The November “Peace Conference” is Unlikely to Result in Peace or a Unified Regional Position on Iran
Ed Note: The planned U.S.-sponsored Middle East “peace conference” is hubris, stemming from the charming but dangerous theory that Americans can, with enough effort, sincerity and good will, solve any problem. But American “can-do-ism” works best when America controls the conditions. In the case of Palestinians and Israelis, the United States does not control the central players, the peripheral players or the playing field.
Ed Note: The planned U.S.-sponsored Middle East “peace conference” is hubris, stemming from the charming but dangerous theory that Americans can, with enough effort, sincerity and good will, solve any problem. But American “can-do-ism” works best when America controls the conditions. In the case of Palestinians and Israelis, the United States does not control the central players, the peripheral players or the playing field. To focus on the level of American attention or sincerity inverts the issue from Arab intransigence and Palestinian terrorism to America’s failure to engage.(1) This fails to account for the possibility that Arabs/Palestinians/Muslims (Iran) really, really believe that the creation of Israel was a mistake by the international community and that the mistake must be corrected either by diplomacy or by force.
The impetus for the conference appears to be the Administration’s growing understanding that stability for the region requires the reduction of Iran’s ability to influence events through the export of radical Shi’ism or through the acquisition of nuclear weapons technology and delivery systems. Although most of the Sunni Arab states, including most importantly Saudi Arabia, do in fact fear Iranian aggression, they have made a resolution of the “Palestinian problem” a precondition for active engagement with the United States. Whether this is because they believe it necessary to take that step first or because they know the U.S. efforts will not succeed and they can therefore forestall cooperation with the Americans is entirely unclear. It is clear that the Bush Administration, particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has accepted the challenge of “solving the Palestinian problem.”
The United States cannot “solve” what is called the “Palestinian problem.” This is not to say the Administration can’t pressure Israel into doing dangerous things; or that the Israeli government won’t choose to do dangerous things, only that those things won’t solve the problem.
The Palestinians are weak players who a) really do believe the creation of Israel was a mistake at their expense, and b) cannot get out in front of their economic and political sponsors in making concessions to Israel. As long as the most radical Muslim states (Iran is a major player here) arm, supply and finance Palestinian groups, no single Palestinian group can agree to concessions to Israel and make those concessions stick. The Arab problem could possibly be tackled in a conference without Israel, in which the United States makes it clear that only an updating of the Arab/Muslim position on Israel’s legitimacy will garner American support for any other Arab objectives. Such a conference is highly unlikely, and the conference that is likely is doomed to fail.
Parties with fundamentally opposing interests (each interest well-grounded in its own history) do not voluntarily “negotiate” away those interests for “peace” or even for promises of American largesse. (Iranian largesse and threats are a counterweight.) The United States cannot bribe the parties to change the way they behave toward one another in order to create the atmosphere that could result in “peace.” There is no historical reference point for such voluntary changes in national strategy or tactics.(2)
“Peace” is a condition, not a political/military objective; it is what may emerge from political/military conditions on the ground. Peace itself may be short-lived, unstable, cold, or “the peace of the dead.” American demands for unattainable changes in behavior and ideology could easily slip into American pressure for the parties to conform to the American view, leading to the questions on whom pressure will be applied and how.
With history as a guide, the United States has little with which to pressure the Palestinians and a great deal of leverage over Israel, resulting in changed and weakened standards for Palestinian behavior.(3)
The Role of a Peace Conference
The sole purpose of any international conference should be to provide Israel with recognition of its legitimacy and permanence in the region by the Arab States and, if possible, by the Palestinians. Israel was the party wronged in 1948 and Israel is entitled to redress by the neighbors; the limbo of the Palestinians is a byproduct of the Arab refusal to accept the international community’s decision and its determination to reverse the establishment of the State of Israel. Over the years, the Palestinians have assumed the role of aggrieved party, entitled to redress by Israel.
The specific wording of UN Resolution 242 remains relevant:
Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.
The Annapolis conference, as described by Secretary of State Rice, is to set the conditions for the creation of a Palestinian State. This is an inversion of the aggrieved parties and the result can already be seen in American diplomacy.
