he American presidency has accumulated a number of traditions that anyone holding the office is expected to perpetuate. Examples include delivering the State of the Union address to Congress, lighting the national Christmas tree, and presiding over the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. The next president will no doubt continue all three. If he or she follows the pattern established by the most recent incumbents, however, the result of the peace process will be failure. Indeed, the continuation of the peace process as it has been practiced will not simply be futile: It will be positively harmful. The conduct of the peace process has made peace less likely. If it is to continue at all, a fundamental change in the American approach is needed.
Successive administrations have failed at the peace process because they have not understood—or not admitted to themselves—the nature of the conflict they have been trying to resolve. In the eyes of the American officials engaged in this long-running endeavor, making peace has been akin to a labor negotiation. Each side, they have believed, has desired a resolution, and the task of the United States has been to find a happy medium, a set of arrangements that both sides could accept. In fact, each side has wanted the conflict to end, but in radically different and indeed incompatible ways that have made a settlement impossible: The Israelis have wanted peace; the Palestinians have wanted the destruction of Israel.
At the core of the conflict, standing out like a skyscraper in a desert to anyone who cared to notice, is the Palestinian refusal to accept Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East. This attitude has existed for at least a century, since the Arab rejection of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. While much has changed in the region over those 10 decades, the conflict’s fundamental cause has not. The Palestinians’ position is expressed in their devotion to what has come to be called incitement: incessant derogatory propaganda about Jews and Israel, the denial of any historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem and its environs, and the insistence that all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea belongs to the Arabs, making the Jews living there, in the Palestinian view, contemptible interlopers to be killed or evicted. The Palestinians’ attitude has expressed itself, as well, in their negotiators’ refusal either to accept any proposal for terminating the conflict or to offer any counterproposals of their own. The goal of eliminating Israel also lies behind Palestinian officials’ glorification as “martyrs” of those who murder Israeli civilians, giving their families financial rewards to encourage such killings.
American officials have either ignored or downplayed all of this. They have never emphasized its centrality to the conflict, instead focusing on Israeli control of the West Bank of the Jordan River, which the Israeli army captured from Jordan in the 1967 War and on which Israel has built towns, villages, and settlements. American officials have regarded the “occupation,” as the international community has chosen to call it, of the West Bank as the cause of the ongoing conflict. In fact, the reverse is true. It is the persistence of the conflict that keeps Israel in the West Bank. A majority of Israelis believes that retaining control of all of the territory brings high costs but that turning it over entirely to Palestinian control, given the virulent Palestinian hostility to their very existence, would incur even higher costs. A withdrawal, they have every reason to believe, would create a vacuum that anti-Israel terrorist groups would fill. Ample precedent supports this view: When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon and Gaza, two terrorist organizations—Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza—took control of the vacated territories and proceeded to launch attacks against the Jewish state.
While sometimes acknowledging in private that it would not bring peace, American peace processers have in the past nonetheless justified continuing the peace process on the grounds that it served American interests by making it possible to have good relations with Arab governments while at the same time sustaining close ties with Israel. According to this rationale, the Americans could tell the Arab rulers, and those rulers could tell their fervently anti-Zionist publics, that the United States was, after all, working to address their grievances.
In fact, the conflict never had the importance for Arab–American relations claimed for it. The Arab leaders determined their actual policies, toward the United States and toward other countries, on the basis of their own interests, above all their common interest in remaining in power, which seldom had anything to do with Israel. Now, however, with civil wars raging across the region, with the United States drawing back from the Middle East, and with their archenemy Iran becoming increasingly powerful, Arab leaders have dropped even the pretense that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians matters greatly to them.
The peace process has therefore become unnecessary for the United States, even by the reasoning that sustained it in the past. In its familiar form it is, however, worse than that. It has caused real damage and will continue to do so if not fundamentally changed. In fact, the American conduct of the peace process bears an unhappy resemblance to the custom of treating diseases by placing leeches on the body of the afflicted person: It was based on an inadequate understanding of the pathology it attempted to cure, it did not solve the problem it was intended to fix, and it sometimes made it substantially worse.
The orthodox approach to the peace process has harmed American interests by wasting the most valuable commodity the American government possesses: the time of its senior officials. It has done harm as well by diverting attention from the real cause of the conflict—the Palestinian refusal to accept the legitimacy and permanence of Israel—thereby reducing the already small chance of ending it. Worst of all, the peace process has actually obstructed a settlement of the conflict by supporting—unintentionally—the current Palestinian strategy for eliminating the Jewish state.
The next administration should tell the truth about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict: namely, that the responsibility for creating and perpetuating it rests with the Palestinian side.
