Why The U.S.’s Middle East Peace Policy Has Failed

obama telephone

The news that George Mitchell is resigning as US special envoy closes a chapter in the greatest international failure of the Obama administration to date. 

The President’s foreign policy team has some real successes under its belt — the reset with Russia, a marked reduction in global levels of anti-Americanism, steady progress in Iraq, and of course the spectacular Abbottabad raid to name a few — but there is no way to disguise the harsh truth: the White House flopped big time on the Israel-Palestine process.

Administration apologists want to shift the blame for the Middle East failure to Israeli intransigence and Palestinian fecklessness, and while those factors are, as usual, part of the problem, the failure of its peace initiative is one mess the White House owns.

Brimming with self-confidence, the incoming team was sure it could get the job done back in 2009.  President Clinton, they argued, had the right idea, but he left it too late.  Bush also left it too late, they said, and was both too close to Israel and too diplomatically inept.  The Obamans would show us how the job should be done.  They would start early with a full court press and, unlike President Obama’s supposedly incompetent predecessors, they wouldn’t be “Israel’s lawyer.”  Getting tough on Israel would score points in the Muslim world and bring the peace negotiations to a rapid conclusion.

Arrogance mixes poorly with inexperience; the US position in the peace process has been on the skids from the new administration’s earliest days, and the unravelling of American diplomacy in the Middle East has significantly damaged both the perception and the reality of American strength in the region.

Let us hope that things change, but the bitter truth is that so far President Obama has the worst Middle East peace policy since US presidents first took a direct interest in the peace process back in the Nixon Administration.  No one has tried harder and accomplished less than President Obama.  After two years of high profile White House activism neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians think that this President can help them; neither side feels much need to work with Washington at this point.

Worse, there are now questions about the survival of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty negotiated under Jimmy Carter.  President Obama may not only be remembered as a president who failed to make any progress towards Middle East peace; he could well be the president who saw 30 years of painful progress collapse on his watch.

The White House failed so badly and so publicly because it never quite grasped the dynamics of the conflict.  Two ideas seem to have dominated its approach to the issue: both led to failure.

Don’t Fight With Israel

The first is that the United States should ‘get tough’ on Israel to get an agreement.  Like all truly bad ideas, this one has just enough truth in it to make it superficially attractive.  Israel is more likely to make concessions in a peace negotiation led by the United States than on its own, and American peace negotiators need to find ways to facilitate Israeli flexibility.  It is, therefore, true that at some point in successful negotiations, Americans will need to convince the Israelis to sign onto ideas that they initially don’t like.

There is, however, a large gap between nudging Israel toward a final agreement and trying to improve America’s strength in the negotiating process by distancing ourselves from the Jewish state early on.  The Obama team seems to have acted on the assumption that the close US-Israel relationship was a problem for America’s peacemaking efforts.

Wrong.  America’s great advantage as a peacemaker flows from our special relationship with Israel.  Israel trusts America more than it trusts any other power; as long as that is true it will be more forthcoming in American-led negotiations than in any other forum.  America can get Israel to make more concessions than anybody else — but that power derives from the confidence Israel has in our backing.  The Arabs value the US because we can get Israel to agree to compromises they can’t get on their own; our special relationship with Israel is not an obstacle to US outreach to Palestinians — it is the key to our ability to work with them.  After all, there are plenty of countries in Europe and elsewhere who sympathize with the Palestinians.  All of them are worthless as mediators because the Israelis don’t listen to them.

The Obama administration got this exactly wrong.  The responsible officials seem to have thought that the United States could force concessions down Israel’s throat.  Believing that, the administration made the fatefully foolish decision to make a public demand that Israel freeze all settlement activity in order to advance the new peace process.  The hope was that this would so endear us to the Palestinians that they would trust the US more and be more willing to compromise on key demands of their own.

That flopped.  President Obama does not and never did have the power to make Israel deliver the total freeze he unwisely commanded.  (I happen to believe that such a freeze would be a smart move on Israel’s part — but what I think and you think isn’t the issue.  It’s what the Israeli government thinks that counts.)  This had an entirely predictable result: once President Obama demanded a full construction freeze the Palestinians could ask for no less.  When he inevitably and predictably failed to get the Israelis to accept this unrealistic demand he looked weak and the Palestinians had no real negotiating options left.

The damage to US power and prestige is real and ongoing.  There is no percentage for an Israeli Prime Minister in making President Obama look good; now Israel is likely to take a tougher line when the Obama administration asks it for help than it normally would.

That isn’t just a problem for US-Israel relations.  An American administration that can’t get concessions from Israel is a worthless mediator from a Palestinian point of view.  The White House’s failure to manage the US-Israel relationship soured rather than sweetened relations with the Palestinian Authority.  In trying to reach out to the Arabs by dissing the Israelis, the White House lost ground with both sides.

