Western governments, experts, and journalists have long assumed that an Israel-Palestinian or comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement ending the conflict was near at hand and easily achieved. In fact, the truth is the exact opposite. Indeed, there has not been any real “peace process” or real chance for a diplomatic solution since the Palestinian leadership rejected a deal in 2000. This article examines the factors that, on one hand, make the “peace process” deceased and, on the other hand, inhibit recognition of the fact that a formal Israel-Palestinian peace that ends the conflict is unlikely for many years to come.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more /
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
–William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act III, Scene I
We demand of everyone to push ahead with reconciliation [between Fatah and Hamas] and to end the state of division, so that we will be able to stand against the occupation, to halt its activities against our prisoners, and to turn to the struggle for the liberation of Palestine–all of Palestine. — PA Minister of Social Affairs Majida al-Masri (a moderate in PA terms), al-Hayat al-Jadida, March 9, 2012
Mr. Praline: That parrot is definitely deceased, and when I purchased it not half an hour ago, you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it being tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk.
Owner: Well, he’s…ah…probably pining for the fjords.
Mr. Praline: Pining for the fjords?… Why did he fall flat on his back the moment I got him home?
Owner: The Norwegian Blue prefers keeping on its back!…
Mr. Praline: ….I discovered the only reason that it had been sitting on its perch in the first place was that it had been nailed there!
–Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Dead Parrot Sketch
The key to understanding the Middle East is to recognize when things change. Alongside the “Arab Spring,” the Turkish campaign to be a regional power, and Iran’s drive to get nuclear weapons is another important development that is, internationally at least, the least recognized of all: Any hope for Israel-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli peace agreements ending the conflict is dead. There is no more “peace process;” or if you prefer, the possibility of a formal Israel-Palestinian peace that ends the conflict is dormant for a long historical era.
Western, especially European, political leaders, intellectuals, and journalists simply do not in most cases grasp this reality. A fantasy continues to direct their policies, writings, and much of the debate. Yet it is vital to understand that this is a fantasy, why that is so, and how policies should be adjusted in the face of these circumstances.
This article will examine the psychological and structural factors that, on one hand, make the “peace process” deceased and, on the other hand, inhibit recognition of that reality.
THE MODEL THAT DOES NOT WORK
Even if it is not fully articulated, the narrative of the Israel-Palestinian conflict widely accepted in the West is prevalent largely because it is taken as corresponding with the historical experiences of Western states on other issues. A nationalist movement develops among a people ruled by others; they engage in political activity and violence, but the situation is eventually settled by giving them the state they crave.
Precisely, it is because they so passionately want a state of their own they are willing to make compromises to get it. A comprehensive treaty is signed and implemented, peace prevails, Nobel prizes are handed around to the architects of the agreement, and everyone lives happily ever after. This description is not meant to be sarcastic. This formula has indeed worked on many occasions and resolved many disputes. The problem is that it does not match the Israel-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflict cases. To pretend otherwise requires statesmen, experts, and journalists to ignore huge swathes of facts and factors, thus ensuring both failure and an inability to understand the events actually taking place in the region.
In this model, the existing problem is due to a dispute over territory in which one side, Israel, has won, and the other side has lost. Yet both sides thus have a strong incentive to resolve the problem. Israel wants peace and an end to the conflict and terrorism, to secure its existence, and enjoy the benefits that would accrue as a result of having normal relations with its neighbors.
In parallel, the Palestinians are suffering from Israeli occupation, lower living standards, and violence. Their lives are miserable. Naturally they want to find a way out of this situation as quickly as possible.
Similarly, since they are a nationalist movement, the way out is the establishment of a Palestinian state that will exist on part of the disputed territory coupled with total peace between the two sides. That outcome would solve their problems: national self-expression, self-rule, the development of their own economy, the in-gathering of refugees, and consequent peace and prosperity.
In the abstract, and compared to various other situations, this analysis makes perfect sense. The problem is that it has not happened despite numerous opportunities to meet this goal. Why then is there failure to achieve such an obviously beneficial solution? Again, the answer seems apparent. The winning side, Israel, basically has what it wants. It has controlled the territory; it is stronger and more prosperous, and some political forces in Israel are known to have wanted to keep the territory. Consequently, Israel must be responsible for the failure to achieve peace, because it is content with the status quo and demands too much in any agreement.
