Bruce Riedel, a veteran of the intelligence and diplomatic world, wrote in The National Interest what I knew many would — that the real story of Egypt’s protests is the Arab-Israeli peace process:
As the historic leader of the Arab world, change in Egypt has long presaged change elsewhere. Many will argue that in this uncertainty the Israeli-Palestinian peace process should be put on hold while we see how the dust settles. That would be a major mistake. The tsunami in Egypt adds to the urgent necessity of making peace between Israel and the Palestinians sooner rather than later.
Oh, the time for peace is now because Egypt has provided urgency? Even if Egypt has changed the situation in Israel at all — and I believe its impact is exaggerated — the peace process has never lacked necessity. The chief problems are low public trust on both sides, weak leaders, factionalization, and Iranian veto power. A Mohamed ElBaradei presidency touches virtually none of those. Peace is strongly desirable, but not currently achievable. So much for realism. U.S. policy toward Israel-Palestine needs a reboot, but only because it had failed independently of the recent protests. Nothing that’s happened in the last week in Cairo gives us any clue as to how to better pursue peace.
With apologies to Al Franken, who used this analogy with regard to Republicans and tax cuts, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is like a “little black dress” for many foreign policy commentators: it can be safely used for any occasion. Radicals are empowered in the region? Time for peace. Moderates are empowered in the region? Time for peace. U.S. influence is strong? Time for peace. U.S. influence is weak? Time for peace.
Public commentary from smart and experienced people like Riedel should not take the form of litigation, but of problem-solving. Rather than blaming popular revolutions on events in Israel, Riedel should address relevant on-the-ground realities: What can the U.S. do to practically reassure Israel and the PA that Hamas will not gain power? Who in the region can take the place of Egypt as a broker, if necessary? Screaming “Do something!” isn’t helpful. Formulating a policy on its own merit — taking into account any new realities, of course — is the right move.
I’ll be writing more in the days ahead about what the U.S. might possibly be able to do to help the ever-wounded prospects for peace along. In the meantime, let’s not needlessly complicate trying times by intertwining independent problems.
Marwan Muasher, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment and former foreign minister of Jordan, writes an analysis advocating a “regional” approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than the one-on-one style in use today. In addition to re-writing history (Muasher implies that the major Arab states were not satisfied with Israeli peace offers in 2000 and had no desire for Arafat to take the deal; that’s false), he rehashes much of the logic of “linkage.” It’s not a new idea, as it’s the basis for the Arab Peace Initiative, but I felt so struck at how he ended up making the case for maintaining the status quo approach. Only by getting the Arab world involved will the logjams be broken, he maintains. Here’s the crux of his argument:
One of the real strengths of the initiative is that it provides both parties with a regional safety net. For Palestinians and Syrians, it provides Arab cover for painful compromises (refugees and Jerusalem for Palestinians, modifying the relationship with Iran and Hezbollah for Syria). For Israelis, it convinces them that they are getting regional peace and security and the agreement is not just a separate peace deal with half of Palestinians or one with Syria that lacks a solution to Israel’s security needs.
If such a model is adopted, the whole approach to negotiations would change. Instead of attempting to get Palestinians and Israelis to agree to positions under pressure and against their will, a regional approach creates a new and enabling environment where both parties will see a settlement as serving their best national interests respectively.
Another major strength of the initiative, and one that has been widely overlooked, is the implicit obligation for Arabs to deliver Hamas and Hezbollah through the security guarantees mentioned. In other words, by including Hamas and Hezbollah in the agreement—with Arab states promising to turn the two organizations into purely political ones—it becomes an Arab responsibility rather than an Israeli or a Palestinian one. This is the best chance to convert these organizations, as Israel’s military solution to disarm Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 and Hamas in Gaza in 2008 both failed.
Yes, he’s asking Israel to negotiate its final borders with Iranian proxies acting as a veto in the process. Even if one were to take terrorist groups out of the picture, looking at the regional approach shows how redundant it is to the peace process. The Arab Peace Initiative essentially is an endorsement of UN Resolution 242, the genesis of “land for peace”: Israel withdraws to agreed-upon borders for a Palestinian state. In other words, Arab recognition of Israel comes after Israeli-Palestinian peace has been negotiated anyway.
Only later does the real emptiness of the idea shine through:
The new approach would be based on first securing end-game “deposits” from all parties. This means that the parties would offer hypothetical commitments that they might not be willing to give at the onset, but that can be “deposited” with the U.S. side and committed to only if the other side is willing to do the same. …
One possible scenario might look as follows. The set of proximity talks between the United States and both the Palestinians and Israelis would be augmented by bringing in the one country in the Arab world today that can act as a regional guarantor for a settlement—Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, as is the case with many other Arab countries, have been asking President Obama to put on the table a package based on a combination of the Clinton parameters and the Arab Peace Initiative.
