It appears that a new American Mideast initiative is in the offing. After meeting with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his first foreign trip as President, President Trump announced that the region was “ready for peace”. This week, he will send his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to jump start the talks.
I wrote previously that I doubt the region is “ready for peace”. I don’t feel the Palestinians are prepared to give up their perceived “right” to try to destroy Israel. Recognizing however that one always can be wrong, and in the spirit of eternal optimism, permit me to suggest the way forward if the United States is serious about brokering Mideast peace.
- Start at the finish line and work backwards.
Both sides in the Arab-Israeli dispute claim to be willing to begin negotiations with no pre-conditions. From an American perspective as facilitator, this is precisely the wrong approach.
Before America initiates another effort, it must obtain assurances from both sides that the ultimate goal is attainable. From the Palestinians, this means that they will have to convince the Americans that the Palestinians will agree to live in peace side-by-side with Israel; that they will agree to recognize both the existence of Israel and Israel’s right to exist; and that they publicly will issue an “End of Conflict” communique.
From the Israelis, it means that they must show America that Israel will accept the creation of a Palestinian state with the removal of most if not all Israeli settlements in what becomes of that state; that Palestine will have control over its own affairs (subject to certain Israeli security guarantees); and that Palestine will have its capital in the Eastern part of Jerusalem.
This last point will appall Israeli nationalists and those who believe in the “unified Jerusalem” concept. However, there is much in the “One Jerusalem” position that is artificial. Jerusalem’s municipal borders have changed over time. There are numerous neighborhoods now within the municipality that have little connection to Jerusalem’s historical and religious significance. These neighborhoods could be relinquished by Israel without much difficulty. Still, some areas remain deeply emotional to both sides. Quite simply, there is no way the Palestinian government could or would accept giving away full control over all of the Holy City. If “true peace” is attainable (which I doubt), neither side can control all of Jerusalem.
There are at least three reasons why it will be destructive to commence a peace initiative without previously obtaining commitments from each side about the ultimate goal. First, almost seventy years of attempted Mideast peacemaking has failed, resulting in tremendous acrimony and, for America, a large waste of time by successive American administrations. With each failed attempt, each side needs more convincing that the next time the other party is serious. For America, the time and effort spent in each failed attempt certainly could have been put to better use elsewhere.
Second, whenever only one side is serious about the ultimate goal, not only will that goal not be attained, the act of negotiating at that time makes it more difficult for the future. In these cases the side exhibiting good faith makes offers to the other side that are not reciprocated, just pocketed for subsequent use – witness Ehud’s Barak comprehensive peace offer in 2000 to Yasser Arafat. Arafat refused and began a terror war. If and when negotiations resume, however, can any Palestinian accept an agreement that does not go at least as far as Barak’s offer in 2000?
Third, the one situation America needs to avoid is where there is a “process” without any real potential for peace. Whenever this happens it gives a weapon to the party not acting in good faith. The weapon will be used to threaten the other side without having to give anything in return. If the insincere party wants something, or wants to prevent something, it claims that actions by the other party will harm the peace “process”.
We saw this during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush eras. Parties with no real interest in full peace, such as former Syrian President Hafez-el-Assad, often would claim that Israeli actions ran the risk of hurting the peace “process”. Assad never had any intention of making peace, but his statements made it appear that he did. Just this month President Trump signed a Presidential waiver refusing to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Trump was fearful of Arab reaction and the potential to harm any Mideast peace “process”. Again, the threat of damage to the “process” caused a change in American policy without obtaining any quid pro quo from the other side.
- Engage in the “Broken Windows” Theory of Peacemaking
Rudolph Giuliani was elected Mayor of New York City in 1993. When he took office, the murder rate in New York averaged over 2,000 per year and other crime was rampant. Giuliani and his Police Commissioner, William Bratton, decided to implement the “Broken Windows” theory of policing the City.
Previously, the New York City Police Department mostly ignored smaller crimes like vandalism, graffiti and littering. Instead, the NYPD concentrated on the larger issues of murder, assault and rape.
Giuliani and Bratton realized that the constant little offenses, like breaking windows, established the character of a neighborhood and affected the mindset of the population. By getting tough on the little offenses which destroyed a neighborhood’s character, they could change how that neighborhood was perceived, how it perceived itself and how its people acted.
So it is with Israel and the Middle East. Israel is the only country that is a permanent agenda item of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Israel has been censured by the United Nations and its various agencies more times than all other countries combined. The BDS movement continues to try to destroy Israel’s reputation with anyone and everyone.
