How Empty is the Glass?

April 25, 2007 Topic: Security Region: LevantMiddle East Tags: DiplomacyJihadTwo-state Solution

How Empty is the Glass?

Can the stalled Israel-Palestinian peace process move forward?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may seem dizzyingly complex to most people, but Ziad Asali can reduce it to four words: "dignity and real estate." Over the years, much blood and ink has been spilled in an attempt to resolve the festering concerns over these two notions. Yet for all these efforts, the peace process seems to be at a standstill. Yesterday at The Nixon Center, Ziad Asali, the president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, and Aaron David Miller, a public-policy expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, assessed the state of the conflict and the prospects for a resolution. While Asali pointed hopefully to Saudi Arabia's recent diplomatic efforts, Miller contended that substantial progress on the issue would remain elusive.

Throughout much of his tenure at the State Department, Miller strongly believed that "an equitable and durable solution" to the conflict could be realized. Such an end to Israeli-Palestinian strife could be reached only through long-running negotiations in which the United States played a major role. However, he now takes a dimmer view of the chances for peace-especially under the present circumstances. Serving under six secretaries of state, he saw only three leaders-two Republican secretaries of state and one Democratic president-forge successful Arab-Israeli agreements.

According to Miller, many U.S. attempts to steward Arab-Israeli diplomacy run aground because the United States, "a distant third party" fails to understand that "conflicts driven by . . . national wounding and trauma are never resolved easily or quickly." When "pragmatic, split-the difference, optimistic" U.S. negotiators are pitted against groups that have an existential stake in the conflict, the Americans are "outplayed, outwitted and outsmarted." Not only must negotiators contend with wily counterparts, but these American interlocutors are often constrained by U.S. domestic politics.

No matter how adept U.S. negotiators and policymakers prove to be, a politically negotiated solution-"forget the end of the conflict"-will not be possible for some time, Miller argued. The former government official provided four reasons for his pessimistic analysis of the situation. First, at present, both the Israelis and the Palestinians have been cursed with weak, inexperienced leaders who are incapable of making the difficult decisions necessary to push the peace process forward. Without enormous amounts of material and political support, these leaders will never hold a candle to political heavyweights like Yitzhak Rabin, Anwar Sadat or King Hussein of Jordan. "We are out of the age of heroic diplomacy", Miller said.

The progressive drifting apart of the Palestinian and Israeli positions compounds the leadership crisis. As the possibilities for compromise diminish, the number of feasible solutions to specific issues of concern decreases as well. The scholar cautioned that this worrying trend should not, however, be seen as evidence that the Israelis and Palestinians were actually close to a deal between 1999 and 2002. Those who grow nostalgic for that period have been "taking to the peace-process fairy for too long", Miller alleged.

The increased prominence of non-state actors-Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Palestine, Hizballah in Lebanon and the insurgents in Iraq-has also created additional complications for the peace process. These groups wield more political power now than in the past and currently have the ability to completely derail Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Worse, the current security environment in the Middle East is not conducive to the trust-building necessary for fruitful negotiations. The Israelis, Miller said, used to worry about "two A's"-Yasir Arafat and Syrian leader Hafez al-Asad. Now, they are threatened by a new "A", Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose dedication to making Iran a nuclear power poses an existential challenge to the Jewish state. In this tense atmosphere, the WMD threat overshadows the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Asali was more optimistic than Miller about the possibilities for peace in light of recent Saudi efforts to take a proactive diplomatic stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Saudis are uniquely suited to play an expanded role in the conflict, as only they possess the political and financial resources necessary to bring the Palestinian government's two warring factions-the nationalist Fatah and the Islamist Hamas-to the bargaining table.

The Saudis, Asali explained, have been spooked into diplomatic activism by the ascendance of Iran-and its ally, Syria-in the Middle East. The Saudis were especially concerned when Hamas began to fall under the sway of the Syrian regime. Rather than allow Syrian leader Bashir al-Asad to hold the "Palestinian card", Saudi Arabia's leaders called the leaders of the warring Palestinian factions to Mecca. A deal between the two parties was quickly hammered out, creating a Hamas-Fatah unity government.

Not only did the agreement "paper over" much deeper disagreements, but its announcement was met with skepticism in the United States and Israel. Though the outcome of the Mecca agreement proved to be much less than ideal, it inspired the Arab League, an Egyptian-led organization, to re-examine its peace-process initiative. Asali insisted that the league's proposals amounted to more than just a take-it-or-leave-it list of points. Even if the league's recommendations are not set in stone, the league must make its recommendations more palatable to the Americans and the Israelis. In fact, the Arab League recently charged a Jordanian-Egyptian committee with the task of figuring out how to sell its proposals.

Saudi Arabia's role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to continue to grow, Asali predicted, since "there is no way that any combination of Palestinian powers is going to get out of this on its own."

Whether or not Saudi Arabia becomes an essential player in Israel-Palestinian diplomacy, Israel and the West can build support for the peace process among Palestinians by loosening the restrictions applied to this particular group, Asali said. The Western sanctions imposed on Palestine in the aftermath of Hamas' electoral victory prompted Palestinians to support Hamas-which refuses to officially recognize Israel's existence-with more, instead of less, fervor. Furthermore, the lower-level members of Hamas and Fatah base their allegiances to their respective organizations on material, rather than ideological, concerns. If the corrupt, disorganized Fatah-which is willing to accept a two-state solution-could reform, it might attract new adherents from Hamas.

Despite his relative optimism, Asali stressed that he thought of the end of Israeli-Palestinian strife in conceptual terms, since a cessation of hostilities is certainly not imminent. Even if a final settlement cannot be reached in the near future, the problem cannot be ignored. If the conflict is not dealt with by diplomats, he cautioned, jihadists will take matters into their own hands.

Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.