In no area of human behavior does Albert Einstein's definition of insanity –"doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" – come so frequently to mind as Middle East peacemaking. Periodically, usually near the end of a presidential term, a buzzer goes off in the heads of the departing administration signaling that the time is ripe for the all-out commitment of American prestige and resources to finding the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has eluded policymakers for over sixty years.
Thus Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has announced that she intends to have a peace treaty between the Palestinian Authority and Israel all wrapped up before President George W. Bush leaves office. The quest to achieve that goal begins this week at Annapolis.
On the face of it, nothing has changed since the breakdown of Camp David more than seven years ago that would seem to increase the chances of concluding such an agreement. Just the opposite. In the wake of Camp David, Yassir Arafat and the Palestinians declared a war of terror on Israel in which thousands of Israeli Jews lost their lives. Only after Operation Defensive Shield, in the wake of the Seder Night Massacre in Netanya, in late March 2002, did the IDF retake control of security in all of Judea and Samaria and the terror abate.
In summer 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza only to find itself under constant rocket attack from the territory it abandoned to Palestinian control. And the Palestinians in Gaza, now under Hamas leadership, have taken advantage of Israel's ceding control over the Egyptian-Gaza border to smuggle in vast quantities of more lethal and long-range missiles. The experience of the Gaza withdrawal has hardly put Israelis in the mood for territorial concessions in Judea and Samaria that would make it easier for terrorists to direct their fire at Israel's heartland.
Finally, the Hamas takeover of Gaza exposed the impotence of Mohammed Abbas, the nominal leader of the Palestinian Authority, whose authority extends no further than the end of his driveway. Even Shimon Peres, the most ardent supporter of the two-state solution, said that the Palestinian Authority’s failure to unify the Palestinian security forces under a unitary command rendered an unfit partner for state-building.
At the same time, the vicious nature of the Hamas/Fatah civil war in Gaza revealed how utterly dysfunctional Palestinian society is, and how far the Palestinians are from being able to govern themselves or form a stable state with which Israel could anticipate living in peace.
WHAT, THEN, GIVES PERIODIC RISE TO THE NOTION that a settlement is within grasp. Bernard Lewis pretty much summed up the issue in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. The crux of the matter, he writes, is whether the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at root one about borders or one about Israel's existence. If it is the latter, there is no hope for negotiations, for there is no midpoint between existence and non-existence at which the parties could agree to split the difference.
For the liberal imagination – George W. Bush no less than Bill Clinton – it is difficult to conceive that the conflict is of the latter nature and not the former. All people basically want the same thing, in the prevailing Western view – a slightly bigger slice of material goods than they now enjoy. Negotiations are inevitably about how to slice the pie. It is hard for liberal imagination to comprehend the Palestinian-Israel conflict in any other terms or to understand the degree to which Israel's very existence, military strength, and economic prosperity constitute an open sore, an ongoing affront, in Muslim eyes, a sign of Alla-h's withheld favor.
The naïve belief that all people share similar values, and that societies are therefore capable of reform from the outside, in a relatively short period of time, has plagued the United States’ efforts in Iraq. And it does so with respect to the Palestinians as well. American policymakers can simply not comprehend how far the Palestinians are from being able to establish a functioning polity.
The conventional wisdom in foreign policy circles that the basic contours of the final settlement –something along the lines of President Clinton's proposals at Camp David in 2000 – are all known in advance is but one indication of an inability to conceive the conflict as about something more than pie-slicing. That pie-slicing mentality convinces foreign policy experts that the fundamental issue is one of Israeli settlements and the territory conquered in 1967 not the desire to wipe Israel from the map which propelled the Arabs to attack Israel in 1948 and to threaten it with annihilation again in 1967. But as Bret Stephens writes, until the existential issue of 1948 is resolved "there is little point in addressing the territorial issues of 1967."
Unfortunately, all evidence points towards the "existential" view of the conflict. Natan Sharansky wrote this week in Ha’aretz that after Israeli negotiators succeeding in wresting from Yasir Arafat a commitment at Wye Plantation to remove from the Palestinian charter language calling for the destruction of Israel, one of President Clinton's closest advisors exclaimed in horror, "Are you out of your minds? He's going to be killed because of that. He's too weak for dramatic steps like that." Perhaps that official was right about the dangers to Arafat. But assuming he was, then that only proves how far Palestinian society was from reconciling itself to peace with Israel.
The Palestinians' unrelenting insistence on the "right of return," which all recognize would spell the immediate end of Israel as a state of the Jewish people, is another indication that for them the issue remains Israel's existence, not its borders. Prime Minister Olmert's (now forgotten) demand that the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish state" and the Palestinians' point blank refusal to do so – sixty years after the U.N. partition vote and the creation of Israel as a "Jewish state" – again highlights the real nature of the conflict.
Israeli's are once again being told that Mohammed Abbas is too weak to recognize Israel on those terms. But if so, he is also too weak to enter into any stable peace agreement or to live up to the Palestinian commitments. For too long, American peacemaking efforts have been built on that fantasy that it is possible to make a deal with some leader while ignoring what is taking place in Palestinian society. As a consequence, Israel repeatedly finds itself negotiation with people who have no control over much of the territory or people on whose behalf they purport to speak – no more so than Abbas. Ignoring the reality of Palestinian society also made it possible for American officials to turn a blind-eye to the damage to the collective Palestinian psyche since Oslo from the unceasing media embrace of martyrdom and the use of force.
