January 20, 2001
No third party has been as involved and influential in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process over the last seven years as the United States and, in particular, its Special Middle East Coordinator, Dennis Ross. In view of the United States’ inability to facilitate the realization by Palestinians and Israelis of a just and lasting peace in accordance with Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and other sources of international law, it seems prudent, at the close of the Clinton Administration, to assess US involvement and to identify some of the reasons the United States’ involvement has not yielded better results.
Process over Substance
Under US supervision, the Palestinian-Israeli “peace process” has become a goal in and of itself. A false sense of normalcy has been created because of the on-going process of negotiations. The lack of visible resistance to Israeli occupation from the Palestinian side, except for temporary flare-ups, and Israel’s ability to continue negotiations while continuing to build settlements in occupied Palestinian Territory has created the false impression that the “process” of achieving peace could substitute for peace itself. Thus, the difficult substantial issues at the core of the conflict, including acceptance that Israel’s occupation of Arab territory it conquered in the 1967 Israeli-Arab War is illegal, have been constantly deflected in order to maintain talks without requiring Israel to face up to its obligations.
In fact, the United States advocacy of “constructive ambiguity” has had disastrous consequences for the peace process. Both parties to the conflict have mistakenly assumed at different times that either the Israelis had accepted to end the occupation or that the Palestinians had agreed to forego some of their fundamental rights as a result of vaguely worded agreements. Whereas such ambiguity made it possible for both sides to sign agreements that they could interpret in diametrically opposed manners to their domestic constituencies, the facts on the ground of implementing opposing interpretations have led to very little implementation at all.
This lack of implementation, combined with the ever-increasing number of Palestinian-Israeli agreements brokered by the United States, has caused Palestinians to become increasingly wary of US involvement in a process that has brought some normalcy to Israel but none to Palestinians. The resulting lack of faith in the peace process and the consequent distrust of US promotion of process over substance has made securing a just peace all that more difficult.
Normalization Before an End to the Occupation of Arab Lands
US policy over the last seven years appears predicated on the need to help Israel normalize its relations with the Arab and Muslim world at large, as well as with many other nations around the world sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians dispossessed by Israeli conquest. The peace process was used as an excuse to encourage states that had foregone normal relations with Israel to begin the process of normalization, with the argument that peace was just around the corner.
Had the United States promoted the implementation of already signed agreements between Israelis and Palestinians with the same zeal with which it promoted new Israeli arrangements with Arab and other states, it may have succeeded in actually promoting normalization.
Unfortunately, the US emphasis on process over substance has led the domestic constituencies of many governments in the region to conclude that the peace process was only a mirage designed to trick their governments into prematurely establishing economic ties that would help Israel break out of its regional isolation. This has had the added repercussion of promoting not only anti-Israeli sentiment in countries that have established economic ties with Israel, but has also promoted anti-American sentiment in all countries of the region, as demonstrated by the grass-roots popular boycott of American products in many states.
US negotiators in recent years never appeared to recognize that normalcy was a state that existed between two free and equal peoples. As long as the occupation of Arab lands, including the Palestinian Territories, continues, there can never be true normalization between Israel and its neighbors.
Adoption of Israeli Perspective v. Acting as an Honest Broker
The two bases for US involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process have been 1) the physical fact that the United States is the primary power in the Middle East and 2) that the United States has promoted itself to the parties in the region as an honest broker wishing to promote Israel’s security as well as Palestinian national aspirations.
Unfortunately, over the last seven years in particular, the US has become increasingly identified with Israeli ideological assumptions. Dennis Ross, for example, and some other members of his negotiating team, have acknowledged having an emotional commitment to Israel and have said they cannot distinguish between their personal and professional involvement with it. This has had a number of legal ramifications that have affected the peace process negatively:
The United States began the peace process based on the goal of implementing UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. These Resolutions, as repeatedly interpreted by the international community, simply mean that Israel must withdraw from the Arab territories it occupied in 1967 if it wants to have peaceful relations with its neighbors. After seven years of negotiations, the US negotiating team now effectively advocates the position that the West Bank and Gaza are Israeli territories, or at best disputed territories, for which the Palestinians must bargain. Settlements, for example, opposed by Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush, have been tacitly endorsed by recent US policy in the region.