With this analysis, the policy needed is also clear. Outside forces must push constantly to move ahead quickly and the Palestinians can be expected to cooperate fully since they are in a hurry to improve their situation. Israel must be made to take risks and make concessions. If, however, it does so, Israel will be rewarded by peace and stability. If Israelis do not see this, they must be saved in spite of themselves–punished for their own good so to speak.
In the radical version of this narrative, Israel is evil and should not exist at all. Yet the version that dominates Western governments and the meaningful political debate on policy, at least since the 1980s and certainly since the early 1990s, simply sees Israel as stubborn and short-sighted. If only the right kind of persuasion is needed, the properly charismatic mediator is found, and a clever gimmick for resolving border or other issues formulated then peace can be quickly achieved.
The problem with this logical, internally consistent model, rooted in Western experience and expectations, is that it does not correspond to the facts. Even worse, it does not work. For in fact, it has been the Palestinians that have rejected proposals that would have given them relief and provided them with a state from the late 1930s, through the 1948 Partition Plan, after their 1967 defeat, in the late 1970s round initiated by Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, during the complex negotiations of the 1980s, and most notably in the 1993-2000 peace process. Today, the Palestinian Authority refuses even to talk seriously with Israel.
This actual history of the attempts to resolve the issue can be twisted or ignored. Yet if it is honestly confronted, the Palestinian refusal to make a deal is apparent. The problem is that this explanation does not match the narrative outlined above. To understand reality, then, a different narrative is required that matches the facts and can be used successfully to predict the future.
THE EVOLUTION OF ISRAEL’S THINKING
Between 1974 and 1992, a debate developed in Israel that peace was possible, that Israel could make it happen through its actions, and that a failure to achieve peace would be largely due to Israeli behavior. The basic points of this argument were:
- Continuation of the occupation endangered Israel’s soul and society through hubris, brutalization, fanatical religiosity, and ambitious nationalism.
- If Israel did not make peace and get rid of the territories as fast as possible, it would be destroyed, though, it is not exactly clear by whom, since its enemies had failed so continually and were weaker than they had been in the past. However, this meant that Israel had to rush to make peace at any price.
- There was a wonderful opportunity to achieve a stable, just, and lasting peace. Merely offer the Palestinians and Arabs a reasonable settlement–particularly a Palestinian state–and a peace agreement would quickly follow.
This way of thinking has long since been discredited by the experiences of the failed peace process and radicalized regional politics. First, Israel withdrew from large portions of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, putting virtually all Palestinians under self-rule. Later, it pulled out of the Gaza Strip completely. There was no more “occupation” as there had been in the 1967-1993 period.
Second, it was discovered that the Palestinians and Syria were not eager for peace. During the peace process era, the hardline propaganda, hate, and intransigence continued virtually uninterrupted on the other side. It became clear that Israel was not threatened by a refusal to take big risks and make concessions; rather the threat came from making deadly arrangements out of good intentions or even a dangerously bad “peace” deal that would leave the country worse off.
Third, most Israelis concluded that they did not want most of the territory captured in 1967. There was an Israeli consensus to keep much of east Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and some small areas of the West Bank along the border. However, in exchange for real peace, they were ready to give up a great deal–100 percent of the Gaza Strip and 95 plus percent of the West Bank.
The same new thinking applied to accepting a two-state solution: “Let the Palestinians have their state, even let Fatah or the PLO rule it if they only left us alone and ended the conflict.” This, however, was not going to happen. There was no intransigence or “Greater Israel” ambition to poison Israel. The experience and these changes left Israel with a clear conscience, not the “clear conscience” of those so distant that these issues were a mere abstraction but that of people who knew they sometimes made mistakes and had to make tough decisions in order to survive.
Fourth, the West generally broke its promises to Israel, showing that it could not be depended upon. The historical deal was for Israel to make major concessions and take big risks knowing if that failed, the West would acknowledge Israel as the good guys and back it fully. Yet the fact that the more risks Israel took, concessions it gave, and casualties it suffered, the more it was slandered and delegitimized in large parts of the West did not escape most Israelis. The supposed pattern–pull back, turn over, concede, and you will be secure and happy—did not work. The Obama administration fully proved this reality.
