How the Great Powers Can Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse

Howard M Sachar. Foreign Affairs. Volume 90, Issue 1. Jan/Feb 2011.

In late August and September 2010, when direct negotiations seemed at last on the verge of replacing proximity talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, speculation ran high in the Obama administration that face-to-face meetings between the two negotiating teams, hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, could at last produce an accord of enduring substance. Among several veterans of Middle East diplomacy, Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, was explicit in his optimism that the breakthrough moment was at hand, writing in The New York Times that “the negotiating environment is better suited to peacemaking today than it has been at any point in the last decade.” In view of Israel’s on-and-off settlement construction in the West Bank, however, and the frequent postponements of the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, it is fair to ask if such optimism is really warranted.

Indeed, it is worth recalling that hardly ever in modern history have undersized nations whose relations with their neighbors have been drenched in rancor and blood managed to negotiate successfully more than interim cease-fires or armistices with one another. More frequently, and however unwillingly, these minor actors have accepted the initiatives of great powers with vested interests in acting as their protégés’ advocates and guarantors and in constraining small states’ irredentist and territorial ambitions.

For precedent, one may hark back to the sequence of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century great-power conclaves-of London, Paris, and Berlin, among others-that established the independence or guaranteed the security of countries as diverse as Greece (1829), Serbia (1856), and Bulgaria and Romania (1878), or to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which sculpted an aggregation of European successor states and Middle Eastern mandates from the debris of the prewar empires. Similarly, in the wake of World War II, the United Nations selectively acknowledged or postponed the demands of postimperial claimants to diplomatic recognition.

Which of this fractious heterogeneity of races and cultures, of ethnic and religious communities, ever negotiated their sovereignties or autonomies or their respective territorial or economic claims among themselves? Marinated as they were in an immemorial folklore of historical grievances, suspicions, and insecurities, and suffering from chronic diplomatic ineptitude, these and other political neophytes virtually ensured that their sporadic bilateral negotiations at best remained unproductive and at worst became inflammatory. From beginning to end, client governments were dependent on great-power patronage and protection.

A Litany of Failures

The contemporary Middle East is a case study of the dysfunctionalism of small power diplomacy. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Egypt’s president, Anwar al-Sadat, and Lebanon’s president-elect, Bashir Gemayel, ventured to negotiate peace agreements with Israel, both men paid for their initiatives with their lives. Gemayel’s effort did not so much as leave the ground; Sadat’s treaty with the Israelis soon languished, resulting in a cold peace after his assassination. Nevertheless, in 1991, with the end of the first Gulf War and the waning of the Cold War, the United States and Russia jointly and audaciously undertook the even more formidable task of sponsoring a series of new Arab-Israeli conferences in Madrid and Washington. After three years of intense, if intermittent, negotiations, the meetings did indeed produce a peace treaty, albeit of less than epic proportions, between Israel and Jordan. Since the turn of the century, however, potential Israeli-Jordanian water-reclamation projects, and even private business relationships, have gone the way of once-touted Israeli-Egyptian joint energy projects. They have all but expired. Tourism between these signatory nations has devolved into a one-way traffic-essentially from Israel to the resort hotels of the Sinai Peninsula and the Nabataean stone palaces of Petra, in Jordan. Israeli ambassadors in Cairo and Amman have been reduced to lepers in their own offices.

The sources of this barely camouflaged Arab quarantine are not arcane. Neither do they relate exclusively to issues affecting the welfare of the signatory nations themselves. Rather, Arab-Israeli negotiations continue to be crippled, if not stillborn, as a result of the single most toxic issue between the Arab states and Israel-the status of Palestine. All efforts to eradicate the poisonous standoff between Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, or to mediate between them “just,” “viable,” and “defensible” shares of the Holy Land, have foundered. With these failures, opportunities have similarly lapsed for Israeli diplomatic breakthroughs not only in the Arab world but increasingly also in the broader Muslim world-even as far afield as Indonesia.

