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Exclusive Book & Movie Reviews:
A Recipe For Killing Middle East Peace
Negotiating Middle East Peace by Daniel Kurtzer, Scott Lasensky, William Quandt, Shibley Telhami and Steven Spiegel

by Mitchell Bard


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If anyone wonders why the U.S. State Department has a perfect record of diplomatic failure in the Middle East all they have to do is read the book, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace, which is a guide to ensuring another 60 years of futile American diplomacy.

The book is the product of a study group comprised of co-directors Daniel Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky, and William Quandt, Shibley Telhami and Steven Spiegel. Kurtzer, now a professor at Princeton, is a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, and a 30-year veteran of the State Department. Lasensky is a researcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace. William Quandt is a professor at Virginia who served on the National Security Council under presidents Nixon and Carter. Spiegel and Telhami are professors at UCLA and Maryland, respectively. Lasensky has no record of partisan allegiance while Spiegel is known to be pro-Israel and Quandt and Telhami are generally considered among the more fair-minded of the overtly pro-Arab academics. The real guiding force here, however, is clearly Kurtzer.

An Orthodox Jew, recently touted by Jewish supporters of Barack Obama as one of the candidate’s supporters, Kurtzer is unabashedly sympathetic to Israel. Nevertheless, Kurtzer has become one of the leading contemporary exponents of the Arabist point of view that has dominated the State Department for more than a half century and the new study reads like an Arabist primer that ignores all the complexities of the conflict – geography, religion, demography, psychology, history – and focuses on Israel as the principal source of the conflict.

Unlike Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, the study group has serious credentials for examining the subject, and their presentation is more nuanced, but the message ultimately echoes that of Walt, Mearsheimer and Jimmy Carter: The Arabs are blameless in the conflict, there is no need to exert any pressure on them, or expect them to fulfill their obligations, and American interests are frustrated because U.S. presidents don’t have the will to follow the State Department Arabists’ prescription for imposing a solution that forces Israel to capitulate to Arab demands.

The book focuses primarily on the diplomatic activity in the last three administrations, drawing lessons from past successes and failures before offering recommendations meant to improve the American approach to peacemaking and, ultimately, bring about a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It also comes across as intensely partisan, with repeated barbed attacks on President George W. Bush. It is not surprising that Bush would be a target, given that he chose not to be active in Middle East diplomacy until late 2007, and the premise of the study is that U.S. engagement is vital for peace. Of course, for a study purporting to study past lessons, the authors ignore the record of U.S. engagement and the fact that almost every administration has had a peace plan and their one common feature is failure. In fact, the only models for successful treaties, Israel’s agreements with Egypt and Jordan, were lessons in the value of direct talks without American interference.

The authors also echo Israel’s usual detractors who suggest the conflict is the root of all evil in the region. They argue it affects America’s image, interferes with our ability to build alliances with the Arabs, complicates our campaign for political reform of Arab societies and fuels instability in places such as Lebanon. This is what Arab leaders like to tell the Arabists at State, who then repeat it as if it were true, but even a casual follower of events in the region can recognize this as rubbish.

The United States can build alliances whenever the Arabs see it as in their interest. The conflict did not prevent Arab states from participating in either Gulf war, which were about their self-preservation and trumped their alleged fealty to the Palestinians. The conflict also does not prevent them from working with us to counter the Iranian threat, which also has nothing to do with Israel.

Similarly, the continuing autocratic policies of the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have nothing to do with Israel. The United States has made a calculation that we prefer the devils we know, undemocratic as they may be, to the radical Islamists we are likely to get instead if serious pressure was ever exerted to reform their societies.

The conflict with Israel has affected stability in Lebanon at different times, but the fundamental problems there are due to the fractious nature of the society and Syria’s malevolent influence. If peace were achieved tomorrow, these realities in Lebanon would remain unchanged.

The authors are particularly enamored with the idea of international conferences as a means to advance the peace process and are especially impressed with the diplomatic record of Secretary of State James Baker because of his success in convening a conference in Madrid attended by the major regional players. Madrid is actually a better example of the folly of this approach, something Egyptian President Anwar Sadat understood very well.

