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How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East

White House
Bill Clinton and his team at the end of the peace talks between Israel and Syria in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, January 9, 2000. At far left is Robert Malley, the coauthor of this review; at far right is Martin Indyk, author of Innocent Abroad, one of the books reviewed.

One cannot read these books without thinking back to the controversy surrounding the 2000 Camp David summit. Following that meeting, instant analysis laid all blame on the Palestinians for rejecting Barak’s “unprecedented offer.” Whatever else might have affected the outcome was dismissed as inconsequential.

Outwardly, Miller, Kurtzer, and Indyk do not claim to take part in the debate over who lost Camp David, though, practically speaking, they close it. They castigate Arafat and the Palestinians for excessive passivity and an inability or unwillingness to seize the moment. But they do not stop there. Miller, who attended the summit, contradicts the accepted view with a detailed account demonstrating that each party bears heavy responsibility. Barak eroded the Palestinians’ confidence during the months preceding the summit by renegotiating past agreements and reneging on promises. The Israeli proposals at Camp David, says Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s foreign minister at the time, “fell far short of even modest Palestinian expectations.” The Americans had “no sustained strategy,” did not put a negotiating text on the table, and caved in when faced with the parties’ objections. They did not consult with other Arab countries and, in deciding to blame Arafat at Barak’s request, betrayed a prior commitment not to do so and also jeopardized hopes for a peaceful aftermath of the conference.

Likewise, Kurtzer and Lasensky describe the US as “unprepared,” lacking its own positions on fundamental issues, and, eager to embrace “Barak’s priorities…but also Barak’s tactics,” ultimately “ced[ing] effective control over US policy to the Israelis.” Even Indyk, the harshest of the three toward Arafat, disputes the conventional wisdom. “Camp David,” he writes, “was hardly a good laboratory” for Barak’s proposition that the Palestinian leader was unwilling to reach a historic deal, because no Arab statesman could have accepted what had been presented.

All three books describe the abortive Israeli–Syrian talks in 1999–2000 in strikingly similar ways, again contesting the view held by many ascribing sole liability to Damascus. Indyk in particular argues that Barak missed an opportunity when, concerned about the need to show the Israeli public that he was a tough negotiator, he refused to show flexibility at a time when President Hafez Assad appeared ready for a deal. Others who participated in the peace process during that period have reached a remarkable consensus that responsibility for the debacle was shared by all the parties. To Miller, Kurtzer, and Indyk must be added the countless US, Israeli, and Palestinian officials they interviewed.

To readers of The New York Review, all this must leave a familiar sense of déjà-lu. In 2001, we published an article in these pages putting forward similar arguments. Barak responded angrily, challenging our “revisionist” narrative of the Camp David summit. 1 He has since denounced Indyk’s account of the Syrian negotiations on the curious pretext that the senior-level American diplomat “was unaware of the full picture.” Still, even he cannot help but observe that while seven years ago our interpretation prompted consternation and considerable outrage, today it barely elicits a raised eyebrow. Revisionism has become orthodoxy.


Historical polemics aside, the three books aim to answer a central question: What should the US do now? Each shapes itself in part as advice to the next administration, and their authors enjoy more than passing influence. Kurtzer is one of Obama’s principal Middle East advisers and Indyk is close to Hillary Clinton.

All three share the view that the next president should make a priority of resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, claiming that this will be critical to improving America’s image in the Arab and Muslim worlds and to drying up the appeal of militant Islam. They argue that in doing so, the US cannot ignore harmful behavior, whether Israeli settlement construction or Palestinian violence. They call for monitoring of performance on all sides, clear accountability, and, should it come to that, real consequences for breaches of commitments. They suggest that the President publicly articulate detailed core principles for a workable Israeli–Palestinian deal that will mobilize peace constituencies and reinforce the outlines of a two-state solution. Greater involvement by Arab countries is seen as essential to reassure Israel and provide political cover to the Palestinian leadership.