Central among these doomed ventures was the widely heralded Rabin-Peres-Arafat Declaration of Principles. Signed in Oslo in 1993, the document anticipated the evolution of a self-governing Palestinian Authority and eventually a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. That manifestly has not occurred. Rather, the prospects of such a state have been subsisting on life support since the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and have become even more tenuous since the death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in 2004. The political triumph of Hamas in Gaza in 2006, less than a year after Israel’s withdrawal from that beleaguered coastal enclave, all but buried initial expectations of a sovereign Palestinian state living at peace alongside Israel.

Indeed, from the onset of the twentyfirst century until today, Oslo’s Declaration of Principles has functioned less as an Arab and Israeli commitment to Palestinian selfgovernment and economic development than as a deceptive veneer for ongoing guerrilla assaults against Israeli civilian targets, the entrenchment of Iran’s surrogate Hezbollah army on the Israeli-Lebanese frontier, and a proliferation of Jewish settlements constructed in the name of the “historic Land of Israel.” Inducements for Jewish colonization-in the form of cheap, government-subsidized mortgages proffered by successive Israeli governments-have deliberately enlarged these settlements, which now threaten to encircle Arabinhabited East Jerusalem and logistically fracture the future Palestinian state.

Like Israel’s tenuous armistices and frozen peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the malaise of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy is not cloaked in obscurity. It has lacked the indispensable catalyst of great-power enforcement.

The Lessons of 1919

The question arises, then, do great powers have a celestial dispensation not only to propose but also to impose their own diplomatic templates on the world’s smaller nations? The argument against great-power enforcement was the cri de coeur loosed at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference by the incipient European “successor states,” among them the Baltic republics, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia, that emerged after the prewar empires crumbled. And in response to their anguished collective protest-the so-called revolt of the small powers-French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson responded essentially with one voice. Echoing their predecessors at earlier diplomatic conclaves, the “Big Three” reminded these supplicants that it was their irredentism that had drawn the great powers into the suicidal Armageddon of 1914-18. This time, the Allies would not hesitate to perform their own territorial surgery on central and eastern Europe’s fulminant regional animosities.

As for the Middle East, the very notion of Palestinian or Jewish statehood would have been unthinkable had it been made dependent on an accommodation between the Arabs and the Jews alone. After World War I, it was the joint diplomatic initiative of the victorious Allied powers that formulated the essential geopolitical contours both of the Arab mandates and of the Jewish national home. After World War II, it was the un General Assembly, following the lead of the United States and the Soviet Union, that sanctioned the partition of Palestine into sovereign Arab and Jewish states. No one has contended that these awards, of either 1919-20 or 1947-48, begot an idyll of justice and comity, or even a guidebook for arm’s-length cooperation between the Arabs and the Jews. Yet over the ensuing decades, the great powers’ conceptual framework has managed to survive a chain reaction of regional challenges and wars, and within the Holy Land’s ethnographic lineament, two national organisms, one de jure (Israel), the other de facto (Palestine), have been accorded nearparallel international recognition.

Indeed, they have been accorded a great deal more than recognition. Without an ongoing infusion of U.S. loans and grants, German financial reparations, and semioffi cial integration into the European Common Market, Israel early on would have foundered in bankruptcy. During the most virulent period of the Cold War, Israel’s armed forces would have been hard-pressed to resist a tightening Soviet ring of Arab proxies had they been denied access to French and U.S. military equipment. Similarly, from 1974 on, without a U.S. commitment of billions of dollars in annual subsidies to both countries, Egypt and Israel would have remained locked in a tense confrontation on the sands of the Sinai Peninsula. During the late 1990s and the early years of this century, had Arafat not been assured of the European Union’s virtually open-ended transfusion of financial largess, the Palestinian Authority would have lapsed even sooner into the archetypal Middle Eastern morass of corruption and political segmentation.

Altogether, the United States and Europe have more than paid their dues in their respective commitments to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. And it is specifically these benefactors that now face critical dangers to their own economic, political, and strategic interests should the Arab-Israeli conflict, like the perennial Balkan threat to the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires before 1914, continue to metastasize at its own genetic pace. Each Arab-Israeli war-in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2001-2, 2006, and 2008-9-has brought with it major risks, from greatpower confrontation to blocked international waterways, large-scale oil stoppages, political assassinations, institutionalized terrorism, and, most recently, the introduction of some 40,000 Iranian extendedrange ballistic weapons into the Israeli- Lebanese frontier zone.