Before such a package is presented, however, Obama needs to have a candid conversation with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and inform him of his intention to do so. Understanding that the package will not meet the full requirements of any party, Obama must secure a commitment from the Saudi monarch that the package would not be refused once it is offered, and that he will secure Arab and Muslim backing for the painful compromises the Palestinians would need to accept. Understandably, the issue the Saudis care most about is East Jerusalem, so any package needs to include East Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state.
“Deposits” can be effective in prompting negotiations. Unfortunately for Muasher, he doesn’t seem to realize that the U.S. already has a Saudi deposit — in the form of the Arab Peace Initiative! The Initiative signals to Israel that the Arab states will conditionally recognize its place among the nations, but only after peace has been concluded with Syria and the Palestinians. That’s precisely the idea of a deposit — a recognition that an actor is willing to make a large concession conditional on future circumstances. The Saudis will go no further than that; we know this because Obama tried to induce further (minor) concessions and failed. (I should also add that the current direct Israeli-Palestinian talks have Arab League backing.)
The Arab Peace Initiative, to be clear, is an indication that getting Israel permanent borders could lead to truly “normal” Arab-Israeli relations. But that stability will only come if the core conflict is solved first. Israel is not at war with Tunisia or Oman; their recognition of Israel does not alter the Israeli security calculus. Only by addressing real Israeli security threats concurrently with the return of pre-‘67 territory can both issues be resolved.
To act as if responsibility for resolving the conflict lies solely with Israel is unfair and a shameless adaptation of Arab mythology. Likewise, blaming only the Arabs/Palestinians would be wrong. A “balanced,” “even-handed” way of progressing toward peace necessitates both Arab and Israeli contributions up front. Dreaded “incrementalism” is the only way to do that.
And here I was, a fool to think that the discredited ideology of “linkage” was dead, but Steve Clemons wants to revive it. (I swear, I don’t look for this stuff!) For the unacquainted (how I envy you!), linkage is the philosophy of Middle Eastern politics that any conflict in the region can be made substantially, even critically easier to manage by solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — solved, of course, with a heavy dose of American pressure. It’s a canard so pervasive in the foreign/security policy arena that I even found it in Peter Scoblic’s (otherwise terrific) book on, of all things, the history of conservative philosophy on arms control with Russia.
President Obama himself and his national security adivsor Jim Jones have both expressed some belief in the idea. And so 2009 was the year of linkage, the year in which the president slowplayed Iran and picked a series of unproductive fights with Israel. Then the president changed course. Now, some real sanctions on Iran are starting to cause rumblings inside the regime. This is despite (1) a few embarrassing episodes on Israel’s part and (2) a renewed American emphasis on the U.S.-Israel relationship. If there is a linkage, it sure isn’t a decisive one.
Clemons says early in his piece that “The ongoing and repeated failures to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict are increasingly consequential to American security and US interests.” I agree, but only to the extent that ongoing and repeated failures to resolve any conflict are increasingly consequential to American security and U.S. interests. Investing American capital in a problem and getting little in the way of a fix makes us look weak, not to mention ignorant of the region. So it’s interesting that Clemons’s response to this problem is to double down on solving it, by raising the stakes and involving more players. Talk about a gamble.
The crux of Clemons’s take is this: “Solving the Israel-Palestine conflict will not solve all the political and identity tensions which will continue to boil in Arab and Muslim-dominant states — but the echo effect of resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will knock down many walls in these societies that have been resisting change.” His evidence is … well, nothing, actually. Really.
Let’s think of a few pressing regional security challenges:
- Presidential succession in Egypt.
- The Yemeni government fighting the Houthis in the North and secessionists in the South.
- Iranian backing of Iraqi factions different from the other Middle Eastern states.
- Lingering violence in Darfur and Somalia.
- Clashes in Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
- Hizballah’s virtual stranglehold on Lebanese politics.
- Kurdish resistance in Turkey.
- Great power competition in Afghanistan, including Pakistani support of the Taliban.
An Israeli-Palestinian peace deal offers at best marginal help in fixing these problems. Most of them are completely independent and would not be any different without the conflict.
