The Peace Process Obsession

A Review of Tested by Zion, by Elliot Abrams, Cambridge Press

It is 20 years since the start of the Oslo Peace Process, and this is where things stand:

  • 1. Hamas, a terrorist group committed to the elimination of the state of Israel through violent resistance and the murder of Jews, is in control of Gaza, which it seized from Fatah, Yassar Arafat's Party, in a short war in 2007. Israel has twice (in 2008 and 2012) been forced to launch major operations to stop increasingly sophisticated and frequent rocket fire from Gaza aimed at its towns and cities.
  • 2. In the North, Iran has rearmed Hezb'allah, a Shiite terror group, through deliveries of weapons to Syria, then carried across the border into Lebanon. Despite a UN resolution that accompanied the end of the Israeli operation against Hezb'allah in 2006, which called for an international force and the Lebanese army taking up positions to prevent Hezb'allah from reoccupying the south of Lebanon , the group is now better equipped and more of a threat to Israel than before the 2006 war. The Lebanese government is effectively controlled by Hezb'allah.
  • 3. The Palestinian Authority has a President who is now serving the 8th year of a 4 year term, and its legislative body has not been in session for years since Hamas won an easy victory in the last elections. The Palestinian Authority is broke, relying almost totally on foreign money, mainly from the United States and the Europeans, to pay an enormous public work force. Corruption still abounds, including the lining of the pockets of the PA President's family.
  • 4. We have had the Oslo Accord, the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Hebron accord, the Wye River agreement, the Roadmap, and the Annapolis conference. Three times, in 2000 at Camp David, in 2001 at Taba, and in 2008 in direct talks between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the Israelis have made far reaching offers to the Palestinian authority for an end of conflict deal. Every such offer was rejected or ignored. After Camp David, Yassar Arafat launched a vicious second intifada that resulted in over a thousand deaths on each side, in Israel mainly from suicide bombers blowing themselves up in buses and schools and restaurants. Neither Arafat nor Abbas was willing to sign off on a deal that would end the Palestinian struggle against Israel, a long war that has always been defined by what it is against (Israel) , rather than what it is for (presumably a Palestinian state next to Israel) .
  • 5. Israel disengaged from Gaza and a few West Bank towns, pulling out all Israeli residents and soldiers. Israel constructed a security fence to prevent terrorists from slipping into Israel from the territories. After a string of high casualty terror attacks in the spring of 2002, Israel took back control of several cities in the territories. Over time, it pulled back from them.
  • 6. The government of Egypt has fallen, and the Muslim Brotherhood has taken power. The MB has always been closely aligned with Hamas. Syria is in the midst of a bloody civil war, with nearly 70,000 now killed. Barack Obama chose not to get the U.S involved when we might have had some influence with the groups challenging Bashar Assad. Now the resistance is led by Sunni terrorists, some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda. Oh, and Iran has continued on its merry path to obtaining nuclear weapons.
  • 7. Through it all, the peace processors working for Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama have soldiered on, certain that they knew what the final deal between the Israelis and Palestinians must look like, and in the end counting on rational people on both sides agreeing to it. They have proclaimed that resolving the Israeli Palestinian conflict is the key to resolving most of what ails the region, and to improving U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world. Above all, the peace processors were and are convinced that the major obstacle preventing a deal between the parties, or even the start of serious talks, were "Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank". This canard has been repeated despite the fact that Israel has created no new settlements, nor expanded the land area of existing settlements for a number of years. There has been construction activity within settlements (more accurately described as towns and cities), but after all, couples have children, they grow up and want their own homes, more people have moved to these communities, and so on. Israel has offered various "settlement freezes at times, none of which have been enough for the Palestinian Authority, and in some cases, the American President or his negotiator.

Elliot Abrams, who worked in the office of the National Security Council in the White House in the Bush years, has provided  a valuable history of the 8 years of peace processing by the Bush administration.  Abrams' history reveals that contrary to the established wisdom, the Bush administration was heavily engaged in the Israeli Palestinian conflict for its entire 8 years in office.  Abrams' tale is far more thoughtful, serious and readable,  than the multi pound tome written by Dennis Ross to describe the peace processing in the Clinton years, a tale in which Ross describes pretty much every move to and from the dining halls, restrooms, and clothing closets by the key participants, but seems to have learned almost nothing from the failure of the Oslo process. That failure was capped by the walkout by Yassar Arafat from Camp David,  and led to his creating the second intifada to change the subject from his rejectionism to the always preferred Palestinian narrative of resistance and  suffering. 

Abrams makes clear that he thinks the Bush administration got some things right, but also made some errors, in particular mistakes in judgment, policy, and communication by Condoleeza Rice after she moved over from the NSC to run the State Department in Bush's second term.  Abrams says President Bush got it right when he broke off U.S relations with Yassar Arafat, the multi decade terror master who never really changed his ways after Israel allowed  him and his Fatah allies to return to the West Bank from Tunisia after the signing of the Oslo accord.  Bill Clinton hosted Arafat 13 times at the White House, but by the end of his term in office, Clinton was bitter at Arafat, knowing he had individually sabotaged Clinton's best efforts at peacemaking and gone back to what he knew best: terror attacks designed to kill Jews.

Bush tried to prop up Abbas as an alternative, and after Arafat's death, Abbas took control of the Palestinian Authority. But Abbas changed only a few things. Corruption continued, there was no real effort to disarm terror groups, and the incendiary treatment of Israel and Jews in Palestinian media and schools continued.   When Secretary of State Rice became obsessed about getting a final deal done before Bush's second term ended, Abbas rejected (or did not respond) to the final offer from lame duck Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.  Rice, who had very good relations with Ariel Sharon, was often sharply hostile to Olmert and his aides, beginning with the war with Hezb'allah in the summer of 2006.  Rice seemed to get State Department-ized after she made the move from the NSC, an affliction that has hit others with the move into Foggy Bottom, with its cobwebs of  long time Israel haters and Arab sympathizers filling the ranks.

Abrams also argues that Bush understood that Israel's flexibility in negotiations was directly linked to its sense of the strength and warmth of its relations with the United States. Sharon agreed to disengage from Gaza, but only after Bush released his 2004 letter that tacitly agreed to Israel retaining major settlement blocks in any final agreement  and that the U.S supported Israel in its position that there would be no right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.  Barack Obama got it completely wrong, when he argued that the failure to get a deal done during the Bush years (when Bush was friendly to and supportive of Israel) proved that you needed distance and separation between Israel and the U.S. and American pressure on Israel in order to make progress. Obama's miscalculation has ignored the Palestinian unwillingness for most of the past 20 years  to  negotiate, and when they have come to the table,  to book what Israel offers, and move on to new demands of Israel, never offering any compromises in its position.  To those who argue that "the negotiation window is closing" or the "time for achieving a two state solution is disappearing," the history of the last 20 years suggests the Palestinian have never been enamored enough by a two state solution to really try to achieve it.

Abrams suggests that there is no deal on the horizon, and the PA is not nearly ready to run its own state.  Rather, he suggests working on the ground -- to improve mobility within the territories, to improving the economy, to strengthening the PA's security forces. These were also the recommendations of Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority and its finance minister, who believed that the desperate attempt to reach final status deals, often in the closing days of U.S Presidential administrations, was a misguided long shot, when the real effort needed to be made in smaller steps that improved the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

I hope that the President, and John Kerry will take a look at Abrams' book before they begin to repeat the mistakes of the past and resume the effort at "peace processing."