While political pundits have been preoccupied with comments about the “47 percent” that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made during a May 17 fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida, the foreign-policy establishment has been focused on other remarks at the same event. These less-discussed sentiments seemed to reflect the candidate’s skepticism about the ability of Washington to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
In response to question by a donor about how to resolve the “Palestinian problem,” Romney asserted that “the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish.” There is not much that the United States can do, so “you move things along the best way you can,” he proposed. “You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem.”
Comparing the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians to the clash between China and Taiwan, Romney argued that “we have a potentially volatile situation but 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.”
During his recent foreign-policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney seemed to realign his view on Israel-Palestine with the more traditional consensus in Washington, stressing his commitment to the notion of “a Democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel” and actually faulting President Barack Obama for failing to make progress on a two-state solution.
Some self-proclaimed foreign-policy realists who have ridiculed the neoconservative proposition that that the United States has the power and the obligation to remake the Middle East by promoting the so-called Freedom Agenda also have been critical of Romney’s Boca Raton Middle East manifesto. Many of them argue (not unlike liberal internationalists) that Washington can and ought to help make peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
But perhaps the time has come to face reality and recognize that Romney was right, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is going to remain an unsolved problem” for a long time and that Washington cannot do much more than “moving things along the best you can.” Members of the reality-based community should admit that the U.S.-led “peace process” has accomplished little. And yet, like the Energizer Bunny, it keeps going and going and going.
In fact, America's preoccupation with the conflict—motivated by its commitment to Israel and its need to appease the Arab oil-producing states and driven by pressure from the members of an influential industry of experts and activists—may have been doing more harm than good. By pursuing the illusion that the United States has the power and moral authority to broker a “peace” in the Middle East, Washington has created unrealistic expectations that cannot be fulfilled.
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.”
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the 1979 peace accord between Israel and Egypt was not made in America (Camp David). President Jimmy Carter helped negotiate a settlement that reflected the strategic calculations of both Israelis and Egyptians. They agreed to end the state of war between them because it was in their own core national interests—not as a response to American diplomatic pressure.
At the same time, the so-called Oslo Accord between the Israelis and Palestinians was arrived at without any U.S. engagement. President Bill Clinton served as nothing more than a master of ceremonies during the 1993 signing of the accord by Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House south lawn.
Clinton didn’t make the Israeli and Palestinian leaders do it then, and he actually failed later on in 2000 to negotiate another deal at Camp David. The Israelis and the Palestinians concluded that the costs of ending the conflict would be higher than reaching an agreement. And even the United States, then at the height of its “unipolar moment” as a global military and economic hegemon, could not force them to change their positions.
Today, when the U.S. geostrategic position is in decline and its ability to determine political and military outcomes in the Middle East has been constrained, Washington has even less leverage than it had in 2000 to impose an Israeli-Palestinian solution, especially at a time when the political center in two communities has been shifting to the right. The collapse of the so-called Peace Camp in Israel and rise of Hamas as a central power in Palestinian politics suggest that even under the best-case scenario—a willingness by the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders to negotiate a final-status agreement—domestic political opposition would make it almost impossible for them to deliver it.
In any case, if genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace is to develop it must be based on reality in the region, not as a response to pressure from Washington. The United States has an interest in bringing an end to the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine in the same way that it would welcome the resolution of the long-running disputes between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, Armenians and Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh, or Indians and Pakistanis in Kashmir. But in all these cases, it cannot force the rivals to overcome differences rooted in nationalism, ethnicity and religion.
Moreover, if and when opportunities arise for encouraging an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, the United States will not be in a position to unilaterally manage the peace process and underwrite an agreement. Other regional and global players with interest in resolving the conflict—including the European Union, Russia, Turkey, the Arab states and even China—should invest their resources in dealing with the issue.
Many of Israel’s friends in the United States will be worried that the lack of resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the continuing control of the West Bank pose long-term threats to Israel’s survival and to its identity as a Jewish and democratic state. But they have to understand that no American president, including one committed to reviving the peace process such as Obama, can or should become a stand-in for an Israeli leadership and public that will have to make their choices sooner rather than latter.
A benign-neglect approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the kind proposed by Romney—which would probably be embraced as a de facto strategy by a second Obama administration—could 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. Now is the time for Israel—not the United States—to “do something.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
Image: Mark Taylor