Mideast peace is not in sight. So why is America pursuing it?

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Mideast peace is not in sight. So why is America pursuing it?

Aref Assaf

First published in NJ.Voices.com
The Daily Record Featured Op-Ed, 9/6/2010

September 2nd, 2010 has been cast as the (re)start of direct negations between Israel and the Palestinians. Three realities are the foundation of our gloomy assessment. I am sure more reasons abound. But neither side is ready to celebrate and few have expressed any enthusiasm about the talks. The planned outcome is an independent Palestine at peace with Israel. The pessimism comes in part from the fact that entering any negotiations with enthusiasm weakens your bargaining position. But the deeper reason is simply that there have been so many peace talks between the two sides and so many failures that it is difficult to see much hope in them. Moreover, the failures have resulted from more than trivial reasons. They are the result of a profound irreconcilability between the needs and interests of the warring parties. A deeper analysis of the “peace process” is, therefore, of benefit.

Palestinians will not accept anything less than a territorially contiguous and economically viable state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital and an agreed upon resolution to the thorny refugee issue. The current US administration in addition to that of Bush and Clinton supported this eventuality. Conversely, Israel has made no formal indication that it is willing to accept anything more than a symbolic Palestinian “state” consisting of a set of disconnected Bantustans, with Israel in full control of the borders, airspace, water supplies, and even its polity. Lastly, the US government is incapable of pressing Israel into making substantial concessions; whilst the Palestinians have conceded pretty much all that is in their power.

I have never been as pessimistic about the peace process as I am with the latest round. In fact, I will refuse to attend the many events held in the US while the Palestinian negotiators are our guests. No reason to memorialize failure with photo-op gatherings. These upcoming talks are intrinsically flawed because of their origin. Neither side was eager for the talks. They are taking place because the United States wanted them. Indeed, in a certain sense, both sides are talking because they do not want to alienate the United States and because it is easier to talk and fail than it is to refuse to talk.

Arguably, The United States has favored Israeli-Palestinian talks since the Palestinians organized themselves into a distinct national movement in the 1970s. Particularly after the successful negotiations between Egypt and Israel and Israel’s implicit long-term understanding with Jordan, an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis appeared to be next on the agenda.

Ironically, over time, peace talks became an end in themselves for the United States. The US has interests throughout the Islamic world. While U.S.-Israeli relations are not the sole point of friction between the Islamic world and the United States, they are certainly one major point of friction, particularly on the level of public diplomacy. Indeed, though most Muslim governments may not regard Israel as critical to their national interests, their publics do regard it that way for ideological and religious reasons.

The United States does not see its relationship with Israel as inhibiting functional state-to-state relationships in the Islamic world because it hasn’t. Peace talks are, thus, the American solution. Peace talks give the United States the appearance of seeking to settle the Israeli-Palestinian problem. The comings and goings of American diplomats, treating Palestinians as equals in negotiations and as being equally important to the United States, and the occasional photo op if some agreement is actually reached, all give the United States and pro-American Muslim governments a tool — even if it is not a very effective one — for managing Muslim public opinion. Peace talks also give the United States the ability, on occasion, to criticize Israel publicly, without changing the basic framework of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Most important, they cost the United States nothing. Talks do not solve the political problem in the region, but they do reshape perceptions a bit at very little cost. And they give the added benefit that, at some point in the talks, the United States will be able to ask the Europeans to support any solution — or tentative agreement — financially.

Therefore, the Obama administration has been pressuring the Israelis and the PNA, dominated by Fatah, to renew the peace process. Both have been reluctant because, unlike the United States, these talks pose political challenges to the two sides. Peace talks have the nasty habit of triggering internal political crises. Since neither side expects real success, neither government wants to bear the internal political costs that such talks entail. But since the United States is both a major funder of the PNA and Israel’s most significant ally, neither group is in a position to resist the call to talk. And so, after suitable resistance that both sides used for their own ends, the talks begin.

The Israeli problem with the talks is that they force the government to deal with an extraordinarily divided Israeli public. Israel has had weak governments for a generation. These governments are weak because they are formed by coalitions made up of diverse and sometimes opposed parties. In part, this is due to Israel’s electoral system, which increases the likelihood that parties that would never enter the parliament of other countries do sit in the Knesset with a handful of members.

But the major issue is that the Israeli public is deeply divided ethnically and ideologically, with ideology frequently tracking ethnicity. Incidentally, Israel wasn’t always this way. After its formation in 1948, Israel’s leaders were all part of the leadership that achieved statehood. That cadre is all gone now, and Israel has yet to transition away from its dependence on its “founding fathers.” Between less trusted leadership and a maddeningly complex political demography, it is no surprise that Israeli politics can be so caustic and churning.

From the point of view of any Israeli foreign minister, the danger of peace talks is that the United States might actually engineer a solution. Any such solution would by definition involve Israeli concessions that would be opposed by a substantial Israeli bloc — and nearly any Israeli faction could derail any agreement. Israeli prime ministers go to the peace talks terrified that the Palestinians might actually get their house in order and be reasonable — leaving it to Israel to stand against an American solution Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself caught between the United States and his severely fractured Cabinet by peace talks.

Fortunately for Netanyahu, the PNA is even more troubled by talks. The Palestinians are deeply divided between two ideological enemies, Fatah and Hamas. Fatah is generally secular and derives from the Soviet-backed Palestinian movement. Having lost its sponsor, it has drifted toward the United States and Europe by default. Its old antagonist, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, is still there and still suspicious. Fatah tried to overthrow the kingdom in 1970, and memories are long.

