In Terre Haute, Indiana, this week, Donald Trump, the likely Republican Party nominee for President, said that he would work to get a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
According to a TOI news report, Trump claimed that he’d “never met a person from Israel that didn’t want to make that deal.” Indeed, public opinion polls have shown that consistent majorities of Israelis favor a two-state solution. Trump also said, “You know, they [the Palestinians] grow up as young children hating, hating, hating Israel.” Regrettably, this also seems accurate, the result of an ongoing flood of incitement against Israel in the Palestinian media, educational curricula, and mosques. Surprisingly, Trump continued, “I think the deal can be made. But we got to be smart, and we got to use our best people; gotta use me, but you got to use our best people. And I know the best people.”
Before proceeding too far in this direction, Mr. Trump really has to include Professor Michael Mandelbaum as one of the “best people” he turns to.
In a recent Commentary essay entitled, The Peace Process Is an Obstacle to Peace, Professor Mandelbaum performed an outstanding service by insisting on truth-telling about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. His essay contains highly relevant recommendations regarding the peace process for the next U.S. President.
Mandelbaum is a prominent academic who has worked on U.S. foreign policy issues for many years. He is Professor and Director of the American Foreign Policy program at the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. He has written or edited numerous books on American foreign policy.
What are some of Mandelbaum’s main points in his essay?
He begins by inquiring why the peace process that has been pursued by successive U.S. administrations has consistently ended in failure. He characterizes the American approach as one that regards making peace as a problem similar to a labor negotiation where each side desires a solution and the role of the mediator is to find a set of compromises that both sides can agree to. Given Donald Trump’s long experience making business deals, his comments in Terre Haute suggest that he takes a similar approach. However, Mandelbaum writes, “In fact, each side has wanted the conflict to end, but in radically different and indeed incompatible ways that have made a settlement impossible: (emphasis added.) The Israelis have wanted peace; the Palestinians have wanted the destruction of Israel.”
Mandelbaum continues, ” 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…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.”
Instead of publicly confronting this core Palestinian refusal, American officials have instead focused on Israel’s control of the West Bank, and its attendant settlement construction, as the reason for the continuing conflict. According to Mandelbaum, “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.” A majority of Israelis hold this view because they have internalized the lessons of Israel’s previous withdrawals from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, where Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza took full control and used the territories to attack Israel repeatedly.
Mandelbaum argues that the peace process no longer serves American interests. Indeed, he states that “the peace process has actually obstructed a settlement of the conflict by supporting—unintentionally—the current Palestinian strategy for eliminating the Jewish state.” Mandelbaum’s view is that the Palestinians are now pursuing their third strategy against Israel since 1948. First, there were frontal attacks by armed forces aiming to conquer and annihilate the Jewish State. Following the stunning defeat of Arab forces in 1967, the second strategy was to use terrorism to demoralize Israelis, hoping that such attacks would lead to Israel’s internal collapse. This strategy reached its height of intensity during the so-called second Intifada, which lasted several years following the failure of the Camp David peace talks in July 2000. This strategy didn’t work either. So, in recent years, the Palestinians’ third strategy has been to undermine Israel’s legitimacy, much as was done to South Africa several decades ago. Mandelbaum notes, “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.”
Why does Mandelbaum write that continuation of the same old peace process assists delegitimation? “It encourages their belief that it will 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.”
If the new U.S. Administration is to avoid another peace process failure, what should it do? Mandelbaum urges two steps.
“First, it should tell the truth about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict: namely, that the responsibility for creating and perpetuating it rests with the Palestinian side. Peace requires that the Palestinians accept international law: Israel is a legitimate, internationally recognized sovereign state. It requires that they accept international custom: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and the nation-state is the standard form of political organization in the world. And peace requires that the Palestinians accept the norms of common decency and common sense: The Jews have the same right to sovereignty as any other people. Peace, that is, requires a fundamental change of attitude on the part of the Palestinians, nothing less.” [emphasis added.]
Some will object to such blunt words. After all, public diplomacy generally ignores the most contentious issues or employs ambiguous language that intentionally blurs the truth. The problem is that such an approach has repeatedly failed to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Second, if the peace process is to continue, “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.” Mandelbaum also notes that such a demand has no historical precedent. There were several other major refugee migrations in the 20th Century and no demands were ever made for the return of those refugees.
Mandelbaum notes that “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.”
These two basic changes in the U.S. approach to the peace process are necessary but not sufficient conditions for achieving an end to the conflict. “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.” But, these U.S. changes would lessen the appeal of the delegitimation strategy by “making clear that the Unites States rejects the strategy’s premises.” Doing so might ultimately induce a change in approach on the part of the Palestinians. Mandelbaum concludes: “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.”
Although this article has quoted Mandelbaum extensively, there are numerous other good points in his essay that have not been cited. It is worth reading in full. One hopes that Donald Trump will read it and take it to heart, resisting the hubris of thinking that his great negotiation skills or those of his “best people” will do the trick. If Mandelbaum is right, such efforts are doomed to failure. One also hopes that Hillary Clinton will read it as well and will follow Mandelbaum’s wise advice if she is elected.