Is Middle East peace even possible?

Even if Palestinian leaders want a peace deal, the inflated expectations of their people—underscored by militants with guns—all but certainly preclude one.

David Frum

Before he created The Simpsons, Matt Groening drew an off-beat comic strip featuring human-like rabbits. In one of my favorites, an older brother and sister rabbit urge their little brother to venture into a dark cellar.

“Mom left a present for you in the basement.”

“The last time you said that, you locked me in the cellar for three hours.”

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“This time we won’t.”

I think of that exchange every time the Obama administration promises to “restart the Mideast peace process.”

Like most North American Jews, I was a big supporter of the Oslo process in the 1990s. The prospect of real, complete, and enduring peace for Israel seemed to me to justify almost any concession.

So let’s go to the videotape.

In 1999–2000, the stars lined up in the most favorable possible way: The most concession-minded Israeli prime minister ever joined with the most persuasive American president ever to offer a package that contained almost everything the Palestinian leadership said it wanted.

Territories seized in 1967 (or their equivalent)? Check.

Palestinian capital in Jerusalem? Check.

Recognition of and compensation for Palestinian historical grievances? Check.

Some on the Palestinian side object that there remained some differences between the Israeli offer and the Palestinians’ stated goals. That’s true, of course. As the saying goes, you don’t get what you want – you get what you negotiate. Don’t like the Israeli offer? Make a counter-offer.

That counter-offer never arrived. Instead, in October 2000, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat made a strategic decision to go to war, launching the most ferocious spasm of terrorism ever to strike the Israeli population: bombings of buses, schools, discotheques and a dining hall where families celebrated Passover. Altogether, more than 1,000 Israelis were killed before this “second intifada” was suppressed.

Arafat’s decision was motivated by a cruel but rational calculus. While the Israeli offer approximated the Palestinian leadership’s stated goals, it fell far short of the actual goals cherished by the Palestinian population – or anyway, of the best-armed factions of the Palestinian population.

Even if Arafat himself wanted peace – and who knows about that? – the Palestinian leader faced a quandary: If he signed the 2000 deal, or some slightly improved version of that deal, he would be denounced by more militant Palestinians as a sell-out. He might face some kind of uprising. Worse, he would likely have to rely on help from the Israelis and Americans to quell it.

Arafat resorted to war in order to escape this quandary. If the war went well – and if Israel then offered better terms – Arafat would not look like a weakling who signed a miserable deal for a much smaller sliver of land than Palestinians believed themselves entitled to.

No! He’d be a war hero, who through force and militancy had boldly extracted better terms from the hated occupier.

Unfortunately for him and for his people, the war did not go well. Arafat had hoped to leverage international opinion against Israel. But the 9/11 attacks – and the ecstatic reaction they elicited from Palestinians worldwide – locked American opinion against him. Israel invaded the West Bank in 2002, hemming Arafat inside his presidential complex in Ramallah. Then, to meet its heightened security needs, Israel erected a separation wall, imposing a de facto border less generous than the one it had offered in 2000.

The war had one more effect, very relevant to President Obama’s goals. It utterly disillusioned the Israeli left. Nobody of any consequence in Israel invests any hopes in “peace.” To the extent the Israeli left favors a deal, it is to obtain severance from the Palestinians, not because it still imagines future cooperation with them.

In the Obama administration – and even more in the international media – all this history has been wiped clean. The new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is not a psychopath, and that is supposed to be enough.

But the structural incentives facing Palestinian leaders have not changed. The deal Arafat was offered in 2000 must look pretty good in comparison now, but it will not be renewed. So once again a Palestinian leader is faced with an identical quandary: The deal he can get will be a huge disappointment to his people, or at least to the best-armed faction of his people. If he signs, he will face an uprising.

Abbas has enough sense not to respond as Arafat did: He will not launch a doomed war in hope of better terms. But he won’t sign either. Instead, he’s demanding a round of preliminary Israeli concessions (construction halts) as a quid pro quo for agreeing to resume talks.

Some of those concessions have been delivered: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a 10-month settlement freeze back in August. But still talks have not resumed.

I have written elsewhere that the peace process has thus had perverse results, inflaming and globalizing a conflict that should be restrained and contained.

Admittedly that’s a contrarian view. But even if you share the more prevalent view that a peace process is a desirable thing, it’s important to avoid the error of Groening’s small bunny and to learn from past mistakes.

Oslo failed because of the enormous gap between the Palestinian leadership’s stated demands and their actual demands – because of the equally enormous gap between those actual demands and anything achievable in reality – and finally because of their assumption that responsibility for solving their problems rests on everybody in the world except themselves.

Have those gaps closed at all in the past decade? There’s no sign of it.

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