We will know that the conflict has shifted from one over Israel 's existence to one over borders when the Palestinians startinvesting in their own future and building the institutions of a civil society and show thereby that they are more interested in a better life for themselves than in making life miserable for Israelis. If, for instance, the Palestinians started dismantling the refugee camps and investing the largesse showered upon them by the world in building projects and economic development, rather than maintaining the refugee camps as cesspools for the production of seething hatred of Israel, that would indicate a real shift in Palestinian attitudes towards Israel. Another indication of such a shift, noted by Bernard Lewis, would be for Arab states to grant citizenship to the descendants of Palestinian refugees. Their refusal to do so for the last sixty years has been designed to maintain the dream that the Palestinians will one day reclaim the entirety of Palestine.
ALL MIDDLE EAST PEACEMAKING inevitably flounders over the failure to recognize the true nature of the conflict. As David Frum astutely observes, "The Oslo process left the hardest part – the Palestinian acceptance of Israel – for last. Unfortunately, the hardest is also the most indispensable part."
For most of his presidency, it appeared that President Bush understood that point. He abandoned his predecessor's hyperactive involvement in the "peace process" because he understood that the entire process was a hall of mirrors attempting to finesse the basic issue of Israel's right to exist. Just a few months ago, Bush appointed former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the Quartet emissary to the Palestinians, with the specific mission of building the institutions of Palestinian society. Only a Palestinian society invested in its own future, rather than the destruction of its neighbor's, the President seemed to be saying, could possibly be a partner for peace.
At the time, there were even some hopeful signs coming from Palestinian society. I have in mind indications that many Palestinians are today more concerned with the quality of their lives than with waging permanent war on Israel. Opinion polls taken over the summer show that the so-called Israeli "occupation" is way down on Palestinians' list of concerns and that many even prefer direct Israeli rule, along the lines of 1967 to 1991, to the existing corruption and anarchy. For the first time in years, 40% of Palestinians in Judea and Samaria expressed interest in some form of confederation with Jordan.
Secretary of State Rice argues that it necessary to provide the Palestinians with a "political horizon," in order to prevent Palestinian society from sinking into despair and violence. And Prime Minister Olmert has been parroting the same line this week..
But the very opposite appears to be the case: Palestinian despair about the state of their society and economy had finally begun to cause them to focus more on improving that society than destroying Israel. Annapolis is a step back in this regard. It will only rekindle Palestinian dreams of their eventual triumph – first through negotiations and then through war. The repeated Palestinian threats, in the months leading up to Annapolis, not to participate unless Israel committed in writing to return to the 1949 armistice lines, reflected a renewed Palestinian perception that "peace" is only of benefit to Israel, but the Palestinians can wait forever until they are in a position to destroy Israel militarily or wear down the will of its people.
THERE IS LITTLE REASON TO EXPECT A MAGIC SOLUTION to emerge from the process initiated at Annapolis. All three of the principal parties suffer from weakened leadership. Olmert cannot claim anything like a national consensus for any concessions he might wish to make and his government could soon collapse from any one of several directions; Abbas is viewed as weak and on his way out; and President Bush is a lameduck, with low public approval ratings.
But that does not mean that Annapolis does not carry some grave dangers for Israel. The Bush administration has invested a great deal of prestige in the appearance of success at Annapolis. Strenuous efforts were made to bring the Arab League and Syria to the conference. But something had to be offered to the reluctant Arab parties as an inducement, and the currency of that inducement is undoubtedly the expectation of American pressure on Israel for new concessions. .
Secretary of State Rice's efforts to offer a "political horizon" to the Palestinians represent a backtracking from the Roadmap's insistence on the Palestinians making serious efforts to combat terror and stop official incitement as a prelude to Israeli concessions. And former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Dore Gold has detected in Rice's description of "most" Israelis as prepared to withdraw from the post-1967 territories a weakening of President Bush's commitment to Israel prior to the Gaza withdrawal that any final settlement must recognize the reality of the large Israeli settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria and around Jerusalem.
Rice’s description of Israeli public opinion is no more accurate than her repeated insistence, as an article of faith, that most Palestinians crave peace. The current Israeli consensus favors retaining the Jordan Valley for security reasons, retaining settlements blocs, and is opposed to handing over parts of Jerusalem or its environs to Palestinian rule (as incidentally are most Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.)
American negotiators have long since internalized the message that the Palestinians will never budge from their longstanding positions on refugees, the status of Jerusalem, etc., So when they think of concessions it is automatically Israeli concessions that they have in mind. That is why Israel is at a disadvantage in any drawn out negotiating process. And the Palestinians know it. Caroline Glick quotes one senior IDF officer involved in negotiations with the Palestinians as saying that as bad as the draft of a joint statement might look for the outside "the truth is ten times worse. This is a nightmare. The Americans have never been so hostile."
Nothing positive is likely to come out of Annapolis . But that does not mean that nothing at all will come out of it. And it is that later "nothing" that gives all Israelis with a memory span of more than thirty minutes cause to fear.
This article appeared in the Yated Ne'eman on November 29, 2007