Can the US want peace more than Israel and the Palestinians?

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

MJ Rosenberg, the always-outspoken former IPF official who now works and blogs for Media Matters, posted an interesting item on Friday that challenges one of the bromides Middle East analysts – this one included – often use.

The overused expression is this:  the United States “can’t want peace more than the parties themselves.”

Rosenberg argues that it’s not true; “The United States can indeed want an agreement more than the parties do and can achieve it even if Israelis and Palestinians drag their feet. After all, the US has considerable leverage on both sides.”

His proof: “Remember what Jimmy Carter did at Camp David. He clearly wanted an agreement more than Sadat and Begin, who kept trying to escape the summit. But Carter persisted, achieved a deal and, for thirty years now, not a shot has been fired in anger by either side.”

That achievement, he wrote,  continues to serve U.S. as well as Israeli interests.  The “United States does not traditionally broker peace deals out of love for the disputants but because it is in our own interests to do so,” he wrote.

Do I buy MJ’s argument? Maybe. A determined U.S. president willing to take the not-insignificant political risks inherent in pushing and pressuring Israel and the Palestinians into a deal might succeed.

But there are differences. Israeli and the Palestinians live cheek by jowl, not with the minimal separation that exists between Israel and Egypt.

Egypt is and was a soverign nation,  with a stable leadership capable of making decisions and enforcing them; it’s pretty clear that’s not true for the Palestinians.  Could Israel rely on any agreement inked by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, even though Hamas still controls Gaza and Abbas himself has not proven to be much of a leader?

In Egypt, Israel faced a traditional army, under the control of an authoritarian leader in Cairo; in the Palestinians, it faces diverse terrorist groups as well as a factionalized Fatah, and outside actors like Iran interested in keeping the pot at a boil. I suspect there’s a big difference.

Still, it’s an interesting argument, and it points to how we, as Mideast analysts, tend to accept certain premises without sufficient analysis – like the idea U.S. efforts are pointless because “We can’t want peace more than the parties themselves.”  Too often, that expression is simply an excuse for Washington doing nothing to resolve the conflict, for presidents shrinking from the political risks real U.S. Middle East involvement always entails. 

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.