (with the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles). After nearly two decades which have witnessed not only failure but also a collapse of the Palestinian national movement, a tripling of the Israeli West Bank settler population, a Second Intifada, a collapse of the Israeli peace camp, a withdrawal from and then blockade of Gaza that took place outside of the peace process, and a re-shaping of the map of regional power, one would think that a fundamental rethink and re-conceptualizing of the problem and the approach to solving it might be in order. It is very much in order.
Aaron Miller describes the problem well, but the one prescriptive paragraph in his essay is devastating in its lack of originality or internalization of the lessons that should have been learned from failure. Here it is:
The United States needs to do what it can, including working with Israelis and Palestinians on negotiating core final-status issues (particularly on borders, where the gaps are narrowest), helping Palestinians develop their institutions, getting the Israelis to assist by allowing Palestinians to breathe economically and expand their authority, and keeping Gaza calm, even as it tries to relieve the desperation and sense of siege through economic assistance.
So Israelis and Palestinian should just continue negotiating core issues, just keep building incremental confidence after almost two decades of ripping that confidence apart, and to continue building Palestinian institutions of future statehood under conditions of occupation when there is no end to that occupation or real statehood on the horizon.
So what can be done differently?
Having spent so long in indulging my own critique of these failures, it's probably advisable to offer some suggested reframing or new thinking. Not a comprehensive peace plan (for now) but some considerations to bear in mind, a partial list to be sure:
1. It's not peace now. We might want to think about this more as an exercise, initially at least, in arranging a de-occupation rather than a historic handshake between two great leaders that ushers in immediate peace, reconciliation, and an end of claims. Yes peace is still a convenient shorthand way of describing an urgent two-state outcome but it is very likely that a full peace and reconciliation will only be achieved after the modalities for de-occupation are in place rather than in parallel with them.
This is not a negotiation between equals. There is a huge asymmetry between the parties - occupier versus occupied, coherent functioning state apparatus versus non-state actor with collapsed national movement, and so on. Structuring a negotiation process as if there were symmetry and without factoring in the above is not smart. The way forward may end up looking more like the U.S. together with international and regional partners negotiating arrangements with Israel for it to evacuate the territory and create the space necessary to allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state, rather than a classical Israeli-Palestinian negotiation (even one with U.S. mediation). That space would have to be on 100 percent of the '67 territory, allowing for minor modifications of the '67 lines in a one-to-one landswap.
2. Seek a comprehensive new regional equilibrium. Traditionally the consensus has been that you can do the Palestinian track or the Syrian track but you can't do it all together. Today's regional realities suggest a need to rethink that equation. If this is an effort exclusively focused on Israel-Palestine (and just PLO/Fatah Palestine at that) then one is likely to have not only Iran but Syria, Hezbollah, and half the Palestinian political forces (including Hamas), and by extension Lebanon and other Arab actors opposed or at least sitting on the sidelines. That is unlikely to deliver conditions for a new equilibrium or an Israeli ‘yes.'
If one addresses the Syrian and Palestinian issues simultaneously then one impacts (and limits) the likelihood of strong Palestinian opposition (including Hamas). If one gets Lebanon, the entire Arab world, and the Organization of Islamic Conference on board, then one offers Israel the positive reassurances that are in the Arab Peace Initiative and a finality on borders that while not a simple deal, can be embraced given all the additional benefits that would accrue to Israel. Iran would have to reluctantly come on board or be more isolated and find its ability to leverage the Palestinian grievance castrated.
3. There needs to be a compelling plan for getting to an Israeli ‘yes.' No solution for de-occupation can be imposed on Israel. The Israeli public and the Israeli body politic will have to deliver its own ‘yes' if this is ever going to be resolved and a new equilibrium achieved. Given contemporary Israeli realities, it would be ill-advised to expect Israel to generate and embrace a de-occupation of its own volition.
The two core ingredients worth considering in getting to that Israeli ‘yes' might be: (a) a package deal that addresses Israel's legitimate concerns and offers benefits to Israel while also delivering genuine de-occupation, real Palestinian statehood, and parameters that can be acceptable to the Arab side; and (b) a recalibrated incentive/disincentive structure toward Israel in the face of acceptance versus rejection. This should be designed to generate a re-calculation of what is in Israel's best interest by enough Israelis and their leaders. The package or plan would need to be well-constructed and marketed to the Israelis who would need to hear much more volume from an Arab ‘yes' than silence or a ‘no.' The U.S. would need to be able to sustain over time its demonstrable support for the package and its displeasure towards any rejection.
