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The Pretense of the Peace Process

Walter Russell Mead

Kevin Drum has an important short post—titled “There Will Never* Be an Israel-Palestinian Peace Settlement“—up at Mother Jones on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that’s worth your time. (Click through for an explanation of the asterisk.)

Drum is right that the conditions are simply not right now for a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and that it is delusional to argue otherwise. Drum is also correct that neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama had a real chance to negotiate an agreement. And he’s correct, too, that the UN resolution on settlements isn’t worth the trouble of reading. It’s also interesting to see that at least one writer on the Left remains, if only “marginally”, on Israel’s side. The peace process has been more of a diplomatic fig leaf than an actual movement towards any kind of possible agreement for many years now. That’s unfortunate for both Israelis and Palestinians, but it’s a reality.

That said, it’s not a bad thing that politicians refer to the peace process and do what they can to keep the idea of a two state solution alive. Israelis, Palestinians, Arab leaders and the United States all have something to gain from at least paying lip service to the idea. But the problem comes when somebody like John Kerry makes the mistake of thinking that he has the talent and the wisdom to achieve what others have failed at in the past. The amount of time and energy that American diplomacy wasted on futile and doomed efforts to get a peace that neither the Israelis nor the Palesitnians really want right now is mind-blowing—especially when one thinks of all the other world problems that got worse in the last four years.

The incoming Trump team, like every administration before it, shows signs of Middle East peace hubris. Everybody wants to cut the Gordian knot; everybody wants to get the deal that nobody else could put together. Clinton, Bush and Obama all tried and failed, and at times their dogged quest for a solution undermined America’s real interests in the region and beyond.

For the U.S., the right path is to support Israel, to recognize the Palestinian right to self determination, to push both sides toward direct negotiations and to be as helpful as we can when and if the possibility of real peace begins to approach. As friends, we can and should remonstrate with the Israelis when they move toward actions not in their long term interest as we understand it. But to be effective, those conversations need to be part of a relationship of confidence and trust. The Palestinians have to understand that the rest of the world cannot and will not indefinitely protect them from the consequences of their own divisions and political failures. Nevertheless, they should be helped when and if they want it to build a new kind of future-oriented politics based on the art of the possible.

The pretense that the peace process has survived from the hopeful years of the early 90s is a form of self-delusion. In fact, the Palestinians rejected the possibility of peace in the 1990s just as they rejected much more favorable plans in the late 1940s and the 1930s. Over and over again the solution that one generation contemptuously rejects becomes the utopia that its children long for. Those who say that the possibility for the two-state solution is fading are not all wrong; Israel is getting stronger and the Palestinians keep getting weaker, and as that happens their bargaining position grows worse.

For security reasons, nationalistic reasons, and religious reasons, many Israelis want the settlement process to continue. The Palestinians are powerless to stop it, and it gets harder every year for the Palestinians and their allies to slow it down. Facts on the ground are being created day by day, and those facts will inevitably play a role in future negotiations. What the Palestinians desperately need is to reach the best agreement they still can, and the terms will be worse ten years from now than they are today.

The odds are that the Palestinians will be unable to pull themselves together in this crisis just as they have so often failed in the past. For more than 100 years, the political incompetence of Palestinian leadership and the unorganized, fractured state of Palestinian society have been the secret weapon of the Zionist movement. That remains the case today.

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