Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Flawed American Peace Process

The Economist has a lengthy rundown of the faltering Middle East peace process being managed from the American side by John Kerry.  After discussing how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government doesn't want a reasonable deal even if he does and that Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas is a weak leader, it mentions this:
The Israelis, for their part, have nervously construed comments by Mr Kerry and Mr Obama as veiled threats to withhold hitherto almost unconditional backing for Israel in the UN and other forums, unless it shows more flexibility on such issues as borders, settlement-building and Jerusalem. Remarks by Mr Kerry this week in Washington were widely interpreted as holding Israel mainly to blame for the impasse. And earlier this year Mr Obama referred bleakly—in Israeli eyes menacingly—to “continued aggressive settlement construction”, warning Israelis that if “Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”
That was taken by many Israelis as a veiled threat from Mr Obama that if the Palestinians, abandoning the currently stalemated round of talks, were to go back to the UN and get wider recognition of Palestine as a state, the diplomatic tide would gradually turn against Israel, casting it as an international pariah.
Some Israelis may think that, but as it happens, another way to examine the course of events is provided by Rashid Khalidi's recently published book Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.  That title pulls no punches, and Khalidi's argument the U.S. has actually hindered peace between Israelis and Palestinians by posing as a fair broker while heavily favoring the former.  By his reading, if the diplomatic tide does turn against Israel, it will almost certainly not be an American government that turns it, and any criticisms of Israel will be quickly contextualized or backed down on.

In the book, Khalidi looks in detail at three key episodes in the history of American-sponsored peace negotiations using hitherto unused documents.  One is Ronald Reagan's abortive 1982 attempted to hold Israel to the portion of the Camp David Accords which called for a settlement of the Palestinian question, examined on the basis of documents newly declassified under the 30-year rule.  The second is the Madrid-Washington process of the early 1990's, based on Khalidi's own experiences as an advisor to the Palestinian team at that time and related documents in his possession.  The third is the early Obama administration peace efforts, based both on media accounts and the Palestine Papers, which some may remember as al-Jazeera's big scoop on the eve of Egypt's revolution against Husni Mubarak.

In these three episodes, Khalidi discerns a pattern which he offers as an overall paradigm for understanding the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  The key element is that American presidents, despite some attempts to try something different at the start of administrations, perceive American political forces as heavily pro-Israeli, and so wind up following Israeli lines, lines which are designed to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.  There is never significant concern for Palestinian interests, nor even much attempt to use the bully pulpit to highlight Palestinian narratives, which would, of course, interfere with the endless assertions of devotion to Israel.  The United States, therefore, rarely pressures Israel to keep its commitments or make new ones, while simultaneously working to prevent the Palestinians from attempting tactics outside the American-brokered process, such as the UN statehood bid.

Khalidi's book reads like an early draft of a post mortem on negotiations for a two-state solution, though near the end he suggests that a new Palestinian leadership could emerge and demand negotiations under a different framework, which seems fanciful.  Although future research will doubtless turn up scattered exceptions, his paradigm has a lot to recommend it if one considers alternative paths open to the Americans, as he does in his conclusion.  This is clearest in the American failure to take a hard line against Israeli settlement construction.  However, asserting that the U.S. has actually prevented a deal is almost certainly too harsh for most of the period in question, since as he admits, the Palestinian leadership was perfectly willing to go along with the American-brokered process for most of the 30+ years in question.  It also depends critically on what one makes of agreements the Palestinians declined, which is the book's single greatest omission to be rectified by future research.

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