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The unilateral disengagement of the American titans of peace

Exhausted, resigned, disillusioned, two-staters are pivoting away from the Middle East

What does unilateral disengagement sound like today? If you are listening for the noise of soldier uprooting settler, your attention is focused not only on the wrong signals, but on the wrong continent. A new unilateral disengagement is emerging from the other side of the Atlantic, having sounded a final call before falling into a deep, eerie silence.

This is the silence that comes when the American dreamers of Middle East peace stop believing, and therefore, stop talking. Silence is the sound of Washington, D.C.’s erstwhile titans of peace unilaterally disengaging, for the moment – or perhaps longer – from the cause that has helped define their professional careers.

How does this form of unilateral disengagement preface its silence? How about this: “I’m trying to make my own pivot to Asia, both because the Middle East is so maddening and depressing.” Or this: “That era…full of peace conferences and White House signing ceremonies…has passed.” Or this: “For those who follow Israeli politics, there is some nervousness… people here wonder where Israel is heading.” Or this: “I no longer believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will occur in my lifetime. I have not changed my views; I have merely lost my hopes.”

These are not the cries of some knee-jerk leftists or neo-con rightists; rather, these are the resigned assessments – all given within the last two months – from, respectively: Jeffrey Goldberg, Robert Satloff, David Makovsky, and Leon Wieseltier, four of the most respected, distinguished, and brilliant two-state solution advocates and/or experts of the past two decades.

These titans wrote of their despair. And since then – silence. No new calls for peace talks. No new road maps. No new hopes, aspirations, or prospects. Silence – this is the sound of titans on the retreat, of members of a once-vigorous, once-powerful movement, each of whom is now choosing to evacuate his political space. Their void is quickly being filled by one-state solutionists – those who see no room for Israel, those who see no room for Palestine, and those who certainly see no room for compromise.

After eight years of unilateral moves within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perhaps unilateral disengagement from the Arab-Israeli conflict was to be expected from the discursive centrist, pro-peace camp. After Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza begot an empowered Hamas; after the Palestinian unilateral bid for statehood in 2011 resulted in Israeli temporary tax withholding measures; after Israel’s continued unilateral settlement building in the West Bank led to Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad’s disempowerment and disenchantment; after the Palestinians’ unilateral UN statehood move this year paved the way for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pronouncement that settlement planning would proceed for the highly contentious E1 region connecting Ma’ale Adumim and East Jerusalem; perhaps unilateral evacuation from the peace process itself was the two-state solutionist’s natural maneuver.

Couple this sequence with an Arab Spring and a looming Iranian threat that have both entirely reshaped the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and significantly reduced the likelihood of its resolution, and the stage is set for disillusionment and disengagement.

Word on the street is that the amount of resources the White House will be willing to invest in Israeli-Palestinian issues is going to plummet at the outset of the new administration. The smart money says that the State Department’s Israeli-Palestinian desk will be shrinking. Even the President himself, who four years ago made a star-studded push for an end to Israeli-Palestinian hostilities by bringing on board such power brokers as Senator George Mitchell and Ambassador Dennis Ross, has already announced his pivot away from the Middle East toward international issues where he might actually have a prayer of moving the needle. As for Mitchell and Ross, both have resigned their posts – no doubt, due to resignation of a different sort.

Outside of government, many of those who have devoted their careers to Israeli-Arab peace – be they senior personnel at NGOs, journalists covering the conflict, or think tank wonks – are moving on to entirely different careers. They are simply exhausted, resigned, disillusioned.

The unilateral disengagement of the peace process titans may be only temporary. One characteristic that has defined the titans has been their persistence to push for the dream when given even the slightest glimmer of hope. One major signal from Mahmoud Abbas, one gesture by Netanyahu’s next coalition toward centrist actors such as Yair Lapid or Tzipi Livni, and the titans could return in full force.

But for now, as the beltway clears for the holidays, silence has descended upon Washington, D.C. Even as this city’s streets refill in a few short days, it remains unclear when the silence will end.

About the Author
Mark is a non-resident research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.