Fifth, the 2000-2005 terrorist-based intifada and the radical response to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza reinforced these lessons, as did the growing Islamism that openly advocated war, terrorism, and genocide against Israel.
Sixth, the “Arab Spring” was a last straw, with revolutionary Islamists seizing power, Turkey changing sides, Iran building a sphere of influence and going full-speed-ahead on nuclear weapons, as well as a U.S. leadership on which Israel could not depend. If ever there were a time for not making concessions and being starry-eyed over peace, the present day would be that time.
The much talked about “window of opportunity” of the 1990s proved to be only a transient period in which the Palestinians and Syria–following the collapse of the USSR, the defeat of Iraq, the high point of the United States as a superpower, and before the Islamist “solution” to the weakness and decline of Arab nationalism– would talk, but not reach a deal.
The majority of Israelis say:
I don’t want the settlements. I want a two-state solution. But unfortunately I know that the leadership and majority of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims want to destroy us, not to get a Palestinian state. They are getting more radical, due to their own thinking and social issues. We cannot get any reasonable deal and any deal that might happen would be used by them as a more advantageous springboard for continuing the conflict against us.
That is why the Israeli peacenik left collapsed and Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister. It was not that Israel had moved to the right but that reality had done so. The problem is not to save Israel from reactionary religious extremists and hardline rightists but to come to terms with the views of the majority of Israelis: the centrists and those left of center.
THE REALITY OF PALESTINIAN POLITICS
The claim that a “peace process” exists and might actually result in a diplomatic solution assumes that the Palestinian leadership desires a negotiated two-state agreement that would permanently end the conflict. This assumption actually has no real basis in fact, demonstrated precisely by the events since the 1993 Oslo agreement and the 2000 breakdown in that process due to Yasir Arafat’s rejection of any frame for negotiation except a total capitulation to all Palestinian demands.
If one examines every article in the Palestinian media over that 20-year period, every textbook, every radio and television program, every mosque sermon, and every speech of leaders in Arabic directed at their own people, it is virtually impossible to find a single one that calls for conciliation, compromise, or even a long-term acceptance of Israel’s existence.
There is virtually not a single example of a statement accepting the idea of negotiating a permanent end of the conflict, granting Israel’s existence any legitimacy and indeed viewing it as anything other than temporary, or accepting–what one would expect from a nationalist movement–the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in the state of Palestine.
In all analyses of the “peace process,” there is hardly ever any examination of Palestinian politics: the nature of the leadership and the state of the debate. For example, if one looks at the Fatah Central Committee, there are virtually no moderates. Once one gets beyond Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and, albeit using that term very loosely, “President” Mahmoud Abbas, it is almost impossible to discover someone who could be called “moderate” at all.
Palestinians, thus, have no “peace party” but merely a choice between two problematic leaderships: one that refuses in practice to make peace; the other that outspokenly declares its rejection of peace. While the former is nationalist (Fatah) and the latter is (Islamist), the basic arguments they use are quite similar.
Here are the basic themes of current Palestinian thinking, none of which is even under significant attack in the internal debate:
- Israel is completely unjust and can never be accepted. Total victory is necessary since any outcome that involves Israel’s continued existence is against Islam and the needs of the Arab nation.
- Israel is an impossibility since Jews are not a real nation. Therefore, it must eventually collapse.
- Total victory is possible and indeed inevitable. Eventually, proper rule, mobilization, and population growth will allow Arabs/Muslims to wipe out Israel. Consequently, a compromise that locks them into a permanent peace and reduces their ability to stage a “second round” to eliminate Israel is treasonous. Even if the current generation cannot win, it has no right to take away the chance of future generations to do so.
- Consequently, compromise with Israel is treason. Anyone who gives up an inch of Palestinian land is a traitor. Anyone who shows empathy for Israel is a traitor. Anyone who ties the hands of Palestinians in seeking future total victory is a traitor.
These are overwhelmingly dominant concepts in Palestinian politics, and virtually not a single person will speak against them. The public will not accept compromise or concessions, because it has been conditioned by years of political and religious indoctrination. Contrary to Western expectations, a politician cannot launch a “pragmatic” policy, as would happen in other polities, saying: “Let’s end the suffering, make peace, get a state, and raise living standards.”