Power Rules

For more than a decade, even before the recent eruptions of intensified border violence, technocrats representing the Quartet-the European Union, Russia, the United States, and the un-have been engaged in refining a blueprint for an Israel territorially augmented by limited and reciprocal security-border adjustments and a state of Palestine demographically configured to encompass a near totality of the Palestinian territories’ current Arab inhabitants, with guaranteed contiguity for its population centers and a protected overland trade and travel route between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But with so-called proximity talks and even face-to-face discussions endlessly collapsing in a lethal series of cross-border Arab rocket attacks and Israeli military retaliation, the great powers themselves at long last are faced with the challenge of borrowing from historical precedent and operating not as mediators but as principals.

Will they accept that challenge? More specifically, will U.S. President Barack Obama grasp the opportunity to jump-start a reasonable version of the Quartet’s master plan for the Holy Land? It is a formulation, after all, that reflects the weight not only of its sponsors’ best collective judgment and self-interests but also of their untapped collective powers of enforcement, including the selective bestowal or withdrawal of diplomatic, economic, or military support.

Precedents for such enforcement are not lacking. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower exerted the U.S. government’s economic power, as well as his own considerable personal prestige, to reverse the clumsy French-British-Israeli Suez adventure. In 1973, on behalf of the Nixon administration, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger masterminded an emergency U.S. airlift of weapons to Israel to reverse the momentum of the Egyptian-Syrian Yom Kippur offensive. In 1991, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker persuaded President George H. W. Bush to withhold a $100 million loan to Israel for “new immigrant” housing-fungible money manifestly intended for new Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Skeptics may inquire whether an Israeli- Palestinian accord fashioned on the basis of great-power rewards or deprivations could survive the Palestinian leadership’s vulnerability to Syrian and Iranian intimidation or the Israeli administration’s vulnerability to the rightist majority in its own current governing coalition. For even if both parties, storming and raging, were chivvied into signing a treaty of mutual accommodation, could the agreement be translated into functional operation except under sustained U.S. and European incentives or penalties?

In fact, the query should be reversed. Without great-power diplomatic benediction and financial life support, would there ever have been a State of Israel or an embryonic Palestinian state in the making? Similarly, without the application of an unrelenting great-power agenda, could the Israelis or the Palestinians accept a formula that each side until now has rejected as politically unpalatable?

Finally, another issue may be added to Washington’s list of diplomatic and political challenges. Will a U.S. president risk alienating the so-called Jewish vote by adopting a policy of firm evenhandedness in the Middle East-one that confronts Israeli territorial aggressiveness no less than Arab guerrilla terrorism? Actually, during the past 30 years, a verifiable shift in perspective toward Israel’s West Bank settlements has been developing not only within the liberal West but also within the American Jewish community. The executives of mainstream American Jewish organizations, who tend to pander to their constituencies’ reflexive insecurities, remain oblivious to the mounting evidence that those constituencies- younger and more sophisticated than their forebears-have moved on.

With the exception of a small (if clamorous) minority of Revisionist Zionists, whose version of the Holy Land is apocalyptic, American Jewry has been wedded to the principle of religious and ethnic freedom, participated in the vanguard of the civil rights movement, and has pleaded the overseas causes of such minorities as the Kosovar Muslims-and, increasingly, the Palestinians-with all the urgency characteristic of a minority people uneasy at the palpable international isolation of its much-loved surrogate homeland and ethnic status symbol. Any president or legislator who ignores the depth of this unease-the visceral yearning of both the Israeli and the American Jewish “silent majority” for an evenhanded settlement imposed by Israel’s greatest Western supporter-could justly be characterized as a political Rip Van Winkle.

The international climate has also changed. A looming Iranian ballistic missile capability, together with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s evident determination to build nuclear weapons, has eclipsed even the threat once posed to Israel by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt or Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. As a result, a unique convergence of European, Russian, and U.S. interests has opened up a level playing field for great-power diplomacy and great-power closure. If ever there were a propitious moment for the Obama administration to lead the Quartet in initiating and enforcing that closure, it is now.