Biased Mediators: The End of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks, and How It Happened
Palestine’s titular president recently declared the end of American mediation once and for all because it is “completely biased toward Israel.” President Donald Trump’s provocation to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem clearly forced Palestinians to take bigger stock of America’s exhaustive, if not suffocating, presence as mediator over their fate. Despite never agreeing on much, it seems all Palestinian political factions—at least for now—want to be done with the United States for good. The burden of halting Israeli colonization and enabling Palestinian freedom should now fall to the United Nations and the European Union, which has already begun economic sanctions against Israeli goods made in illegal West Bank settlements. All should join Palestinians in saying “good riddance” to any future American-dominated efforts. The reasons are too many to list here, but the most obvious is owing to the flawed supposition that the United States could in practice succeed in spite of its pro-Israel bias (or as some wrongly believed, because of it).
The scholarly architecture of “biased mediation” was developed in the 1970s by the late Israeli professor Saadia Touval, who argued that mediator bias could be a helpful asset in conflict resolution. The argument is that a party enjoying bias would be prone to take advice from its trusted ally acting as mediator. A biased mediator could also be counted on to offer superior insights into the parties in conflict, who might lack information about each other or suffer from jaundiced eyes. And because the favored party would theoretically try to preserve its special status, it would therefore prove forthcoming. The same would apply for the disfavored party. With three parties in the mix, and a dyadic alliance between biased mediator and its favored party, the isolated and disfavored party will work overtime to be “forthcoming” in hopes it will “drive a wedge” between the two longtime friends—a form of bargaining leverage to generate the compliance of the disfavored, weaker party.
A 2008 obituary for Touval mentioned that his biased mediation theory had influenced Dennis Ross, who led U.S. negotiations on the Arab-Israeli front from 1992 until 2001, and Aaron Miller, who served as Ross’s deputy throughout. Ross would quote from Touval in his 2007 book about “Statecraft” while Miller, taking a more self-critical line, editorialized in 2005 how he felt that Ross and his colleagues (himself included) were less mediator and more “Israel’s lawyer” for their “catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations.”
Numerous independent accounts and scholarly works have autopsied the negative influence of Dennis Ross as well as Martin Indyk, the latter who twice served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, on the overall American peace efforts. Both Ross and Indyk co-founded an AIPAC-spinoff think tank and were counted on by President Bill Clinton to lead an effort to “stop pro-Arab bias” among Foggy Bottom diplomats. In all his career, Dennis Ross would broker a single agreement—the 1997 Hebron accords. This was the disastrous deal that disproportionately divided Hebron to favor Israeli settler extremists there with a stranglehold over Palestinian life. Indyk brokered nothing and even had his security clearance suspended, at one point, for among other things allegedly discussing classified national security information in the presence of Israelis. Both Ross and Indyk would also make return appearances under the Obama administration, Ross from 2009–11 (where he meddled in the efforts of Senator Mitchell, a man actually renowned for conflict resolution) and Indyk as lead envoy from 2013–2014 (where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marginalized him, at least partly because of Indyk’s longstanding support for Likud’s rival Labour Party).
Following the trajectory of their biased mediation, it is clear a two-state solution was largely snuffed out during their tenures, in no small measure because the sham process they presided over was all procedural process while the stronger Israeli party used the machinations as smokescreen to consolidate facts on the ground through brute force. In the cold light of morning the numbers show how they succeeded: Israeli settlers in the West Bank skyrocketed from 200,000 in 1993 to 600,000 today, despite every U.S. President from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama demanding an end to settlement expansion.