President Obama’s effort to make peace by pushing Israel forced the Palestinians onto a more radical course.  Not only is the PA President Mahmoud Abbas publicly dissing Obama as a weakling and an untrustworthy partner; Fatah has chosen to sign onto a reconciliation agreement with Hamas even as Hamas’ leader in Gaza attacks the US and defends bin Laden.  Trying to cozy up to the Palestinians by cold-shouldering Israel got the United States nothing: no affection, cooperation or respect from the Palestinians, and no concessions from Israel.

There are signs that the White House increasingly regrets this error.  The increased prominence of longtime negotiator Dennis Ross (once attacked by the ‘realists’ who thought distancing the US from Israel would enhance our position) suggests that President Obama wants to change course.  That is a good sign, but valuable time has already been lost and it will take more time to rebuild the kind of relationship with Israel that can make the Obama administration an effective peacemaker.

Forget Northern Ireland

The second big mistake the White House made was symbolized by the appointment of George Mitchell as mediator based on his (well deserved) success in Northern Ireland.  The belief that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is in some useful way similar to the Protestant-Catholic dispute in Northern Ireland is widespread in both the American and British establishments.  It is a snare and a delusion and it is one of the reasons that so much energy and effort has had so few positive results over so much time.

The Northern Ireland parallel has enormous Establishment appeal.  In Northern Ireland there were two radical fringes: Protestant and Catholic.  Peacemaking there involved promoting economic growth, moderate policies that removed the greatest grievances of the Catholics while maintaining the safeguards most Protestants wanted and deepening the cooperation between two friendly democratic governments — Britain and Ireland.  It was hard and it took a long time, but the path was clear, and with patience and determination peace (still a bit fragile, but real) could take hold.

In Northern Ireland, there was a clearly identifiable, win-win solution that, while it didn’t satisfy all the demands of either community, made just about everybody in both communities better off.  The job of the negotiators was to cajole enough of the radicals in both communities into making the necessary compromises to get to win-win.

Unfortunately, the situation in Israel and the Territories is not nearly so promising.  Any conceivable peace deal will create too many bitter losers (Palestinians who can’t go ‘home’ to pre-1967 Israel and Israeli settlers who will have to give up their homes and their ‘Greater Israel’ dream) to work as easily and smoothly as the compromise in Northern Ireland.  Nobody gave up a home in Northern Ireland; nobody was stuck in a refugee camp.

The concepts and the methods that worked in Northern Ireland won’t work in the Middle East.  Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and George Mitchell all went into the Middle East with the idea that the Northern Ireland experience could guide them to success;  all of them failed.

The similarities between the Northern Irish conflict and the Israel-Palestine fight are superficial; the differences are deep and profound.  First, both of the nationalist movements in Israel-Palestine are expansionist and unsatisfied.  In Ireland, the Ulster Protestants just wanted to keep what they had; they didn’t want to build new settlements in Dublin and Cork and they didn’t want the restoration of British rule across the whole island. In Israel, there are many people who think that the Zionist task is unfinished until the entire land is redeemed.  On the Palestinian side, there are also many people who think the 1949 boundaries are wrong; they want the whole thing back, not just the West Bank and Gaza.

The gap between the two communities is almost infinitely wider in the Middle East than in Northern Ireland, and the status quo is genuinely intolerable to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.  Those living in refugee camps on the West Bank, almost everyone in Gaza and Palestinians in Lebanon and elsewhere have problems that a two-state solution won’t solve.  The Northern Ireland peace process held out the hope for better lives for almost everyone involved; many Palestinians do not see a two state agreement with Israel as something that will make their lives better.

Second, the international community was strongly and unambiguously in favour of peace in Northern Ireland.  The Irish weren’t secretly funding radical and rejectionist nationalist terror groups.  Iceland and Denmark weren’t funding Irish terrorists to advance their own agendas.  France wasn’t encouraging the IRA to fight on as a way of containing Britain.  Catholics around the world weren’t demonstrating and raising money for Irish annexation of Ulster; the Pope wasn’t issuing encyclicals affirming the religious duty of Catholics to fight to kick the heretics out.  (A few grizzled US-based Irish emigrants raised money for the IRA, but this is nothing compared to what groups like Hamas get from abroad.)  The European Union wasn’t condemning British war crimes in Ulster and passing resolutions in favour of Irish grievances.

The EU, the US, Ireland, the Vatican and Britain all wanted the troubles to stop.  None of them were willing to help troublemakers.  All of them were willing to crack down on terrorist groups.  Ireland and Britain both wanted better relations with each other more than they wanted to help either side win an advantage in Northern Ireland.  The Irish government thought the IRA was a group of embarrassing throwbacks; the British thought the same thing about the Ulster hardliners.

No such consensus exists in the Middle East.  Radical factions among the Palestinians can count on political, economic and military support from many outside powers who want to keep this dispute on the boil for reasons of their own.

