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The Peace Process Is an Obstacle to Peace in Israel

The American presidency has accumulated a number of traditions that anyone holding the office is expected to perpetuate. Examples include delivering the State of the Union address to Congress, lighting the national Christmas tree, and presiding over the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. The next president will no doubt continue all three. If he or she follows the pattern established by the most recent incumbents, however, the result of the peace process will be failure. Indeed, the continuation of the peace process as it has been practiced will not simply be futile: It will be positively harmful. The conduct of the peace process has made peace less likely. If it is to continue at all, a fundamental change in the American approach is needed.

Successive administrations have failed at the peace process because they have not understood—or not admitted to themselves—the nature of the conflict they have been trying to resolve. In the eyes of the American officials engaged in this long-running endeavor, making peace has been akin to a labor negotiation. Each side, they have believed, has desired a resolution, and the task of the United States has been to find a happy medium, a set of arrangements that both sides could accept. In fact, each side has wanted the conflict to end, but in radically different and indeed incompatible ways that have made a settlement impossible: The Israelis have wanted peace; the Palestinians have wanted the destruction of Israel.

At the core of the conflict, standing out like a skyscraper in a desert to anyone who cared to notice, is the Palestinian refusal to accept Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East. This attitude has existed for at least a century, since the Arab rejection of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. While much has changed in the region over those 10 decades, the conflict’s fundamental cause has not. The Palestinians’ position is expressed in their devotion to what has come to be called incitement: incessant derogatory propaganda about Jews and Israel, the denial of any historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem and its environs, and the insistence that all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea belongs to the Arabs, making the Jews living there, in the Palestinian view, contemptible interlopers to be killed or evicted. The Palestinians’ attitude has expressed itself, as well, in their negotiators’ refusal either to accept any proposal for terminating the conflict or to offer any counterproposals of their own. The goal of eliminating Israel also lies behind Palestinian officials’ glorification as “martyrs” of those who murder Israeli civilians, giving their families financial rewards to encourage such killings.

American officials have either ignored or downplayed all of this. They have never emphasized its centrality to the conflict, instead focusing on Israeli control of the West Bank of the Jordan River, which the Israeli army captured from Jordan in the 1967 War and on which Israel has built towns, villages, and settlements. American officials have regarded the “occupation,” as the international community has chosen to call it, of the West Bank as the cause of the ongoing conflict. In fact, the reverse is true. It is the persistence of the conflict that keeps Israel in the West Bank. A majority of Israelis believes that retaining control of all of the territory brings high costs but that turning it over entirely to Palestinian control, given the virulent Palestinian hostility to their very existence, would incur even higher costs. A withdrawal, they have every reason to believe, would create a vacuum that anti-Israel terrorist groups would fill. Ample precedent supports this view: When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon and Gaza, two terrorist organizations—Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza—took control of the vacated territories and proceeded to launch attacks against the Jewish state.

While sometimes acknowledging in private that it would not bring peace, American peace processers have in the past nonetheless justified continuing the peace process on the grounds that it served American interests by making it possible to have good relations with Arab governments while at the same time sustaining close ties with Israel. According to this rationale, the Americans could tell the Arab rulers, and those rulers could tell their fervently anti-Zionist publics, that the United States was, after all, working to address their grievances.

In fact, the conflict never had the importance for Arab–American relations claimed for it. The Arab leaders determined their actual policies, toward the United States and toward other countries, on the basis of their own interests, above all their common interest in remaining in power, which seldom had anything to do with Israel. Now, however, with civil wars raging across the region, with the United States drawing back from the Middle East, and with their archenemy Iran becoming increasingly powerful, Arab leaders have dropped even the pretense that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians matters greatly to them.

The peace process has therefore become unnecessary for the United States, even by the reasoning that sustained it in the past. In its familiar form it is, however, worse than that. It has caused real damage and will continue to do so if not fundamentally changed. In fact, the American conduct of the peace process bears an unhappy resemblance to the custom of treating diseases by placing leeches on the body of the afflicted person: It was based on an inadequate understanding of the pathology it attempted to cure, it did not solve the problem it was intended to fix, and it sometimes made it substantially worse.

The orthodox approach to the peace process has harmed American interests by wasting the most valuable commodity the American government possesses: the time of its senior officials. It has done harm as well by diverting attention from the real cause of the conflict—the Palestinian refusal to accept the legitimacy and permanence of Israel—thereby reducing the already small chance of ending it. Worst of all, the peace process has actually


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