Is ‘Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace’ Possible?

By James Zogby in Washington

This month, the US Institute for Peace released “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East,” a report that examined US peace-making efforts over the past four decades.

The study group, headed by Daniel Kurtzer (former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel), met during 2006-2007 and interviewed over 100 officials and experts from seven countries and three international organisations.

The main body of the report is a concise and precise look at successes and failures, and strengths and weaknesses of the past three administrations’ efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. It concludes by detailing ten lessons learned and outlining recommendations based on those lessons to guide the next administration.

The examination of Washington’s peacemaking efforts during the past three administrations begins with a largely positive assessment of “Bush 41,” crediting President George H.W. Bush for “having the clearest sense of strategy,” which he pursued “in a highly disciplined, effective and committed manner.”

Bush and secretary of state James Baker are praised for understanding and taking advantage of the opportunities that flowed from the end of the cold war and the end of the first Gulf War, and moving aggressively, with balanced pressure, to convene the Madrid peace conference. On the other hand, the major weakness of “Bush 41,” pointed to in the report, was his “failure to build a strong coalition at home to support [his] strategy.” It was the combination of this failure, and the distraction of his re-election effort in 1992 that caused the Bush administration to lose focus on its peacemaking efforts.

In spite of this, the report notes that the Clinton administration “inherited an ideal strategic environment for peacemaking.” Noting that President Bill Clinton more effectively built a domestic support base for his peacemaking efforts, he was, however, “less disciplined and less strategic than his predecessor.”

Specifically, the report noted that the Clinton team “failed to understand and deal with key asymmetries in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. While the US paid attention to Israeli security requirements, less attention was devoted to Palestinian political requirements. The US did not find a way to compensate for Palestinian political weakness. This was the first time in history a people under occupation was expected to negotiate its own way out of occupation while at the same time creating a viable, democratic and independent state.”

The report notes that Clinton did not personally become directly involved in negotiations until late in his second term, and did not put forward his own peace plan until his last month in office. This was, of course, too late to make a difference

It is George W. Bush’s administration that receives the greatest criticism, the authors noting that “his approach to the conflict lacked both commitment and a sense of strategic purpose.” This, they suggest, was due to the fact that too many of the president’s advisors dismissed the importance of Middle East peace, placing greater emphasis on their “regime change” and democratisation agendas.

When Bush did become involved, however, it was mostly at the rhetorical level, with little or no follow through. Plans were announced and mediators were dispatched in succession, ignored and undercut, and then dropped. To some degree, this contributed to a widespread belief that the administration’s efforts lacked seriousness.

The result of this mismanagement and/or neglect has negatively affected not only Israelis and Palestinians but also the US diplomacy in the broader region, and public attitudes towards the US itself. This, the authors lament, makes it imperative for the next administration to early and aggressively reengage Middle East peacemaking.

Following this critical review of the past, “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East” goes on to list a number of important lessons which must be heeded by any future administration. Several of them, while viewed as obvious to many analysts of the conflict, have been ignored for too long by US policy makers.

They are three:

1 – “Arab-Israeli peacemaking is in our national interest: September 11, Iraq, and increasing instability in the Middle East have made US leadership in the peace process more, not less, important. The president needs to indicate that the peace process is a priority and ensure that the administration acts accordingly.”

2 – “US policy must never be defined anywhere but in Washington. Consultations with the parties must take place and policy revisions based on these consultations are inevitable, but our policy must be seen as our own.”

3 – “The peace process has moved beyond incrementalism and must aim for endgame solutions. This not only requires US leadership to help the parties make the necessary trade-offs on core issues, but also a commitment to an expanded diplomatic approach that involves key international and regional actors.”

“Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East” provides both a useful history and thoughtful analysis with which one can find little disagreement.

My concern, however, is that it comes too late. After decades of failed policy and deteriorating conditions on the ground, the Arab-Israeli arena is plagued by entrenched new realities, hardened attitudes that combine to make peace more difficult. With an Israeli wall snaking through the West Bank, settlements dominating the landscape, and Gaza and Jerusalem engulfed and strangled by the occupation, how can the back of this intransigence and sense of entitlement be broken?

And with the Palestinian Authority weakened and, in the eyes of many, discredited, a provocative Hamas in control of Gaza, and Palestinians desperate and angry, how to break the back of extremism and despair?

It may be possible. But not by conducting “business as usual.” “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East” must be followed by a very determined president willing to use pressure and politics not only to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, but also to transform US, Israeli and Palestinian attitudes—building a new consensus that recognises the necessity and benefits of Middle East peace.

It will not be easy. But it must be done now or, in short order, it will be too late.

-Dr. James J. Zogby is founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI).

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