For its part, Hamas is a religious movement, with roots in Egypt and it receives albeit constrained political support from Saudi Arabia. Unlike Fatah, Hamas says it is unwilling to recognize the existence of Israel as a legitimate state, and it appears to be quite serious about this. While there seem to be some elements in Hamas that could consider a shift, this is not the consensus view. Iran also provides support, but the Sunni-Shiite split is real and Iran is mostly fishing in troubled waters. Hamas will take help where it can get it, but Hamas is, to a significant degree, funded by the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, so getting too close to Iran would create political problems for Hamas’ leadership. In addition, though Cairo has to deal with Hamas because of the Egypt-Gaza border, Cairo is at best deeply suspicious of the group. Egypt sees Hamas as deriving from the same bedrock of forces that gave birth to the Muslim Brotherhood and those who killed Anwar Sadat, forces which pose the greatest future challenge to Egyptian stability. As a result, Egypt continues to be Israel’s silent partner in the blockade of Gaza.

Therefore, the PNA dominated by Fatah in no way speaks for all Palestinians. While Fatah dominates the West Bank, Hamas controls Gaza. Were Fatah to make the kinds of concessions that might make a peace agreement possible, Hamas would not only oppose them but would have the means of scuttling anything that involved Gaza. Making matters worse for Fatah, Hamas does enjoy considerably — if precisely unknown — levels of support in the West Bank, and Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah and the PNA, is not eager to find out how much in the current super-heated atmosphere.

So it is in this context of domestic illegitimacy and political disarray that PNA’s president Abbas is supposed to negotiate with the most right-wing, settlement-crazy Israeli government in the history of the conflict led by a prime minister who claimed with pride that he torpedoed the Oslo Accords. And Abbas was an eyewitness to Netanyahu’s negative role, probably making him a permanent doubter of any goodwill on Netanyahu’s part. Additionally, Abbas has asked for, and failed to receive, needed American guarantees. Even if Abbas irrationally takes this politically suicidal step, albeit coerced by the Obama administration, he cannot rely on the American mediator to be even-handed, enforce obligations, and assign blame when – not if – negotiations break down. Abbas is worried because Obama has already relented in one stand-off with Netanyahu, allowing the prime minister to frame the settlements debate to his own liking. The settlements and the infrastructure of apartheid which surrounds them are the primary obstacles to a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank. During the now two-decade-long peace process based on the two-state framework, the number of settlers in occupied territory has doubled.

The most striking agreement between Arabs and Israelis was the Camp David Accords negotiated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Those accords were rooted in the 1973 war in which the Israelis were stunned by their own intelligence failures and the extraordinary capabilities shown by the Egyptian army so soon after its crushing defeat in 1967. All of Israel’s comfortable assumptions went out the window. At the same time, Egypt was ultimately defeated, with Israeli troops on the east shore of the Suez Canal.

The Egyptians were doubtful they could ever beat Israel. For both, a negotiated settlement made sense. The mix of severely shaken confidence and morbid admittance to reality was what permitted Carter to negotiate a settlement that both sides wanted — and could sell to their respective publics.

There has been no similarly defining moment in Israeli-Palestinian relations. There is no consensus on either side nor does either side have a government that can speak authoritatively for the people it represents. On both sides, the rejectionists not only are in a blocking position but are actually in governing roles, and no coalition exists to sweep them aside. The Palestinians are divided by ideology and geography, while the Israelis are “merely” divided by ideology and a political system designed for paralysis.

But the United States wants a peace process, preferably a long one designed to put off the day when it fails. This will allow the United States to appear to be deeply committed to peace and to publicly pressure the Israelis, which will be of some minor use in U.S. efforts to manipulate the rest of the region. But it will not solve anything. Nor is it intended to.

The problem is that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are sufficiently unsettled to make peace. Both Egypt and Israel were shocked and afraid after the 1973 war. Mutual fear is the foundation of peace among enemies. The uncertainty of the future sobers both sides. But the fact right now is that all of the players prefer the status quo to the risks of the future. Hamas doesn’t want to risk its support by negotiating and implicitly recognizing Israel. The PNA doesn’t want to risk a Hamas uprising in the West Bank by making significant concessions. The Israelis don’t want to gamble with “unreliable” negotiating partners on a settlement that wouldn’t enjoy broad public support in a domestic political environment where even simple programs can get snarled in a morass of ideology. Until reality or some as-yet-uncommitted force shifts the game, it is easier for them — all of them — to do nothing. And the world watches.

In the end, the chances for the success of these negotiations might rest most in the hands of the mediator. US President Barack Obama and his envoys have pledged that the United States will act as an honest, unbiased broker. After decades as Israel’s greatest benefactor and friend, that would be a new and welcome approach. But even the President of the United States cannot undo six decades of conflict and distrust. Add to this the domestic political realities of elections, lobbyists and public perception of the conflict.
Nevertheless, the US has a great responsibility in these talks, because it has the ability to take steps which could ease the sacrifices that both sides will have to make. If the parties realize what a peace deal could do, they must expend all efforts to see these negotiations through to a successful end.

But the Americans, maddeningly or perhaps prophetically, want talks, and so let the talks begin and the joke will be on the world- and the Palestinians in particular.

Aref Assaf, Ph.D., President of American Arab Forum. A think-tank specializing in Arab in Muslim Affairs