by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
October 14, 2009
NOTE: This column is available through the New York Times Syndicate. For permission to reprint it, please contact email@example.com or call 800-535-4425.
“WHOM THE GODS WOULD DESTROY,” the late Irving Kristol once observed, “they first tempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Maybe “destroy” was putting it a bit strongly, but there is no denying that American presidents seem irresistibly drawn to the belief that they can succeed where others have failed and conjure a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab enemies. This diplomacy has gone by various names — Oslo, the Roadmap, Camp David, and so on — but time and again it has led not to the end of the conflict but to its intensification.
In his memoirs, former President Bill Clinton describes Yasser Arafat’s refusal to accept the extraordinarily generous terms for a permanent settlement offered by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000. That refusal led to a Palestinian terror war, the bloody Second Intifada, and when Arafat called Clinton in January 2001 to tell him what a great man he was, Clinton was bitter. “I am not a great man,” he told Arafat. “I am a failure, and you have made me one.”
Of course, if Clinton was a failure so were the two George Bushes. Each made it his goal to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, each convened a grand international conference for that purpose (Bush 41 in Madrid, Bush 43 in Annapolis), and each left the situation worse than he had found it.
In his first nine months as president, Barack Obama has shown every sign of succumbing to the same temptation. Two days after moving in to the White House, he named George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, his special envoy to the region. He pressured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into endorsing a “two-state solution.” He declared that “the moment is now for us to act” to achieve peace in the Middle East.
Unlike his recent predecessors, Obama has gone out of his way to signal a distinct coolness toward Israel and its interests. At a White House meeting with the leaders of American Jewish organizations in July, he suggested that because there had been “no daylight” between Israel and the United States when George W. Bush was president, there had been “no progress” toward peace.
In fact, there had often been “daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem during the Bush years. There had been plenty of movement too, from the adoption of the Roadmap to the Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza to the final-status negotiations that followed the Annapolis conference.
Still: Obama was right when he said there had been no progress toward Arab-Israeli peace under Bush. Nor had there been any under Clinton. Nor, as things stand now, will there be any under Obama.
Why? Because the “peace process” to which all of them, their sharp differences notwithstanding, have been so committed is not a formula for ending the decades-long war in the Holy Land, but for prolonging it.
Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands at the White House in September 1993, launching the Oslo “peace process.” What resulted was not peace but an intensified war.
In an important article in the current Middle East Quarterly, Daniel Pipes reviews the terrible failure of the 1993 Oslo accords, and homes in on the root fallacy of the diplomatic approach it embodied: the belief that the Arab-Israeli war can “be concluded through goodwill, conciliation, mediation, flexibility, restraint, generosity, and compromise, topped off with signatures on official documents.” For 16 years, Israeli governments, prodded by Washington, have sought to quench Palestinian hostility with concessions and gestures of goodwill. Yet peace today is more elusive than ever.
“Wars end not through goodwill but through victory,” Pipes writes, defining victory as one side compelling the other to give up its war goals. Since 1948, the Arabs’ goal has been the elimination of Israel; the Israelis’, to win their neighbors’ acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East. “If the conflict is to end, one side must lose and one side win,” argues Pipes. “Either there will be no more Zionist state or it will be accepted by its neighbors.”
Diplomacy cannot settle the Arab-Israeli conflict until the Palestinians abandon their anti-Israel rejectionism. US policy should be focused, therefore, on getting them to abandon it. The Palestinians must be put “on notice that benefits will flow to them only after they prove their acceptance of Israel. Until then — no diplomacy, no discussion of final status, no recognition as a state, and certainly no financial aid or weapons.”
So long as American and Israeli leaders remain committed to a fruitless Arab-Israeli “peace process,” Arab-Israeli peace will remain unachievable. Let the newest Nobel peace laureate grasp and act upon that insight, and he may do more to genuinely hasten the conflict’s end than any of his well-meaning predecessors.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)