For a generation, the U.S. government has invested money, energy, and time to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This so-called peace process has matured into a huge enterprise — an industry really.
This industry was founded upon three important promises:
1) The peace process is important: If we could solve this problem, we’d solve other problems in the Middle East;
2) The peace process is achievable: It’s possible to write a deal that will satisfy Palestinians while protecting Israel;
3) The peace process is durable: Once signed, an agreement between Israel and Palestine will endure.
Events of the past month raise a question: Has this industry gone bankrupt? For each of its promises has been called seriously into question.
1) Important? The Arab Middle East has been convulsed by a wave of protest. Lack of economic opportunity, lack of personal freedom, disgust with official corruption — these are the issues cited by the protesters. Not the Palestinian issue. And had the Palestinian issue somehow been settled in 2000 or in 2008 — would Egyptians be any less discontented with their surging cost of living or their daunting unemployment?
2) Achievable? Before the Egyptian protests, the big news story on Al Jazeera was the leak of confidential Palestinian Authority negotiating papers. The documents sketched out a very aggressive set of Palestinian claims, including Palestinian control of almost all of historic Jerusalem. These documents exposed negotiating bids that far exceeded the maximum imaginable concessions available from any Israeli government. Any actual settlement would offer the Palestinians much less than the Palestine papers demanded.
And yet Al Jazeera and Palestinian public opinion generally have depicted the Palestine papers as an intolerable and humiliating betrayal. Rather than defend the positions outlined in the papers — which would require warning their public that peace will require many further compromises and concessions — the Palestinian leadership has retreated into fantasy.
Interviewed on the BBC this week, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the PA would never sign an agreement that terminated all Palestinian claims against Israel. Individual Palestinians would, Erekat promised, retain the right to demand resettlement within Israel as well as compensation from Israel. Obviously Israel would never sign such an agreement. Equally obviously, Palestinian leaders who promote such false hopes will not dare to sign a deal that they can actually get.
3) Durable? If Hosni Mubarak’s regime falls, not much will survive of the Egyptian-Israeli peace. The question has to occur to Israelis: What, then, is the value of a peace agreement signed with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas?â€¨ Treaties signed with representative governments can last for generations. The European Union treaties date back to 1957, NATO to 1949.
Treaties with authoritarian regimes last only as long as the regime does — which is usually not that long. The present Palestinian regime looks especially shaky. PA President Abbas is 75 years old. He rules over only a portion of the Palestinian population; one-third of Palestinians are subjects of Hamas in Gaza. Abbas military forces are sustained only due to U.S., Egyptian and (quietly) Israeli help.
Egypt is the strongest Arab state with the longest continuous institutions of government. If Egypt’s most important international commitments can vanish with the departure of a single leader, how much less binding will be the commitments of the Palestinian Authority under Abbas?
Human beings will often continue to pursue old habits long after those habits have lost their purpose. So it is with the Middle East peace process. The Obama administration continues to repeat motions that clearly will not achieve the goal that supposedly motivated the process in the first place. They call their Middle East policy a strategy — but it looks like a twitch.