Middle East: Hope springs eternal for negotiated peace

David T Jones

The aphorism is that “Nobody ever lost money betting against peace in the Middle East.”

The judgment remains a good gamble; it is both clever and accurate wordsmithery. However, it is not entirely true. There has been negotiated “peace” in the Middle East. The most obvious illustration of such was the President Carter negotiated 1978 Camp David Accords which orchestrated peace between Egypt and Israel. The result undid of parts of the 1967 war with the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt (albeit with a peacekeeper contingent stationed there indefinitely) and the beginning of a “cold peace” between the two nations. Although frequently challenged by various alarms and excursions, such arrangements have endured to the present. While the consequences of the Arab Spring are still playing out, they have not (yet) ruptured the essence of the agreement.

Likewise, other neighbors of Israel have come to more-or-less effective non-war arrangements. Thus there is peace with Jordan (negotiated with the late King Hussein but continuing under his successor King Abdullah). There is a “reloading break” with Lebanon where heavy fighting with Hezbollah in 2006 ceased, but Hezbollah has rearmed with tens of thousands of rockets and the Israelis have not attempted to assassinate Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. As for Damascus, the previous Syrian ruler, Hafez al-Assad made his peace desiderata clear in 1991-92; then Israeli leader Ehud Barak couldn’t take yes for an answer and negotiations collapsed. Still, borders remained peaceful until rebel fighters apparently stumbled into Golan Heights confrontation before deciding that they had enough trouble fighting the Syrian Army.

So the current peace exercise has focused on Palestinian-Israeli deadlock. And realizing there is a Nobel Peace prize for resolving it, a generation of diplomats/politicians has broken their teeth on it.

The latest of these, although he already has a Nobel Peace Prize (for expectations rather than accomplishments), is President Barak Obama. Having finally located Israel on the map, after visiting most of the rest of the region with visits during his first term in office, Obama reversed his semi-contemptuous non-visits to Israel, meeting Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu on Netanyahu’s turf in March. And while the prospect of Iranian nukes topped the agenda, it also showcased hopes for something resembling progress in Palestinian-Israeli relations, both with Obama rhetoric to an Israeli student body and then in conversation with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

These talks, which ended in nothing more than grip-and-grin photo ops, have been followed with two regional April trips by SecState John Kerry (reminiscent of the Clinton-era shuttle diplomacy that burned jet fuel to no effect). Kerry is reported as asking for small concessions to “create a positive climate for negotiations.” Unfortunately, there are no “small” concessions.

[ Last week's POC: Recent North Korean military manoeuvres indicate a legitimate threat ]

Thus the current flurry (including discussions with Canadian Foreign Minister Baird from whom the Palestinians want more money for no commitments) is motion without movement.

The negatives are multiple:

--Israel has no need for peace. The security barrier between Palestinian and Israeli populations has largely eliminated terrorist incidents, Israeli withdrawal from Gaza ended occupation-related flashpoints, and an Israeli Prime Minister contemptuous of Palestinians and indifferent to international opinion makes even getting to a starting point improbable;

-- There is no Palestinian valid interlocutor. Abbas is not even a feeble impersonation of Yassar Arafat (who was unable to come to agreement with Israel), and Abbas speaks for only part of the Palestinians. The terrorist organization Hamas rules Gaza and totally irreconcilable would be a mild description of its attitude to Israel;

-- The rest of the region ranges between bubbling and aflame. In previous diplomatic efforts, Mubarak’s Egypt and Assad’s Syria were key actors, nudging and/or supporting Palestinians to move toward workable arrangements. King Hussein was invariably creatively helpful, but King Abdullah is not his father. And trying to reach an Israel-Palestine accord with no concept of a future Syria is feckless; and

-- The suggestion of returning to the 2002 Saudi peace proposal is risible. It was dead-on-arrival a decade ago postulating unacceptable elements, e.g., right-of-return by Palestinian refugees to Israel. A decade later it is still a zombie/corpse demonstrating the absence of new creative thinking.

The Political Science 101 answer is well known: Jerusalem as a shared Israel-Palestinian capital with land swaps in the West Bank preserving the largest Israeli settlements while withdrawing penny-packet Israeli outpost-settlements. But nobody wants an achievable peace badly enough to make the dangerous sacrifices (politicians remember Sadat and Rabin were assassinated). So there will be no peace in this time.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.