All three books offer advice of a more general sort: talk to your enemies; avoid summits for the sake of summits; do not grant outside powers a veto over US policy; neither fret obsessively about Israeli domestic politics nor meddle intrusively in internal Palestinian affairs by selectively cultivating those “considered to be more accommodating.” Echoing a shared sentiment, Indyk delivers something more valuable than a detailed plan when he exhorts the US to “lower [its] sights…avoid raising regional expectations… [tone] down the rhetoric and [allow] the results of American diplomacy to speak for themselves.”

On some points, emphasis varies. For Miller, the chances for success virtually boil down to personnel and personality. In his pantheon of US leaders he holds in high esteem (James Baker, Jimmy Carter, and Henry Kissinger), the rough, the tough, and the devious stand out. He longs for what he calls real “sons-of-bitches” to navigate the treacherous shoals of Arab, Israeli, and American politics. Kurtzer stresses the importance of moving from a step- by-step approach to one that concentrates on the endgame. Indyk highlights the regional context; he wants to combine pursuit of Israeli–Palestinian peace with US engagement with Iran and Syria as well as US encouragement of Israeli–Syrian talks. He shows sensible pragmatism in suggesting a different approach toward Hamas, arguing that if it abides by its cease-fire with Israel, the US should support efforts at reconciliation among Palestinians.

On the whole, these appear to be worthy and well-considered recommendations, a far cry from Bush’s policies and a respectable distance from Clinton’s. Inspired by them and the inevitable clamoring from Arab and European leaders to move early and decisively to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, President Obama will be tempted to act immediately—deepen his involvement, name a special envoy, train Palestinian Authority security forces, bolster so-called moderate Palestinian allies, accelerate Israeli–Palestinian talks. Such a response would be predictable; it also is understandable. But would it be wise?


Before Obama plunges into the morass, several thoughts merit consideration. The inability to reach a two-state solution has persisted for fifteen years under countless different configurations of policy and power.

There have been strong, determined leaders (Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat) who, it was thought, possessed the ability to forge compromises and sell them to their people. There have been enlightened, forward-looking leaders (Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas) who, it was felt, appreciated the desperate need for a two-state solution.

At times the US was deeply involved; at others it took a step back. It mostly sought to run affairs on its own but also opened the door to others. It focused at some points on interim agreements and at others on a final deal. There also have been US plans aplenty. Reagan had his Peace Initiative, George H.W. Bush organized the Madrid conference, Clinton introduced his parameters, and, during the outgoing president’s administration alone, Israelis and Palestinians were treated to Bush’s vision, the Mitchell report, the Tenet work plan, the Zinni plan, and the road map.

Throughout the years, polls consistently showed respectable Israeli and Palestinian majorities in favor of a negotiated two-state settlement. The world held its breath awaiting a breakthrough, promising wholehearted support for a resolution. Even traditionally passive and cautious Saudi Arabia put forward the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, persuaded Arab and Islamic nations to sign onto it, and formally presented it to Israel via the Arab League. Yet throughout, regardless of set-up, content, or style, the outcome has been depressingly the same. The plans were greeted with violence, bewilderment, and, more recently, a yawn. Why would more of the same, even if more intense, more vigorous, and more sustained, produce a different outcome?

Equally striking, three of the most significant Arab–Israeli breakthroughs occurred with the US nowhere in sight: Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, the Oslo negotiations, and Israel’s treaty with Jordan. Nor is this merely a historical reflection. When Israeli–Syrian negotiations restarted this year, they were under Turkish, not American, sponsorship and the US sought to prevent, not facilitate them. America was and will be needed to capitalize on opportunities or crown a deal. But it is worth contemplating why it has been so unfailingly inept at launching successful initiatives—the Camp David summit of 2000 and the Annapolis process of 2007 and 2008 being only the latest, saddest examples.

Obama ought to take note of another intriguing feature: arguably the most momentous shift in the Israeli–Palestinian landscape since the 1993 Oslo accords has occurred as a result not of US policy and bilateral negotiations but of a unilateral decision. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 has left much to be desired. But had then Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas sought to negotiate its details with American help, Israeli tanks and settlements almost certainly would still be there, as they are in much of the West Bank, despite endless negotiations. US-sponsored bilateral negotiations have become a formula for sustaining an otherwise untenable status quo.

