#52: Iraq Study Group Goes Astray On Israel
(December 6, 2006)
The Iraq Study Group was tasked with assessing the situation in Iraq and the bulk of their report is devoted to their assigned topic. After more than 50 pages, however, the group deviates from its purpose and, without any analysis, improvises a number of provocative recommendations for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict that indicate little or no recognition of the causes of the dispute and the obstacles to its resolution.
The report asserts that the conflict is “inextricably linked” to the situation in Iraq. This is demonstrably false. If the conflict ended tomorrow or Israel disappeared, it would have no impact whatsoever on the situation in Iraq. The violence is based on internal political, social, economic and religious rivalries that are completely unrelated to Israel. The interjection of prescriptions for solving the Arab-Israeli conflict was apparently done to satisfy the authors’ desire to weigh in on issues that were beyond its mandate.
The authors state that “there must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and President Bush’s June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This commitment must include direct talks with, by, and between Israel, Lebanon, Palestinians (those who accept Israel’s right to exist), and Syria.” They also assert that “political engagement and dialogue are essential in the Arab-Israeli dispute because it is an axiom that when the political process breaks down there will be violence on the ground.”
In fact, the history of U.S. diplomacy suggests that engagement does not lessen violence or contribute toward the achievement of peace. Every administration has proposed a peace initiative and they all have one common trait – failure. The absence of peace is not a function of a lack of diplomatic activity or the inability to devise a formula the parties will accept; conflict continues because much of the Middle East, in particular the Islamists, refuses to accept the existence of Israel.
The report is particularly deficient in recognizing the changes in the region since the co-chairs were directly involved in policymaking. Today, the Arab-Israeli conflict no longer exists. Israel has peace or de facto peace with every state in the region. Even the most belligerent parties, Syria and Iran, are not prepared to directly engage Israel, preferring to fight through terrorist proxies. The conflict is now sustained principally by the Islamists who have no interest in negotiations and will never accept a Jewish state anywhere in the Muslim world. The failure to grasp what is the single most important factor shaping not only the conflict with Israel, but the cause of much of the instability in the region and around the world severely diminishes the value of the report.
The authors state that UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 should be the basis for peace. Israel has agreed and withdrawn from 94 percent of the territory captured in 1967, but where is the peace they say should come from giving up land? Israel evacuated from 100 percent of the Gaza Strip last summer and it has gotten only Qassam rockets and terror in return.
The authors state “the only lasting and secure peace will be a negotiated peace such as Israel has achieved with Egypt and Jordan.” Those agreements were indeed important achievements, both of which were negotiated primarily without U.S. engagement. In the case of Egypt, the treaty with Israel was made possible once Anwar Sadat concluded President Jimmy Carter’s Middle East policy was so misguided the only way he would recover the Sinai was to take unilateral action and go to Jerusalem. Though the treaty with Egypt was a milestone, it is not the best model as the Egyptians have done little to live up to the spirit of the agreement and it has remained a cold peace. Similarly, Israel and Jordan had agreed on the framework for peace before President Bill Clinton became involved in finalizing the treaty.
The report’s recommendations regarding the Palestinian issue are remarkably weak. They simply call for negotiations “along the lines of President Bush’s two-state solution.” It offers no suggestion of how any of the final status issues would be resolved or why there should be any expectation that the Palestinians can or will give up their irredentist views on borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem.
The report says that a negotiated peace would strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but what evidence is there that Abbas has the power to negotiate? He cannot even control his own cabinet let alone the Palestinian Authority, so why would any Israeli believe he could fulfill any promises, especially given his failure to meet the obligations the Palestinians made to stop terror in the Oslo agreements and reiterated in their acceptance of the road map?
The recommendation to support a Palestinian national unity government contradicts the report’s earlier prerequisite that negotiations take place with “those who accept Israel’s right to exist.” The current Palestinian Prime Minister and his Hamas party have repeatedly made clear they will never recognize Israel and remain committed to its destruction.
Given that the co-chair of the study group is James Baker, it is not surprising that the report recommends an international conference similar to the one he organized in Madrid in 1991. He considered this meeting a great feat of diplomacy, and it was in the sense that it brought parties around the table that had previously refused to meet. In terms of advancing the peace process or reaching concrete agreements, however, it was a failure. In fact, Baker and his successor’s initiatives were so unsuccessful the Israelis and Palestinians ultimately resorted to secret negotiations that resulted in the Oslo accords.
Rather than seek to have meetings for the sake of the accomplishment of bringing the parties together, the focus of U.S. diplomacy needs to be on continuing to pressure the Palestinians and other Middle East states to end their support for terrorism. Negotiations cannot succeed as long as the violence continues and Israeli soldiers are held hostage.
The report’s recommendation that Israel engage Syria ignores decades of diplomatic history. The United States has repeatedly engaged in negotiations with Syria and diplomats inevitably come out of their meetings extolling the frankness of the discussions and the Syrians subsequently sabotage every American initiative. To give one recent example, when Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Damascus in April 2003, he emerged from a meeting with a pledge from President Bashar Assad to close down the offices of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. As with Assad’s earlier pledge to Powell regarding closing down the Iraqi oil pipeline, however, the promise proved empty.
The report’s recommendations regarding Syria’s obligations related to Lebanon are fine though, with the exception of the demand that it seal its border with Iraq, irrelevant to the mandate of the study group. The authors also makes a giant leap from stating what Syria should do in Lebanon to the recommendation that Israel should return the Golan Heights. Again, the issue of the Golan has nothing to do with Iraq. Moreover, the study’s language implies that Israel has not already offered to trade the Golan for a “full and secure peace agreement.” In fact, Yitzhak Rabin and his successors were prepared to make such a deal, but neither Bashar Assad nor his father were willing to end the conflict in exchange for any amount of territory. If anything, Assad has only grown more belligerent since the war between Israel and Hizballah.
In the end, the study group has produced some interesting ideas for addressing the situation in Iraq, but gone beyond their mandate to suggest irrelevant and largely untenable recommendations for addressing broader issues in the region. The conflict involving Israel is too important and complex to be relegated to a series of bullet points in a 142-page document on an unrelated topic.