Third, the conflict in Ireland was contained by a network of effective governments and strong institutions.  In the Republic of Ireland the Irish had a well functioning state with two generations of successful independence behind it.  The Irish government was not worried about its ability to maintain power in the event of a political or military challenge from radical factions in Sinn Fein.  It could make and enforce decisions based on the consent of its people through a democratic process.  Ditto on the Ulster side, where Great Britain, despite its difficulties, never lost the ability to contain the violence of the Protestant side.

The Palestinians are more deeply divided over their best course of action than the Irish ever were — and they lack the institutions and experience that allowed the Republic of Ireland both to accept the partition of the island and to enforce peace on the radical minority who wanted to continue the ancient struggle with Britain for a united, republican Eire.

Finally, those who think the Israeli-Palestinian struggle mirrors the Irish problem believe that the moderate middle on both sides is strong enough to bring about and defend a compromise peace.  There must, many negotiators believe, be some way to draw the boundaries and set the terms for a two state solution that will win the support of enough people on both sides so that the peace agreement takes hold.  The split-the-difference negotiating strategy that we have tried for so long with so little success logically follows from this belief.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been true for 100 years in the Middle East and it isn’t true today.   Hamas isn’t rejecting the two state solution and the legitimacy of Israel because Hamas is blind to Palestinian sentiment.  Hamas understands that its hawkish position is vital to its political support in Gaza.  On the West Bank, Palestinians are divided.  Some are refugees and dream only of a return to their ancestral homes in contemporary Israel.  But many others have always lived on the West Bank and still live on the farms and in the homes where their families have lived for generations.

In Gaza, just about everyone is a refugee.  A two state solution that leaves them in refugee camps in the desert doesn’t feel like a constructive, win-win compromise.  It feels like bitter and total defeat.

Arafat and Fatah began to lose support in Gaza as soon as public opinion realised that Arafat was exploring the option of a settlement with Israel that gave up the right of return.  Even today, Palestinian negotiators who understand perfectly well that at most a very small number of Palestinians will ever regain lost property in Israel cannot publicly admit what they know.
It’s All About Refugees

No matter what pieces of paper Palestinian negotiators sign, many Palestinians will reject a two state solution that doesn’t offer a full right of return.  Those Palestinians will enjoy financial and political support from countries like Iran, and radical factions and governments throughout the world who see an advantage in keeping this dispute alive.

In Northern Ireland the radical minority that wants to continue fighting is small, isolated and easily marginalized.  In the Middle East the radicals are more numerous and better connected.  Violence against Israel will continue no matter how many agreements are signed and how many photo ops are held on the White House lawn.

This doesn’t mean that the US should give up on the peace process.  But it means that to succeed we have to accept that peace is still far away.  There will be no peace in the Middle East until a workable solution is found for the human problems of the Palestinian people.  Part of this involves an independent Palestinian state including the West Bank and Gaza; part of it includes compensation for Palestinian refugees (and for Jews forced out of their homes throughout the Arab world by mob violence and government decree after 1948); part of it includes the resettlement of Gazans and stateless Palestinian refugees from countries like Lebanon, Syria and beyond where even today Palestinians lack passports and full legal rights.  Part of it will involve the increasing isolation and marginalization of the shrinking minority of Palestinians who reject terms that the rest of the world (including more and more Muslims) recognises as reasonably just.  Part of it will come from pressure on governments (Syria and Iran for example) who consciously try to block peace: too many foreign powers and political groups feed on Palestinian misery and anger.

None of this means turning on Israel.  The refugee problem in the Middle East is not solely or even primarily Israel’s fault, and Israel can’t solve it.  No amount of pressure on Israel can solve the Palestinian refugee problem; Israel cannot and will not take them back and this has been clear for 60 years.

If anybody is to blame for the refugee mess, it is the United Nations and the ‘world community’.  When the British gave up their League of Nations mandate over Palestine and returned it to UN jurisdiction, the UN failed in its duty to protect both Arabs and Jews.  The war that broke out between Palestinians and Israelis and that created the refugee problem was a consequence of the UN’s failure to ensure an orderly implementation of the partition plan it approved.  Had the Arabs won the war there would have been a massive Jewish refugee problem as desperate Jews fled from or were expelled by advancing Arab armies; when the Israelis won the war it was the Arabs who fled and/or were expelled.

We cannot have peace in the Middle East without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.  It may be that the refugees (and their descendants: it has been more than 60 years since the Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes) will not accept any settlement that the world is willing or able to make.  If they don’t, however, the conflict will not come to an end.

So far, there is no sign that the Obama administration is ready to face this painful truth.  Israel is 63 years old; for two thirds of that time (since Henry Kissinger initiated ‘shuttle diplomacy’ after the 1973 war) the US has been trying to make peace without coming to grips with the refugee issue.  After 40 years of failure, perhaps it is time to try something new.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.