How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East

Hasan Jamali/AP Images
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah, and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh during talks between rival Palestinian factions, Mecca, February 8, 2007


Foreign affairs had no more than a small part in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and the Middle East peace process only a fraction of that. Yet the sorry prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians make a break with past US policy on this matter imperative, regardless of the new administration’s priorities.

The need for a move away from the lethal mix of arrogance and ignorance characteristic of George W. Bush’s presidency is hard to dispute. That is not all that needs breaking away from. Some observers have welcomed the past year’s surge of older-style US diplomacy, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s multiple visits to the region, efforts to build Palestinian institutions and security forces, and negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over a final status agreement. Yet spin aside, these efforts hardly can be deemed successful. Realities on the ground—from settlement construction to deepening divisions within Palestinian and Israeli societies to growing disillusionment with a two-state solution—render the possibility of a peace accord increasingly remote.

The failings of Bush’s efforts have also revived nostalgia for President Clinton’s. But it is a nostalgia born as much of anger with the present as of longing for the past. The 1990s were a time of US activism on behalf of peace, yet there is a record to contend with. It is not as forgiving. On this issue, Clinton’s term concluded in failure, and it is a failure that bears at least some relation to the policies so lamented today.

President Obama will need to make a change, of that there can be little doubt. But it will take more than turning the page on the worst of the Bush years. It will mean writing an entirely different script.


Recent books by veteran US policymakers attempt to shed light on the mistakes of the past and offer guidance for the future. The Much Too Promised Land is Aaron Miller’s highly personal account of what he calls “America’s elusive search for Arab–Israeli peace.” The result of a study undertaken by the US Institute of Peace, Daniel Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky’s Negotiating Arab–Israeli Peace focuses on the Clinton and the two Bush presidencies, presenting a manual on what future officeholders should and should not do. Martin Indyk’s Innocent Abroad gives a broader picture. An ambitious comparison of the last two failed American attempts to transform the Middle East—Clinton through peace and Bush via war—it explores both the Arab–Israeli conflict and US policy toward Iran and Iraq. Somewhere at the heart of this quest, as Indyk’s title suggests and all three books conclude, are the labors of an often well-intentioned, frequently bewildered, and almost perpetually outmaneuvered superpower.

The three books…

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