Consequently, to advocate speedy negotiations, a flexible bargaining position, compromises, and a true two-state solution along with conciliation between the two nation-states is political suicide due to the beliefs of Palestinian leaders, public opinion, the willingness of rivals to outbid moderates, and the threat of destruction to one’s political career or even death.
The above points discourage any Palestinian leader from wanting to make peace with Israel or feeling that any conceivable compromise peace is possible to implement. Indeed, it makes more logical a PA/Fatah preference for such things as refusing to negotiate, slowing negotiations, raising more preconditions, and seeking unilateral independence through the UN and other international agencies.
One can add to all that the extremely high likelihood that any negotiated solution, even if it were to be implemented against all of these odds, would quickly break down in the face of interference by Islamist forces; other regional countries; public opinion; political rivalry; a revolution or coup sooner or later; and the inevitability of cross-border terrorism against Israel, which a Palestinian government would be unable and/or unwilling to curb.
THE AGE OF ISLAMISM
In addition to all of these factors, is the reality that one has now entered an era in which hardline revolutionary Islamism has become the hegemonic ideology in the region. As a result, any peace process faces three other obstacles:
- The Palestinian Authority and Fatah now confront a situation even more antagonistic to negotiation or peace with Israel. To go in that direction would lead to a confrontation with a stronger Hamas rival that now enjoys considerable support from Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt. For its part, Fatah does not have a single regional ally.
- A weakened United States either will not or cannot put pressure on the PA to move toward peace with Israel. Even if the PA wanted to follow U.S. preferences, Washington can offer it little or no protection for doing so.
- Hamas is much stronger, therefore constituting a far more formidable rival or a more attractive ally. By choosing the path of alliance with Hamas–no matter how shaky or haunted by mistrust that relationship is–Fatah and the PA have chosen to reject any peace process with Israel.
The Islamist factor places more nails in an already hyper-sealed peace-process coffin.
THE WISHFUL THINKING FACTOR AND THE “WE MUST DO SOMETHING” COMPLEX
What serious responses are made to the above analysis? In general, there is none at all. The points made in this article are almost always ignored. The only evidence to the contrary are carefully selected quotes in English by PA leaders, usually exclusively from the “president” and prime minister aimed at Western audiences.
The other part of the response is based on abstract “logic.” It is in the objective interest of the Palestinians to seek a two-state solution and their own state as fast as possible. Therefore, this must be what they are doing. The actual facts and specific behavior involved is left out of the equation.
A third approach is to blame Israel. If only Israel had a different government or offered more, it is claimed, peace could be quickly achieved. This position requires ignoring the experience to the contrary since the beginning of the peace process with the 1993 Israel-PLO agreement. For example, the so-called increase in settlements is said to be at fault. Yet the simple fact is that if an agreement were reached, the settlements would quickly disappear from the territory of Palestine and there would be no more “occupation.’
The two final fallbacks, which ignore the actual situation in the Middle East altogether, are the wishful thinking factor and the “we must do something” complex. Since peace is definitely a good thing and a preferable situation, anyone who points out the reasons peace is not going to be achieved in the foreseeable future is said to be against peace. Yet successful policy, including policy on behalf of any good cause, has never benefitted from distorting the facts. Indeed, ignoring realities–in this case that the Palestinian leadership is neither interested nor capable of delivering a two-state negotiated solution–makes things worse for everyone concerned and actually increases risks, suffering, and violence, as well as the likelihood of defeat and failure.
As for the idea that “something” must be done, the question is always which policies or issues should be given priority and how governments should use resources. There are only so many hours in a day and only so much cash and political capital to be deployed. By devoting attention to an inevitably failed peace process, diplomats and policymakers detract attention from a number of other more urgent issues where they could have an effect.
In the 1990s, there was a reasonable belief that it would be possible to end the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts through a negotiated effort called the peace process. It should now be clear that these issues have become proportionately less important and that the notion of a successful peace process is no longer applicable. Whether there was ever a window of opportunity that might have succeeded can be the subject of debate by historians. That there is no such window of opportunity now or in the foreseeable future should be obvious to policymakers.
*A version of this article appeared in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2012).