4. Be realistic about what current Palestinian political structures can shoulder. A divided national movement is less capable of delivering historic compromise than a united one, even if it affords the mediator the luxury of dealing with uber-moderates in isolation. Reunifying the national movement would help, as would dealing with all key elements of the Palestinian body politic (an imperfect but perhaps helpful comparison would be the All Party Talks in Northern Ireland).
Limitations to Palestinian capacity should be factored in--there will be no perfect Palestinian state birthed from the womb of occupation, including in the security sector. It may be more realistic to consider a Palestine which accepts certain limitations on its own sovereignty for a number of years in cooperation with international partners--for instance on security (with an international force) and even a degree of political oversight (again, an imperfect comparison but perhaps useful one would be how East Timor or Bosnia became independent states) This cannot of course be the replacement of one occupation with another.
5. Be creative about solutions and honest about the alternatives. Some issues may still benefit from new and untried ideas. As an example, a Canadian-sponsored group recently presented ideas for the Old City of Jerusalem. A comprehensive regional effort may open up new possibilities--for instance, arrangements for Jewish refugees from Arab countries and possibly reciprocal arrangements for Palestinian refugees.
However, the alternatives if a package is rejected should also be spelled out. Holding out would not lead in the future to Palestinian refugees attaining the full justice that is associated with return and restitution. Likewise, an Israel that rejects genuine de-occupation would be expected to take seriously the demand for full democratic rights for all those living almost half a century under its control.
6. America should not go it alone. The prospects for success would benefit from America working in closer cooperation with other states both in the international community (including the E.U. and the Quartet) and in the region. American solo-ism is not an asset, the Quartet has been underutilized, Europe can bring both sticks and carrots to the table and help persuade all sides. Arab and Muslim states buy-in will be integral to a successful effort.
7. If you can't manage the domestic politics, don't even try this. A meaningful U.S. effort will need to be capable of leveraging some of America's enormous untapped influence with Israel. The U.S. may well have to sustain over multiple months its advocacy for a package of proposals and find meaningful ways to demonstrate that rejectionism will not be met by a business-as-usual approach. That does not mean dropping Israel as an ally, ending aid or security cooperation. It does mean being able to launch an effective public diplomacy campaign with Israelis, to communicate the benefits of the proposals being made.
That's the easy part--and that is likely to win over many and very probably a majority of Israelis, but not perhaps the given leader at a given moment. It therefore also means sustaining appropriate expressions of displeasure--using the public soap box and other tools such as withholding of the veto at the U.N. Security Council on a relevant vote. And being able to do so in the knowledge that there will be a domestic political cost. I won't go into estimating that cost here and I think that it is less than many assume. The degree of support in Israel can be expected to stifle some of the U.S. domestic opposition, but the point is clear--this needs to be treated as a domestic political campaign.
8. Always remember why the U.S. is doing this. This is not just because peace is a good thing,its not to win a Nobel Peace Prize (the current president has one of those already), and not even to help save Israel. It is because this is an American interest--but not just that, it is also the absence of any better alternative.
The U.S. essentially has three options (imposing a solution on Israel is not an option). First, America could accept the status-quo but that is costly as we have proven and it is not static. The structural dynamics dictate a deterioration that will be ever more debilitating for the U.S.
Second, the U.S. could give up on solving this, but not accept the costs of the status-quo and seek rather to off-set those costs by distancing itself from Israel or at least from the occupation. I would suggest that is an even more difficult path to take vis a vis domestic U.S. politics and that America owes its ally Israel a good faith effort to avoid this path. It would also clearly be a bad option for Israel. So to the third option, namely taking a re-framed approach to resolve this, to get that new equilibrium. This is arguably the best option available for the U.S.
Daniel Levy is an editor for the Middle East Channel
*The Middle East Channel held its official launch at the New America Foundation with a discussion on this chaired by Marc Lynch, Aaron David Miller, Rob Malley, and myself. It can be viewed here.