Sadat knew that convening the international conference Jimmy Carter tried to arrange was a recipe for ensuring he would never achieve his goals. He understood that bringing the Arab leaders together would give the most radical parties a veto and prevent him from negotiating an agreement with Israel. Because he recognized that Carter’s policies were so bad, he went behind the president’s back and negotiated the basis for the treaty directly with the Israelis. Sadat’s insight was proven at Madrid where the Arab states all made belligerent speeches and no agreements were achieved during or after the meeting.

The authors are also impressed by the summit that launched the road map and blame Bush’s unwillingness to follow up for the initiative’s failure. This is more partisan historiography. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians were enthusiastic about the road map from the start, and almost every analyst said the plan was poorly devised and had little or no chance of success. As in every prior agreement, the Palestinians’ failure to meet the prerequisite of stopping terrorism guaranteed nothing Bush or the other members of the Quartet could do would make the agreement viable. The folly of international conferences was proven again in 2007 at Annapolis when the State Department trumpeted the participation of Arab countries in a meeting that did not generate any greater commitment to the road map, which is now taken seriously by no one outside Foggy Bottom.

Kurtzer is described as being deeply involved in the Madrid talks so it is not surprising he views this as an example of diplomatic brilliance and that the fawning review of the Bush-Baker years is at odds with the historical record of failure during their reign. The authors speak of Baker’s credibility with the Israeli public, but this was the person who became known for saying “F--- the Jews,” and whose boss is regarded as the most anti-Israel president in history. The real lesson of those years was that American leaders who have no emotional or strategic commitment to Israel have zero chance of winning the confidence of Israelis and, hence, little influence on peacemaking.

The authors are correct in saying that Israelis understand they need the support of the United States, so they will still make every effort, as Rabin did with Bush, to establish a harmonious working relationship with every president and avoid displeasing them, but no prime minister will take risks for peace if they do not believe the president has their back. Rabin adopted a more conciliatory approach than his predecessor, but he still didn’t make any concessions while Bush was in office; steps forward only began after Bill Clinton came to power and demonstrated that he and his team, unlike Bush, were committed to Israel’s security.

One of the clever aspects of Madrid according to the authors was that the assurances the United States gave to the parties did not change existing policy. They criticize Bush for giving Sharon assurances they say did alter U.S. policy on settlement blocs and refugees. The fact that they don’t like what Bush said, however, doesn’t make it bad policy. On the contrary, Bush made clear what should have been said to the Arabs years before, namely, that the borders would have to be modified to suit demographic realities, which is consistent with the U.S. understanding of Security Council Resolution 242, and that the Palestinian refugees would have to be resettled in Palestine and not in Israel.

Though anathema to the Arabists, who prefer ambiguity if they can’t get concessions from Israel, the Bush statements advanced the peace process by eliminating two issues the Palestinians had used to drag out negotiations in the hope that the United States, UN, EU, Quartet or someone would force Israel to capitulate. Israel was never going to dismantle the settlement blocs or admit Palestinian refugees and now the Palestinians know they have lost those battles and have to focus on other demands.

I would argue that if the president ignored the Arabists and made an equally clear declaration of policy on the unity of Jerusalem (allowing for a compromise along the lines of the Beilin/Abbas agreement), it would be the best thing the United States could do to advance peace because it would disabuse the Arabs of their longstanding belief that the United States or some other power will force Israel to divide its capital.

The book also discusses the Clinton years and praises him for being engaged, but Oslo was again negotiated behind the back of the United States. Once the Americans became actively involved, the peace process actually deteriorated in large measure because Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pressured Israel to continue to make territorial concessions while requiring nothing of the Palestinians. The authors, however, place substantial blame on Clinton for failing to have a cross-cultural peace process team that better understood the Arabs. This really amounts to the whining of Arabists frustrated by being shut out of much of the negotiations, which were dominated by chief negotiator Dennis Ross. It is actually comical to read citations criticizing Ross for being distrusted while earlier praising Baker, who lost all credibility in Jerusalem when he attacked Israeli policy at an AIPAC convention.

To illustrate why it was important to have Arabists at Camp David, the authors say that no one explained to Clinton that conservative Arabs had similar views on Jerusalem to Jews. They do not explain why this was relevant, especially given that the Palestinians’ negotiator, Yasser Arafat, denied the Jews had any connection to the city and thereby showed Clinton that he was out of touch with reality.