Finally, the region into which the new president is being pressed to plunge has changed dramatically over the past decade. During recent years, the transformations include the death of Arafat, father of Palestinian nationalism, and the incapacitation of Sharon, Israel’s last heroic leader; the spread and further entrenchment of Israeli settlements; Hamas’s electoral triumph; Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza; the Palestinian internal conflict and Hamas’s seizure of Gaza; the withering away of Fatah; Israel’s failure in the 2006 Lebanon war; US setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan; Iran’s increased influence; and the growing role of other regional actors like Turkey and Qatar. This is not a mere change in scenery. It is a new world.

A more assertive US policy, greater fortitude in the face of Israeli or Palestinian pressure, a focus on the endgame, and sustained Arab and European backing might have made a difference at Camp David. These factors might still have changed the course of events in the months following the summit or perhaps even during the first few years of the Bush administration. 2 But these ideas, ignored when they were ripe, may now be on the verge of being accepted just as they are becoming obsolete. That is because so much of what the peace process relied upon has been transfigured. It was premised on the existence of two reasonably cohesive entities, Israeli and Palestinian, capable of reaching and implementing historic decisions, a situation that, today, is in serious doubt; continued popular faith and interest in a two-state solution, which is waning; significant US credibility, which is hemorrhaging; and a relatively stable regional landscape, which is undergoing seismic shifts.

In Israel, endemic governmental weakness and instability and deepening social fragmentation, combined with the spoiling capacity of small yet increasingly powerful settler constituencies, call into question the state’s ability to achieve, let alone carry out, an agreement that would entail the uprooting of tens of thousands of West Bank settlers. The generation of Israeli founding fathers, perhaps, might have succeeded in carrying off such a withdrawal, though it says something that even they didn’t try. Their successors, more factional chiefs than national leaders, are not so well equipped.

The graver problem today is on the Palestinian side. If one strips away the institutional veneer—Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization, various secular political groupings, the Palestinian Authority—what is left is largely empty shells with neither an agreed-upon program nor recognized leadership. The national movement, once embodied by Fatah and Arafat, is adrift. From its vestiges, the Islamist movement Hamas has flourished and, amid the flurry of negotiations between Abbas and Olmert over a putative albeit wholly theoretical deal, it cannot have escaped notice that the more practical and meaningful negotiations have been between Israel and Hamas—over a cease-fire, for example. Still, the Islamist movement cannot, any more than Fatah, claim to represent the Palestinian people or to be empowered to negotiate on their behalf. The rift between the two organizations, most visibly manifested in the increasingly deep split between the West Bank and Gaza, makes a two-state solution harder to achieve. Israel long complained it had no Palestinian partner and, at the outset, the complaint had the feel of a pretext. Increasingly, it has the ring of truth.

Among Palestinians, moreover, the prize of statehood is losing its luster. The two-state solution today matters most to those who matter least, the political and economic elite whose positions, attained thanks to the malpractices of the Palestinian Authority, would be enhanced by acquiring a state. To many others, the dividends of such a solution—a state in Gaza and much of the West Bank—risk being outweighed by the sacrifices: forsaking any self-defense capacity, tolerating Israeli security intrusion, renouncing the refugees’ right of return, and compromising on Jerusalem.

Arafat embraced the two-state solution and sold it to his people. It took him fifteen years—from 1973 to 1988—to turn it from an act of betrayal and high treason to what most of his people saw as the culmination of the Palestinian national movement. He did so with a militancy his successors lack and which seemed to both defy and negate the concessions such a solution entailed. He exhibited perpetual defiance, which was one of the many reasons why the US and Israel distrusted him even in the best of times, and why Palestinians continued to be drawn to him even at the worst of them. With his passing, it is hard to see who among his heirs can acquiesce in the necessary compromises and still pull off a solution.

When word recently leaked of a deal purportedly proposed by Olmert to Abbas in their one-on-one negotiations, the world got a glimpse of how little Israelis and Palestinians have begun to care. The proposal—a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with one-to-one territorial exchanges; a limited number of refugees coming into Israel; a Palestinian capital comprising the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem; a special regime for the holy sites—was not ideal for either side. It was probably better for Palestinians than what was suggested at Camp David; arguably better for Israelis than what has been mooted in a series of unofficial agreements over the ensuing eight years. In earlier days such a plan would have generated immense interest and large political waves. It provoked neither. Familiarity has bred indifference. The two-state solution, it turns out, is endangered, not rescued, by being endlessly discussed.