In recent years, therefore, the Palestinians and their allies have adopted a third strategy: delegitimation. They have sought to portray Israel as a neocolonial power that practices the kind of discrimination that characterized apartheid-era South Africa. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement is the most visible instrument of this strategy, the proponents of which seek to turn Israel into an international pariah and thus weaken it, economically at first and ultimately fatally.
This strategy will also fail, not least because the charges it levels are false. Nonetheless, the peace process has given the champions of the strategy of delegitimation reason to believe that it can work. The Palestinian authorities, led first by Yasir Arafat and now by Mahmoud Abbas, have managed to ensure the failure of all negotiations with Israel by their intransigence while at the same time avoiding responsibility for that failure. Successive American administrations have refrained from telling the world—clearly, emphatically, and repeatedly—precisely why the peace process has never succeeded. The Obama administration has in fact blamed Israel. By failing to rebut the false narrative about the fate of the peace process and, even worse, by occasionally propagating it, the American government has reinforced the strategy of delegitimation and made the faint chances of settling the conflict even fainter.
By flooding the country with people hostile to it, finally, the result of implementing the Palestinian “right of return” would be the destruction of Israel.
Negotiations will be fruitless at best without such a transformation, which raises the question of how to know that it has taken place. This leads to the second change the next administration should make in the peace process if it insists on continuing it. The next president should make it a condition for resuming negotiations that the Palestinians renounce their so-called right of return.
They have insisted that, as part of any settlement, all the descendants of the 400,000 Arabs who fled what became Israel in 1948, a group that they assert numbers several million people, be allowed to settle in Israel. As well as entirely impractical, the demand is morally ludicrous. The original refugees left because of a war started by the Arabs, not the Israelis. The new Israeli government even urged them to stay; Arab leaders told them to leave, promising that they would return after the anticipated destruction of the new state. The demand also has no historical precedent. The 20th century saw other such large-scale flights—of Hindus from Pakistan and Muslims from India at the time of the partition of South Asia in 1947, for example, and of Jews from Arab countries, who were expelled, in many cases from places where their ancestors had lived for centuries, in numbers comparable to if not greater than the total number of Arabs who left the new Israel in 1948. In no case was the country the refugees had abandoned expected to take them back.
Nor does the “right of return” have any basis in international law. The Palestinians assert that it stems from United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948. That resolution, while devoted chiefly to other matters, included a paragraph suggesting the return of all refugees—implicitly including Jews who had resided in Arab countries—to their original homes. It was not drafted to be mandatory and was never intended to have the force of law. The Arab governments never made any effort to extend such a “right” to Jews who had had to flee their countries and, in any event, did not vote for the resolution when it came before the General Assembly.
This Palestinian demand is in fact an assault on the sovereignty of the Jewish state and thus part of the century-old campaign against Zionism. It asserts that Israel should not be allowed to exercise the fundamental, indeed defining, prerogative of sovereignty—the control of its own borders. It would also deny to Israel another sovereign prerogative, deciding who has the right to citizenship. By flooding the country with people hostile to it, finally, the result of implementing the Palestinian “right of return” would be the destruction of Israel, which is surely the reason that the Palestinians insist on it.
In peace-process orthodoxy, the “refugee problem” is classified as one of the “final status” issues—problems so difficult that they can be addressed only after all the easier ones have been resolved. In fact, the insistence on a “right of return” assures that negotiations will fail, and thus should not be started in the first place, because they amount to the Palestinian insistence on achieving what is not negotiable: Israel’s disappearance.
If and when the Palestinians do signal their acceptance of Israel by abandoning this claim, it will become possible to address the issues that do require negotiation: the border between Israel and a Palestinian state, which may well require uprooting some Jewish settlements to the east of Israel’s eastern border of 1967, and the disposition of military forces between the new border and the Jordan River. As long, however, as the Palestinians make clear, by asserting their “right of return,” that they refuse to live peacefully side by side with a Jewish state, negotiations are at best a waste of time and at worst a way of perpetuating the conflict by encouraging the Palestinians to persist in their goal of eliminating Israel.
To be sure, the two necessary changes to the American approach to the peace process will not, in and of themselves, bring peace. Only the abandonment of the fundamental Palestinian attitude to Israel can do that; and the United States does not have the power to transform that attitude. The changes would, however, have desirable consequences. They would discourage the strategy of delegitimation by making it clear that the United States rejects the strategy’s premises, which would in turn reduce, although not eliminate, the constituency for that strategy in the United States and in the place where it is most popular, Europe. Reducing support for it would send to the Palestinians the message that, like a frontal military assault and terrorism, delegitimation will not succeed in destroying Israel. The two changes would also improve the moral tone of American foreign policy. Telling the truth about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict would affirm American support for international law, democracy, the peaceful resolution of international disputes, and the principle of equal rights for all peoples. It would also affirm American opposition to aggression and terrorism. It would, that is, put the United States—to use a term favored by recent administrations—on the right side of history.