Don't Neglect an Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Don't Neglect an Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Ignoring the conflict will backfire and harm U.S. interests.

Leon Hadar in these spaces has commended as a “sensible stance” toward the Israeli-Palestinian a policy, enunciated by a prominent American politician, that “we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.” Hadar criticizes “some self-proclaimed foreign-policy realists,” implying that their belief that “Washington can and ought to help make peace between Israelis and Palestinians” somehow contradicts realist criticisms of neocon ambitions to remake the Middle East in the American image. Insofar as Hadar is making a general point that there are difficult and often violent problems out there that the United States simply cannot be expected to solve, he's right about that. (For a nice statement on this theme that goes far beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict, see Daniel Byman's recent treatment.) And Hadar is certainly correct that there are other regional and global players that need to play a role in resolving this conflict.

But Hadar seems oblivious to the enormous resonance that this conflict has like no other—with its continued festering harming U.S. interests—and to the leverage that could be, but has not been, applied to resolving it.

He also seems oblivious to what actual U.S. policies and efforts have, and have not, been in recent years. When he refers to “America's preoccupation with the conflict”—taking him to mean preoccupation with resolving the conflict—one wonders what he is looking at. The last preoccupation at the presidential level was that of Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000. Clinton's successor George W. Bush promptly made it known after entering office that he didn't want to be bothered by the Arab-Israeli issue. It was only near the end of his administration that he decided he ought to go through the motions of hosting a single conference on the subject. Barack Obama made a brief stab at addressing the main impediment to a negotiated settlement—the continued Israeli colonization of occupied territory—but promptly retreated when the Israeli government and its American supporters pushed back hard. Since then he hasn't run with the issue, much less be preoccupied with it, any more than Bush.

Hadar lectures us on how two parties will settle a conflict only if doing so is in their “core national interests” and cannot otherwise be forced to settle by some third party. Of course they can't, unless the third party exercises imperial domination—which is the sort of thing neocons would warm to in other contexts but is certainly not what any “self-proclaimed foreign-policy realists” would advocate. But this observation is not the same as saying other types of third-party participation are useless. If it were, we should find a way to revoke posthumously Teddy Roosevelt's Nobel Peace Prize for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Nations locked in conflict with other nations often find themselves unable, for a variety of reasons, to embark on a course more conducive to their interests. With some of those reasons, the active participation of a third party can be instrumental.

There is a tautological quality to Hadar's treatment of this subject. When a mediation effort succeeds, such as with Carter at Camp David in 1978, then he says this must have been what the parties saw as in their core national interests, but when it fails, as with Clinton in 2000, this means they did not see it in their interests. This treatment leads to the glaringly incorrect comment that the parties reached agreement in 1978 “not as a response to American diplomatic pressure.” If nearly a fortnight of personal arm-twisting by the president of the United States and his senior foreign-policy aides and billions in assistance in buying off the parties' remaining hesitations does not qualify as relevant American diplomatic pressure, it is hard to imagine what would.

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians strikes chords of anger and resentment and shapes attitudes toward the United States, more broadly and strongly than probably any other conflict around the globe. The chords are heard throughout the Arab world and to a large degree across parts of the larger Muslim world. That is why it is a mistake simply to lump this conflict, as Hadar does, together with other long-running disputes such as the one between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. That is also why it is a mistake to disregard the extent to which this particular conflict shapes the willingness of so many people either to cooperate with the United States or to strike out against it.

The extraordinary resonance of this issue underlies this accurate observation by Hadar:

Meanwhile, America's repeated failures as an “honest broker”—a designation that quite frequently runs contrary to its commitment to be a “reliable ally” of Israel—ends up producing an anti-American backlash in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which creates even more pressure on Washington to “do something.”

Correct, but clearly the problem is not with trying to be a broker but instead with failing to be an honest one. And that leads to the elephant in the room that Hadar does not mention at all: the extraordinary relationship between the United States and Israel, with the former bestowing on behalf of the latter many billions of unconditional aid and lonely vetoes at the United Nations and with advocates of the Israeli government having remarkable influence over U.S. policy in the Middle East. Given the shape of this relationship, the United States is in neck-deep in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whether or not we like to think it is. The extraordinary relationship with Israel ensures there will be high expectations about what the United States should do about the conflict, no matter what American leaders may or may not say about their intentions for doing something about it.

There is indeed an American preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it's just not a preoccupation with resolving the conflict. The dominant pattern affecting U.S. policy on this subject is not pressure from those self-proclaimed realists or anyone else to help resolve the conflict but instead pressure from supporters of the current Israeli government not to do things that would move toward a resolution—or even to keep open the possibility of a resolution, especially by freezing the Israeli colonization project. And this gets to all that potential but still unused U.S. leverage, embodied in all that aid and all those UN vetoes.

A benign-neglect policy toward this issue would not, as Hadar contends, “help send a clear message to the Israelis that the window of opportunity for American engagement in a Middle East peace process is gradually closing.” Instead it would send a message to the current Israeli leadership that it has a green light to continue consolidating its apartheid rule over all the territory it controls. It would send a message to the Israeli public that the United States is content to work with an Israeli leadership that follows that sort of policy and that they don't need to think about replacing that leadership. And it would send a message to the vast numbers of people who empathize with or feel kinship with the Palestinians that the United States doesn't really care if the Palestinians ever achieve justice and political rights.