Harm in Trying: The Downside of the Middle East “Peace Process”
By Elliott Abrams
June 28, 2017
Among Israelis and Palestinians, there’s little
optimism about renewed American efforts to negotiate a comprehensive
Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In Ramallah and Jerusalem, officials,
journalists, and policy analysts have watched as industrious U.S. activity in
the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations came to naught—and they expect
the same outcome for the Trump administration.
There is a lot more optimism in the Trump White House, and
of course it starts at the top. The president said this in a February press
conference with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
I think a deal will be made. I know that every president would like to. Most of them have not started until late because they never thought it was possible. And it wasn’t possible because they didn’t do it.
But Bibi and I have known each other a long time—a smart
man, great negotiator. And I think we’re going to make a deal. It might be a
bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand.
In April, President Trump added, “There is no reason
there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians—none whatsoever.”
And in a May press conference with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas he made
his most categorical statement: “We want to create peace between Israel and
the Palestinians. We will get it done. It is something that I think is frankly,
maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
The attitude I’ve detected outside the Oval Office is
more realistic about the chances of success. But arguments suggesting that there
is little or no chance are met with a standard reply: “Okay, but what’s the
harm in trying?”
This is not a new idea; it was Bill Clinton’s. As he put
it, “We always need to get caught trying—fewer people will die.” So the
Trump administration wishes to get caught trying as well, and operates under the
assumption Clinton made: that there is no harm in trying, and that indeed it
But that conclusion is wrong, as round after round of
terrorism should attest. To put it slightly differently, there is harm in
failing—and it does not save lives. What’s the harm?
To begin with, it is always harmful for the United States
to fail—and for a president to fail. Influence in the world is hard to
measure, but when a president devotes himself—as Bill Clinton, especially, did
in the Camp David talks in 2000—to any project and fails to pull it off, his
influence and that of the United States are diminished. Yes, he does get credit
for trying, but there’s no benefit in failing. Opinions may differ as to why
this happened: The United States misjudged Yasser Arafat, the White House
prepared poorly, the timing was all wrong, the conditions were misunderstood.
But getting an A for effort isn’t enough when other people’s security hangs
in the balance.
Results matter. When the United States succeeds, as it did
for example in the 1995 Dayton Accords on the Balkans or in the Camp David deal
under Jimmy Carter, American prestige and influence grow. But that coin has two
sides, and failure is never a good thing. With U.S. influence on the wane in
recent years, devoting significant effort to a goal that is unlikely to be
attained looks like a misplaced priority.
What’s more, the United States has been championing the
“peace process” now for about 30 years, if we start with George H. W.
Bush and the Madrid Conference of 1991. Palestinians and Israelis have seen
negotiators come and go—or in many cases, never go, and instead just age and
write memoirs. Round follows round, claims of progress and angry denunciations
for blocking progress follow each other, and the “unsustainable occupation”
continues. What this produces is cynicism about peace talks and about peace. On
the Palestinian side many view the “peace process” as a formula for
sustaining the occupation. Many Israelis see it as a shield protecting
Palestinian malfeasance and worse: When they demand a stop to official
Palestinian glorification of terrorism, they hear, “Don’t rock the boat now,
negotiations may start.”
A further reason to be wary of another big peace effort is
the opportunity cost. When each successive American administration works for a
comprehensive peace deal, it tends to neglect the many opportunities to make
less dramatic but still consequential real-world progress.
If the goal were instead to leave things better than we
found them, every incremental bit of progress would be a victory. That was the
“bottom-up” approach taken by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who was fiercely
dedicated to Palestinian independence but thought this required building the
institutions of a viable state first. That meant concentrating on better
financial controls and a reduction in corruption, better courts and police, and
a more productive economy. Unfortunately, the incremental approach lacks drama
and did not win the international support it deserved—including the Israeli
and American support it deserved.
During the George W. Bush administration, those of us on
the American side often demanded concessions from Israel to “set the tone for
talks” or to “get things moving in the talks.” The steps often gave Abbas
symbolic victories but they rarely contributed to state-building. For example,
we were more concerned with getting Israel to release some Palestinian
prisoners—who may have committed acts of violence—than we were about getting
Israel to remove checkpoints or barriers that prevented Palestinian mobility in
the West Bank and thereby made both normal life and economic activity harder.
How returning convicted criminals to the streets contributed to building a
Palestinian state was never explained.
A thought experiment: Suppose Presidents Clinton, Bush, and
Obama had for 24 years focused not on “peace,” not on a comprehensive deal,
but on progress—on making Palestinian life easier, on building institutions,
on fostering economic growth and Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation. These
latter goals were always part of U.S. policy, but were never the main goal; they
always took second place. Netanyahu, for example, has removed many barriers and
checkpoints in the West Bank in the last 10 years; could that have happened
under his predecessors, years earlier, if it had been an American goal? Israel
finally relented and allowed 3G wireless access in the West Bank this year;
could this have happened years earlier, with accompanying economic benefits, had
it been a real U.S. goal? The Allenby Bridge to Jordan is set to be open round
the clock on weekdays, starting this month; could that have been arranged a year
ago, or 10 years ago, had the United States made it a priority?
So the pursuit of a comprehensive “final status
agreement” is not without costs. The idea that there is “no harm in
trying” is wrong. The search for a final peace deal is understandable, of
course. It would presumably benefit both peoples, and it would benefit those who
could claim the credit: There would be Nobel Peace Prizes, handshakes on the
White House lawn, memoirs to sell, and speeches to make. If that seems unduly
cynical, it shouldn’t: It is possible to be dedicated to peace and also keenly
aware of the personal benefits of achieving it.
Forget the cynicism and assume real idealism, which has I
think characterized most American diplomats and American presidents confronting
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Talleyrand’s old advice is nevertheless good
counsel here: surtout, pas trop de zèle (above all, not too much
zeal). Don’t pass up opportunities to make small gains, to get undramatic and
almost invisible advances, to set in motion changes that will take a long time
to bear fruit. The odds of getting a complete peace deal are very small. It
would be quite enough to be able to say, in four or eight years, “You know, we
really made things better.”