America Should Exit the Middle East Peace Negotiations
When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas torpedoed the latest round of Israeli/Palestinian peace talks by an eleventh-hour escalation of demands, he not only undermined the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry to bring peace to the troubled region, but he also abrogated agreements that he signed recently and that his predecessor Yasser Arafat inked at Oslo.
Both Abbas’s demands and timing were so outrageous that Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni, who has been roundly criticized for her alacrity to embrace Palestinian demands, expressed her disgust by warning that if Abbas can take unilateral action in disregard of prior agreements, so too will Israel.
And so, the well-intentioned John Kerry not only failed to produce anything resembling peace, he inadvertently escalated the conflict.
Kerry can be criticized for his inept conduct of the negotiations by publicly putting unrelenting pressure on Israel for concessions while bending to Palestinian demands. But ineptitude should not be confused with bad intent. There is no doubt that the secretary of state genuinely believed that peace was possible, even if he failed to learn the greatest lesson Henry Kissinger taught about peace negotiations: real negotiations can only be conducted when removed from the distortions of the camera’s lens.
Kissinger held two sets of negotiations during the Paris peace talks that ended the Vietnam War, one that was highly public and meaningless and another that was held in secret.
The worst thing that Kerry now can do is to crave Abbas’s return to the negotiating table, and judging from Kerry’s past performance that well might be his next move. If so, it will teach Abbas that his bipolar approach to the process might produce more tangible short-run results than a peace treaty.
Despite President Barack Obama’s adulation of Abbas as a man that has always stood for peace, Abbas’s behavior is hardly commensurate with Obama’s praise. Abbas demanded as a condition to the negotiations that hundreds, now thousands, of Palestinian prisoners with innocent blood on their hands be released from Israeli prisons.
When they are, they are lionized with effusive praise, held up as role models to Palestinian children, celebrated with public projects named after them, and rewarded with cash bonuses.
Abbas himself is allegedly covered in blood, the blood of the eleven Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Munich Olympiad. Abu Daoud, the mastermind of the Munich massacre, tells us that Mahmoud Abbas raised the money that made Munich possible.
Then there is the difficult question of whom and what Abbas represents. He is now serving the tenth year of a term that expired six years ago. His political base, the Fatah organization, only controls the West Bank. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which neither recognizes Abbas’s leadership nor the legitimacy of the peace talks.
John Kerry keeps alluding to a two state solution, but Abbas controls only half of the Palestinian political entity. Even if Abbas did reach an agreement with Israel, Hamas would not support it, and they would view Abbas as having committed treason. Abbas would become a man with a target on his back.
In any event, Abbas is not going to be the Palestinian who gave up the right of the refugees to return or the Muslim who gave away Jerusalem.
On the other side, it is doubtful that the Israelis will further compromise their lack of strategic depth by yielding the Jordan Valley or the high ground in Judea. And no Israeli government that gave up the holy places, as Abbas demands, would last a week in power.
Political problems are not like linear algebra. There is not always a solution. Sometimes the status quo, as awful is it is, is more preferable to both sides than the conceivable outcomes that would result in a deal.
There is no shame in America seeking peace under difficult circumstances. Yet, America, in reality, no longer has a strong interest in the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is merely a sideshow among more important world problems.
We have left Iraq, are leaving Afghanistan, and historically our interest in the Middle East has basically revolved around oil. With new technologies, we are once again going to move decisively from importing raw energy products to exporting those products.
Our policies in Syria, Egypt, and Libya have exacerbated crises and been shown to be based on the most naïve assumptions, devoid of any true understanding of the relationship between the culture of the Islamic world, statecraft, and warfare.
John Kerry tried. We should applaud his intentions, if not his competence. It is time for him to stay home. America should not risk any more of its prestige on an impossible task.
When the negotiator has more skin in the game than either of the players, it is time for the negotiator to leave. Let the players themselves decide their own future, and if they cannot or will not, it is because the status quo is not entirely to their disliking.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati. He has taught at the University of California, Davis and the University of Illinois, Urbana.