What’s more — and this is a huge point that “realists” like Clemons miss — even if there was an opportunity to force the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate all the way to a signed document, creating peace is not that simple. Israel, while not regretting at all the fact that it has signed peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, has been disappointed that the accords have only created “peace between governments,” as opposed to “peace between peoples.” How does he anticipate getting the publics to support a U.S.-dictated deal without the “incrementalism” he so hates? And since, as Clemons acknowledges, there will still be violence on the ground, why will regional actors feel any more secure to address their own problems, if this linkage is real?
In the end, this is all a thought experiment, because it’s not going to happen.
Add the Obama administration’s WMD czar Gary Samore to the growing list of top officials who believe that Middle East peace is a necessary precursor to solving wider regional problems, including the drive to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
Obviously solving Middle East peace would make it vastly easier to to get Israel to declare and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons. (I assume this is the coded meaning of that statement because anyone who seriously believes solving the Arab-Israeli conflict will get Iran to stop its nuclear program is on another planet.) But please, continue saying things we already know:
He then took the argument one step further and said, “The Obama administration is working very hard to try to push the peace process forward and it seems to me that’s an essential element to making progress in any of these zones… It’s hard to imagine how you could have an arms control regime in the Middle East without having peace and diplomatic recognition… it’s a precursor to negotiations.”
Yep. But I’m sure if we keep repeating this over and over again that peace will dawn on the Levant. My criticism is not of Samore — everything he’s said is true. My criticism is of journalists like Rogin and Politico’s Laura Rozen who treat these statements as though they are revelatory. Samore is not part of a “growing list of top officials” who share his views. Everyone in Washington does. The problem is that even peaceniks like Aaron David Miller now think peace is unattainable. It doesn’t matter how beneficial peace is, it’s not going to come with a president who can’t read the region.
I can’t say I saw this coming, but I wasn’t totally surprised to see Aaron David Miller, a key part of the American team throughout the “peace years” and a recent advocate of “tough love” for the region, write in Foreign Policy that Obama’s elevation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to its current height is foolish and dangerous:
From the 1940s through the 1980s, the power with which the Palestinian issue resonated in the Arab world did take a toll on American prestige and influence. Still, even back then the hand-wringing and dire predictions in my Cassandra-like memos were overstated. I once warned ominously — and incorrectly — that we’d have nonstop Palestinian terrorist attacks in the United States if we didn’t move on the issue. During those same years, the United States managed to advance all of its core interests in the Middle East: It contained the Soviets; strengthened ties to Israel and such key Arab states as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia; maintained access to Arab oil; and yes, even emerged in the years after the October 1973 war as the key broker in Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
Today, I couldn’t write those same memos or anything like them with a clear conscience or a straight face. Although many experts’ beliefs haven’t changed, the region has, and dramatically, becoming nastier and more complex. U.S. priorities and interests, too, have changed. The notion that there’s a single or simple fix to protecting those interests, let alone that Arab-Israeli peace would, like some magic potion, bullet, or elixir, make it all better, is just flat wrong. In a broken, angry region with so many problems — from stagnant, inequitable economies to extractive and authoritarian governments that abuse human rights and deny rule of law, to a popular culture mired in conspiracy and denial — it stretches the bounds of credulity to the breaking point to argue that settling the Arab-Israeli conflict is the most critical issue, or that its resolution would somehow guarantee Middle East stability.
I may disagree with some of Miller’s specific formulations on the outcome of a negotiated two-state compromise, but our instincts on process appear to be similar. Obama has discredited the peace process by playing his hand too early and ignoring the one issue that infects almost all immediate American security challenges — the aggressive pursuit of power by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Dennis Ross has written of Miller, his former deputy, that he is particularly able to understand the fears and heartfelt beliefs of each side. Therefore he knows that Israel cannot make historic concessions under the violent veto of Iran, and that the linkage approach is a nonstarter:
As Obama surely reckoned, moving fast on Arab-Israeli peacemaking would help the United States deal with these issues. But that linkage wasn’t compelling when Bush used it to suggest that victory in Iraq would make the Arab-Israeli conflict easier to resolve; it’s not compelling now as an exit strategy from Iraq either, as if engaging in Arab-Israeli diplomacy will make the potential mess we could leave behind in Iraq easier for the Arabs to swallow. Nor can the Arab-Israeli issue be used effectively to mobilize Arabs against Iran, because the United States could never do enough diplomatically (or soon enough) to have it make much of a difference. Finally, linking the United States’ willingness to help the Israelis with Iran to their willingness to make concessions on Jerusalem and borders isn’t much of a policy either. If anything, it risks the United States losing its leverage with Israel on the Iranian issue and raising the odds that Israel would act alone.