Grasping the Nettle

Grasping the Nettle

Mini Teaser: As strange as it may seem, now is the best time to push for peace in the Middle East.

by Author(s): John C. Hulsman

One can only look on at the ruination of the Bush Administration's Middle East policy with a sort of sick bemusement. In the past year the newly won gains of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon have literally gone up in smoke. Israel has failed to destroy Hizballah in a short, nasty summer war; instead the rejectionist organization is the toast of the Arab world. Iran successfully flouts international will, moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapons program. The Taliban is making a comeback in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are still at large on the frontier with Pakistan. And Iraq is . . . well, Iraq. The international standing of the United States is at its lowest ebb in memory, while radical Islamists have been the beneficiaries of colossal American blunders in the region. Everything looks very black indeed.

Existing U.S. and Israeli strategies are rooted in denying the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to the problems that plague the Middle East. This approach has failed. The way forward is to concentrate on solving the ongoing, seemingly never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which, because the many problems of the region are so interlinked, can create, in turn, momentum for dealing with the other regional disputes that feed it.

As is too often the case, the Washington establishment is confusing caution with wisdom, urging the United States to be tentative, just when circumstances demand that it should be bold about the peace process. An August 29, 2006 editorial in the Washington Post is emblematic of this fallacy. While acknowledging that both Hizballah and Hamas are "chastened" following this summer's conflict (as is Israel): The article urges that no big steps be undertaken. The silver lining of the ghastliness of the present situation, on the contrary, is precisely that sensible people, whatever their views of the conflict, are beginning to reassess some of the intellectual shibboleths that have helped produce the diplomatic futility of the past decade.

The first lesson of recent events must be that unilateral moves of any kind rarely work in a region where a whole host of actors have a genuine stake in the outcome-and the power to influence developments for good or ill. It is entirely understandable-in terms of Israeli domestic sentiment-that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Kadima Party campaigned on a platform of setting unilateral boundaries in the West Bank and Gaza. After decades of negotiating with the duplicitous, mercurial, corrupt, maddening Yasir Arafat, it is hard to blame Israelis for yearning for a peace without negotiation.

Yet a unilateral settlement, without making the fractious Palestinians stakeholders in the outcome, is no settlement at all, since it would only lead to constant irredentist claims being advanced by different branches of the Palestinian community. At the same time, an arrangement that left the Palestinians in charge of disconnected Bantustans would never be accepted by the Palestinian people, the rest of the Arab world or the international community in general. The very peace and stability that Israelis hoped would emerge from disengagement from most of the West Bank and Gaza would continue to be denied to them.

Nor should the U.S. administration have ever endorsed this approach. Quite apart from its dreadful effects on America's own vital interests in the War on Terror-since Al-Qaeda and its allies have most effectively exploited the Israeli-Palestinian issue-this strategy was always bound to leave Israel in a permanently precarious strategic position. "Supporting" Israel in this way does not represent true friendship for the Jewish state: Friends don't encourage friends to drive drunk.

There is growing recognition within the American Jewish community (to say nothing of sentiment in Israel itself) that President Bush's encouragement of a hard-line Israeli strategy is not in the interests of Israel. An editorial in the leading American Jewish liberal newspaper Forward noted in August 2006 that while "Bush has been convinced by self-appointed spokesmen for Israel and the Jewish community that endless war is in Israel's interest", he needed instead "to hear in no uncertain terms that Israel is ready for dialogue, that the alternative-endless jihad-is unthinkable." Forward argued that Israel should begin immediate negotiations with all its neighbors, including Syria, and aim at a comprehensive regional peace settlement. Similar views have been put forward by leading Israeli moderates, like the former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami, and by numerous commentators in leading Israeli newspapers, including Ha‘aretz and Yedioth Ahronoth.