Palestinian concessions to Israel have been made up front, as demanded by Israel and the United States, for talks to take place between the two sides. However, those concessions were always viewed by Israel as the starting point for negotiating further concessions. This view appears to have been adopted by the United States of late. US negotiators have implicitly blamed the Palestinians for not making the same extent of “concessions” that Israel was offering. Thus, whereas Palestinians gave up their rights to all but 22% of historic Palestine as early as 1988, they are chastised by the US negotiators for wanting all of the Occupied Territories whereas Israelis have been lauded for offering to dismantle only 20% of illegal settlements. Israel’s desire to continue occupying significant areas of Palestinian territory is seen as a reasonable need by the US negotiating position - morally and legally equating the illegal settlement of Palestinian territory with the Palestinian right to reclaim that same territory.
US negotiators have accepted the Israeli world-view concerning the primacy of Israel’s security needs while ignoring the long-term development of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the improvement of the Palestinian quality of life. The result has been that while Israel’s security, including the security of its occupation forces, have been the focus of each agreement, the quality of life of Palestinians has continued to decline. The dichotomy between the comfort of Israelis, including those occupying Palestinian land in settlements with green lawns and swimming pools, and the poverty and misery of Palestinians, has only further inflamed an already volatile situation.
Public support for one side over the other can also have negative unintended consequences. US negotiators’ public criticism of the Palestinian side at last summer’s Camp David talks were intended to provide domestic political support for the Israeli prime minister. Instead, it allowed right wing extremists in Israel opposed to peace all together to challenge the Israeli prime minister for having offered “too many” concessions. US inability to see past Israel’s own narrow perceptions of the conflict have further delayed concluding a just and lasting peace.
US/Israeli Domestic Political Concerns Overrode the Goal of a Lasting Peace
Palestinians obviously have every interest in concluding a comprehensive, just and lasting peace with Israelis as soon as possible. The original Oslo Accords had mandated that the peace talks be concluded three years ago with a Palestinian state and an Israeli state living in freedom, security, and equality side by side. Yet, as Israel attempted to colonize as much of the West Bank and Gaza as possible before beginning final status talks, the Palestinians were compelled to focus on Interim issues in negotiations, rather than addressing the key permanent status issues.
Once mandated by domestic political considerations in Israel and the United States, Palestinians have been placed under tremendous, and sometimes unconscionable, pressure to sign weak and vague agreements that could be used by political leaders to show progress to their constituencies. Rather than place a matter of such great existential importance to both Palestinians and Israelis above the fray of domestic politics, the timetable for reaching agreements has been based on immediate domestic concerns even when the necessary background work on substantive issues has not been done.
A comprehensive peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis must not only be considered a valuable photo opportunity, but a matter of great strategic importance for all the states of the region as well as for those states that believe they have interests in the Middle East. It has been obvious, especially over the course of the last year, that the importance of a just and lasting peace has been overshadowed by the need for yet another temporary or interim agreement that would provide only short-term political gain to some of those involved - at the risk of creating tremendous problems for the long-term stability of the area.
US policy has not been static over the last decades. It was the United States that helped force Israeli, British, and French occupation troops from Egypt in 1956. President Jimmy Carter has strongly advocated Palestinian rights, even during the Camp David talks between Egypt and Israel, and repeatedly emphasized the illegality of Israel’s settlement policy. President George Bush used the position of the United States as a global leader to force Israel to sit with Palestinians in negotiations for the first time and also expended tremendous political capital to keep US aid to Israel from being used to promote settlement building. There is much the United States can contribute to encouraging justice, peace, and stability in the Middle East, but only if it can learn from the mistakes and failures of the last seven years. There remains much at stake, and for every day that the Israeli occupation continues and settlements continue to expand, peace becomes that much harder to achieve.