These actions produce a mindset that Israel is evil – an “apartheid state” – and a country that engages in constant activities incompatible with acceptable international behavior. It makes it easier for the Palestinians to generate sympathy for their cause, even when they are much responsible for their own situation.
Look at recent events at the World Health Organization. This is the same organization that helped eradicate polio. In May the WHO refused to publicize a draft report complimenting Israel’s cooperation with the Organization’s mission to the Golan Heights. The report was being circulated but was stopped by Syrian (!) pressure. Instead the WHO approved a resolution condemning Israel, renewing the annual status of Israel as a special agenda item for perceived Human Rights Violations and demanding that the WHO’s director-general report on measures of scrutiny applied to no other country.
Those few of us who follow this news closely know how absurd and ridiculous the singling out of Israel is. But the overwhelming majority of people in the world do not understand this. They see Israel constantly portrayed as an aggressor, an occupier, a denier of Palestinian rights and a country who acts constantly in violation of international law. The impact has been profound. A tiny country that goes out of its way to defend itself while minimizing civilian casualties is perceived internationally as a mendacious world bully.
To truly make peace, the international mindset must change. The first way to do this is for the United States at all levels to call out the UN, all of its constituent agencies and all of the forces of BDS wherever and whenever they act. Fortunately, President Trump made an inspired choice for UN Ambassador in Nikki Haley. The former South Carolina Governor has attacked her role with gusto. Two weeks ago, she personally visited the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva and informed them the consistent anti-Israel bias will not be tolerated. She and the rest of the Administration need to go further.
For decades an anti-Israel vote at the UN was seen as an easy and painless way for countries to curry favor with the Arabs while not having any real downside. The impact may not have been immediate, but it has been corrosive. That must change. Ambassador Haley, Secretary of State Tillerson and the rest of the American Administration should be vocal and immediate in letting countries like France (which voted in favor of the Syrian-backed WHO resolution) understand that there will be a price for such actions. All similar blatantly anti-Israel votes must be noted publically and a cost should be extracted from those who cast votes in favor.
- Correct the International Narrative
Since 1967, peacemaking has been based on the concept that Israel is the occupying power and therefore must give. The Palestinians simply receive. We see this often in the demand that Israel engage in “confidence building measures”, which involve unilateral concessions to the Palestinians. Negotiations then are to proceed on that basis, between the aggressor and the aggrieved.
This narrative is flawed. The Palestinians have had innumerable opportunities to end the occupation and establish their state, but refuse to pay the necessary price. Their aggression has not been one of land seizure but of socialization of hate and conquest. They teach their children every day, often in UN sponsored schools, that Israel and Jews are evil and must be eliminated.
True peace is not just a function of land compromise, it also involves a complete change of worldview. For every Israeli concession demanded in terms of land, settlements, prisoners, etc., an equal Palestinian concession must be demanded in terms of incitement, educational priorities, payment to terrorist families, international attempts at Israeli isolation and so on.
We must appreciate and make clear internationally that we are not seeking to make peace between usurper and victim. We are striving for peace between two parties, neither of whom has a monopoly on virtue, and each of whom must relinquish things near and dear to them to serve the greater good of their people.
- Relentlessly Pursue American Policy
Since Oslo, American policy has been straightforward. We believe in a two-state solution with each nation living side-by-side in peace and security. We serve that policy best when we act in ways consistent with it, and refuse to let either side’s politics sidetrack us. An obvious example is Jerusalem. American policy is – or should be- that each state will have the right to place its capital wherever it wants within its own territory. As following UN Resolution 2334 there is no doubt that West Jerusalem is Israeli, there is no reason to allow America’s proper policy to be sidetracked by Arab rejectionism.
Conversely, we should not sit idly by while Israel acts on its settlement policy in ways that we feel conflict with American interests. Israel’s political reality may require increasing settlements in outlying areas that do little for Israeli security but stake a claim of Israeli nationalists to the entirety of the West Bank. From an American perspective, we should speak clearly and directly that such actions are not consistent with American interests and we do not support them. In egregious cases, we should demand a price for such actions. We are an ally of Israel but cannot be controlled by it. We have aspirations for the Palestinians but cannot be constrained by their actions. The quicker each side realizes this the better our chances to effect real change.
Even by following these steps, I find it unlikely that America can bring peace to the Arab/Israeli conflict. As I wrote last month, I feel the Palestinians believe they gain by refusing to make peace and continuing to use international pressure. Nothing would please me more than to be wrong, however. If we truly want peace, and not just a temporary cessation of hostilities, I submit following the steps outlined above not only is the best way to accomplish this, it is the only way.