The study group is also critical of Clinton (and others at different times) for failing to do an adequate job of consulting with other Arab states, once again ignoring the fact that these states have a long history of sabotaging negotiations and doing more to hinder progress than helping. Perhaps the best example, again ignored by the authors, is Carter’s expectation that his Arab friends would support the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and then watching as they ostracized Sadat and tried to undermine the agreement.

The authors assert that it is important to monitor agreements and make sure the parties meet their obligations. This is diplospeak for pressure on Israel. They know the United States has little or no leverage over the Palestinians or other Arab states so the tools of diplomacy they want to wield are directed almost exclusively at Israel. Congress had to force the State Department to report on the PLO’s compliance with its Oslo commitments, but the Arabists consistently whitewash the Palestinians’ noncompliance and remained fixated on wringing concessions from Israel. This is the preferred modus operandi of the authors as well as they do not call anywhere in the book for pressure of any kind to be exerted on the Palestinians or other Arab states to take steps that would promote coexistence with Israel. The closest the authors come to raising expectations of the Palestinians is when they suggest if the Bush Administration had practiced more “nuanced diplomacy” in 2006, the United States could have tested the PA’s adherence to its Oslo commitments. But this is a farcical proposition that again reflects the authors’ historical blinders. What more was required to test the PA’s sincerity? For 13 years the PA had ignored its obligations as the Arabists turned a blind eye, and the study group has no more interest in holding them accountable than Secretary Rice’s crew.

Despite the empirical evidence of the last 60 years that settlements have not been an obstacle to peace, the authors share the State Department obsession with Jewish communities in the territories. They argue that it is important to be precise about the parties’ obligations, acknowledge that Israeli settlement expansion was not explicitly barred under Oslo, but then criticize Israel for building more homes in the territories. As they correctly note elsewhere in the book, the Israelis are very precise and talmudically negotiate every word in agreements, so it should not be a surprise when they act according to the agreements they have signed rather than the interpretations the Arabists prefer.

The authors lament Bush’s failure to give more attention to the Arab peace initiative, but the truth is the administration did take it seriously despite the fact, which Kurtzer et al ignore, that it originated as an effort by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to divert attention from the fact that 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. The plan had no impact not because Bush failed to “test whether there was a major change in Arab attitudes,” but because it was immediately clear the Saudis were bluffing; they refused to negotiate with Israel and larded the plan with unacceptable elements that demonstrated it was a PR exercise rather than a serious diplomatic initiative.

The study also blames Bush for failing to “bolster the post-Arafat leadership.” Again, the Palestinians bear no responsibility for their plight. The authors mention the international aid to the PA, but not how it was squandered and stolen. They complain that not enough was done to meet other Palestinian demands, such as releasing prisoners, but neglect how every prisoner release was met with greater demands rather than gratitude.

One good point in the book is that presidential leadership is the crucial factor in Middle East policy decisions. “When presidents lead in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, Congress and public opinion follow.” The problem is they conclude from this the president’s duty is to pressure Israel to capitulate and they are frustrated by the failure of Clinton and Bush 43 to “argue strongly against Israeli policies or practices that were largely unrelated to security but contradicted U.S. policies or interests, such as settlement expansion, and certain occupation policies.” Their prescription is for presidents to “engage in tough love with Israel.” This is the conclusion of Israel’s detractors going back at least to George Ball’s admonition that the United States save Israel from itself. Nowhere do the authors advocate showing similar affection toward the Arab states or Palestinians.

The authors say they were not mandated to study militant Islam, but how can a study of the region be taken seriously that ignores this element? In fact, the study’s title shows the authors are still married to the Arabist paradigm that Israel is in conflict with the Arab states and that the strength of U.S.- Israel ties is inversely related to U.S.-Arab relations. The reality today, however, is that the conflict is between militant Islam and the West, with Israel on the front line of the war. Israel has not fought a war with an Arab state since 1973 and has had correct relations with the Gulf and North African Arab states. Most Arab states are also at war with militant Islam and are therefore allied with the United States and are unaffected by what most now accept as an unshakeable bond between Jerusalem and Washington.

Given the consistent Arabist line of the book, it is not surprising that the recommendations call for turning the Arabists loose to devise their own vision of peace and then getting the president to bludgeon the Israelis to accept their plan.

Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace is indeed must reading for all future policy makers. It should be seen as a primer for precisely what not to do.


Sources: Mitchell Bard is the AICE Executive Director

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