Secondly, we should learn from the latest crisis that we (and the Israelis) need to talk to democratically elected representatives, whatever their views. Contrary to neoconservative and liberal hawk fantasies, talking to people one doesn't agree with is not a sign of weakness. It is called "diplomacy." The need for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through negotiation is unaffected by Hamas's victory. Why? Because, frankly, in the end we will have to negotiate with whomever the Palestinians elect. That does not mean that we should give anything to Hamas in advance, but unless we get negotiations started, then by definition we will never know if compromise is in fact possible.

And there is no sense in demanding radical prior concessions from the Palestinians before we even begin talks with them. If the British had done that vis-à-vis the ira in the Northern Ireland peace process, there would have been no peace process. We do not get to pick our interlocutors; the Palestinian people do. The belief that we can reach a lasting settlement "with someone else" among the Palestinians-and that this arrangement would be seen as legitimate-is delusional. Again and again, the Israeli and U.S. governments have convinced themselves that they could find a more moderate alternative to the existing Palestinian leadership. Again and again, the result has been that they have actually gotten a more radical one. This is especially true today, as the economic and military pressure being exerted by Israel in an effort to get rid of Hamas is only infuriating ordinary Palestinians further.

Third, making either side go first in terms of overall concessions is an approach that is simply impossible; both sides are too traumatized for such a diplomatic strategy ever to work. The problem with Bush's "road map" as it stands is that it requires the Palestinians to make critical concessions before receiving concrete benefits. Similarly, many Israelis criticized the private "Geneva Initiative" for calling on Israel to make up-front concessions before receiving major concrete gains.

Fourth, the gradualist approach, typified by U.S. strategy between the 1993 Oslo Agreement and the Camp David talks in 2000, has also shown its grave limitations. Leaving all the really hard stuff until the end while engaging in small "confidence-building" steps has not led to either mutual confidence or peace. Rather, both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples must see the large-scale, concrete advantages to making painful concessions-and they must see them quickly-for any peace process to weather the political storms that are bound to follow.

Therefore, the clear outlines of a comprehensive and final agreement need to be first laid down by Washington, then secretly negotiated between local parties in detail over a period of time so they become stakeholders in the process. Only when all concessions and benefits are worked out simultaneously does any agreement stand a real chance of sticking. This is an entirely different modus operandi from what has been attempted throughout the Bush Administration, and most of the Clinton Administration too. But this appalling record alone should be the impetus for the rest of us to think anew.

 We all know the broad parameters of any real and lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians: two states with secure borders recognized as final by the whole of the region, as well as by the United States, UN, EU and NATO; security guarantees for both parties; using the 1967 borders as the basis for the territorial settlement, leading to a real, undivided Palestinian state on the West Bank; certain limited land swaps, in particular relating to the three largest Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank; a secure Palestinian transit corridor link between the West Bank and Gaza. Along with these parameters, the Palestinians also get to plant a symbolic flag in East Jerusalem, while Ramallah remains the true capital, and give up their right of return, except for symbolic cases, in return for generous compensation.

These practical, non-millennial goals must obviously form the basis of any settlement. They derive from Yitzhak Rabin's belief in land for peace, of turning the vast majority of the West Bank (and Gaza) over to a Palestinian state in exchange for peace not only with the Palestinians but with all of Israel's neighbors. As with all good deals, it will entirely satisfy no one. However, one can sincerely hope that there is enough there for everyone to entice realists in both camps to make the bold sacrifices necessary for peace.

These sacrifices may well have to be physical as well as political. In a rare flash of insight, Thomas Friedman once wrote that for peace between Israel and the Palestinians to be achieved, the leaderships of both sides would have to fight civil wars against their own rejectionist radicals. This has often been the case in such situations. The peace treaty of 1921 between Britain and the ira led to a civil war in Ireland in which the greatest ira leader, Michael Collins, was killed by men he had previously led for signing and sticking to the treaty. In Israel, a Jewish rejectionist also murdered Yitzhak Rabin; and this fate will threaten future Israeli and Palestinian leaders who sign a genuine peace treaty. Nevertheless, as Rabin and Collins courageously recognized-but Yasir Arafat did not-such risks are necessary if peace between Israel and Palestine is to be achieved.

Essay Types: Essay