Such changes in Israeli and Palestinian realities have taken place against the backdrop of deep alterations in the regional balance of power. Where traditional US allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia once set both the agenda and tone of Middle East diplomacy, they appear worn out and bereft of a cause other than preventing their own decline. Their energy seems to have been sapped and their regional authority diminished. On issue after issue—Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Israel-Palestine—they have proved passive or, when active, feckless, unable to influence events or buttress their allies. Their close ties to Washington damage their credibility without being of much help to the US.

They are progressively upstaged by more dynamic players: those leading the charge against America’s allies—Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas—and those—Qatar and Turkey—seeking to mediate between the two. All these developments challenge a US strategy that relies exclusively on so-called “moderate” Arab states and leaders, which are losing steam, in order to counter “radical” Islamist states and movements, which are gaining it.

The image of President Obama unveiling his vision of an Israeli–Palestinian settlement to overjoyed Arab leaders and universal endorsement may not, under the circumstances, be quite so alluring. A peace plan that has grown tedious by virtue of repetition is unlikely to generate popular enthusiasm; its backing by fading Arab leaders is unlikely to give it a boost.

The new president enjoys an enormous, perhaps unprecedented reservoir of regional goodwill. Yet it is goodwill based on hope that Obama can break from past American conduct and style, not reinforce them. The surest way to diminish Obama’s appeal to the region would be for him to present a plan with no real future in the company of leaders burdened by their past.


Obama has other Middle Eastern worries. On January 9, President Abbas’s term will end, raising challenges to his legitimacy should he remain in office. In February, Israel will elect a new prime minister. It is likely to be either Tzipi Livni, a relative newcomer who displayed boldness in pursuing a Palestinian agreement and clumsiness in dealing with Israel’s political leaders, or Benjamin Netanyahu, a relative old-timer who has had problems with both. Lebanon’s elections in May 2009 could bring to power a coalition that would be less sympathetic to the US, worrying Israel, heartening militants, and raising questions for all. During 2009 there will also be a referendum in Iraq on the US–Iraq security agreement, presidential elections in Iran, a possible succession crisis in Egypt, and a scramble to find an heir to the eighty-four-year-old Saudi monarch. Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program marches on.

Amid all this, the question of what ought to be done on the Arab–Israeli front remains unanswered, and that may not be a bad thing. With so much that is novel, and with so much having gone so wrong for so long, basic issues should first be addressed. Among them are the reasons for recurring failures, the effectiveness of US mediation, the wisdom and realism of seeking a comprehensive, across-the-board settlement of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, or even the centrality of that conflict to US interests and the benefits that would accrue to America from its resolution. One also might ponder reasons behind America’s chronic ineffectiveness in persuading lesser powers (Arafat, Hamas, Syria, or Hezbollah) to acquiesce in its demands, a pattern that suggests incapacity to identify local political forces, understand their interests, or comprehend their appeal.

Raising such questions might lead to heretical answers, or impractical ones, or none at all. But it is preferable to a headfirst rush to follow costly familiar patterns and to seek the comforting embrace of ideas that have been tried but never worked or that were never tried but can no longer work. Among the flurry of recommendations the next administration will receive, Obama could do worse than consider some simple advice. Don’t rush. Take time, take a deep breath, and take stock. Who knows, fresh and more effective policies might even ensue. Now that would be change we could believe in.

December 17, 2008

  1. 1

    See Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, “Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors,” The New York Review, August 9, 2001; Benny Morris “Camp David and After; An Exchange (1. An Interview with Ehud Barak),” with a reply by Agha and Malley, The New York Review, June 13, 2002; and Barak, Morris, Agha, and Malley, “Camp David and After—Continued,” The New York Review, June 27, 2002.

  2. 2

    We advocated similar ideas over six years ago. See “The Last Negotiation: How to End the Middle East Peace Process,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002.

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