Secretary Rice said Arab countries, including Syria, which maintains an active state of war with Israel, could come to the “peace conference” as long as their attendance reflects “acceptance of international efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and support for the ultimate goal of a two-state solution and a comprehensive regional peace agreement.” This substitutes vague nods toward “international efforts” for the very specific language of Resolution 242 and for the President’s own formulation that, “The Arabs should end the fiction that Israel does not exist, stop official incitement and send cabinet level visitors to Israel.” Arab acceptance of UN Resolution 242, meaning active Arab acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy and permanence should be the goal of any conference, not the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In all previous conferences, primarily during the Oslo period but at the earlier Madrid Conference as well, three specific areas of policy disconnect emerged:
- Status of Refugees, which the Palestinians refer to as the “right of return”
The same three issues exist today, but the principals are less able to make concessions than they were in 1991 as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, or throughout the 1990s under the constant pressure of the American administration.
- The Israeli government, though stable, is weak.
- The Palestinian government is not only split, but fractured.
While Hamas controls Gaza, Fatah does not completely control the West Bank. The population there is less radical and maintains ties to Jordan to some extent, but Hamas is active on the West Bank – particularly in the universities and unions, major centers of Palestinian organization – and threatens Abu Mazen’s control on a daily basis, according to both American and Israeli sources. IDF control of the security situation in the West Bank helps to give the illusion of Fatah control, but if the IDF was to withdraw, Fatah would find itself in battle again.(4)
The U.S. interest in this point is twofold: Abu Mazen’s ability to concede anything on the three fundamental points is limited and his ability to deliver on any concessions he makes is even more limited; and Fatah’s ability to fight Hamas, despite millions in American aid and the training and support of an American Army general, proved to be totally inadequate – not to mention that Fatah troops engaged in behaviors that should preclude them from receiving American military assistance, including extra-judicial killings and the reported execution of wounded Hamas fighters.
The Government of Israel and the Government of the United States
The Government of Israel is the only body entitled to make sovereign decisions about security and borders for the people of Israel, with the exception of circumstances surrounding Jerusalem.(5) This should not be interpreted as agreement with any specific actions of the Israeli government, but a broad statement of principles. There are times and instances in which the United States and friends of Israel can and do disagree with a policy decision of the Government of Israel.
It is essential, however, that the Israeli government should have a full and accurate understanding of the policies and positions of the United States in determining security parameters for itself.(6)
The American Priority is Iran
The current American priority in the region is to forge a unified Arab position on Iran, isolating radical Shi’ites and ensuring stability for Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf. The establishment of a Palestinian state appears important to the Administration only insofar as it would encourage/enable Arab states to cooperate more closely with the United States and would permit the Arab states to cooperate with Israel in opposition to Iran. The importance of a unified regional position on Iran is unclear, but it is quite clear that it will not be achieved by trying to bribe the Palestinians or pressure the Israelis.
For one thing, Iran itself is heavily invested in supporting radical Palestinian elements and in supporting the government of Syria – reducing the likelihood that either can move toward Israel or can deliver on promises it makes – and ensuring that Iran takes steps to maintain its position in both camps.
But Iran requires an Iran policy.
In fact, all the problems of the Middle East have to be approached as they are, not as they would be if Israel was not there or if Palestine was there.
- The Saudis, Jordan and the Gulf States are worried about Iran.
- The Syrians are worried about Sunni jihad.
- Lebanon requires concerted Western help, including sealing the border with Syria.
- Egypt is frozen between an ailing Mubarak with no successor and the potential rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
- The Palestinians are split between the corrupt, secular Fatah and the Iranian-backed, religious Hamas – both violent and repressive.
- Iraq’s borders need to be controlled on both ends.
- America’s relations with Turkey are frayed and require attention.
None of these crucial problems would be any less so with the addition of a corrupt, terrorist-supporting Palestinian state in the region.
- Such insistence on American primacy is not limited to the Palestinian issue. A Democratic candidate for president was asked about possible American military action against Iran. The candidate replied that diplomacy is to be preferred, saying, “We haven’t even seriously tried diplomacy yet.” Ignoring the fact that the UN and the Europeans have tried extensive diplomacy with Iran, it inverts the problem from Iranian behavior to American behavior. The candidate appears to believe the United States is the problem or America could fix the problem if only it tried harder.
- Dennis Ross postulated in The Washington Post, “Hamas would have to enforce the cease-fire – not merely observe it. Hamas’s readiness to enforce it would mean for the first time that Hamas was acting to prevent ‘resistance,’ which would signal that its fundamental credo might be changed.” Does Ross have evidence that Hamas has plans to change its “fundamental credo” following victory in Gaza?
- Reference the original Oslo Accords and all subsequent agreements under the Clinton administration. Reference also the terms of President Bush’s June 24, 2002 speech with American demands for changes in Palestinian behavior as preconditions for American support of a Palestinian state and the subsequent Road Map. None of the Palestinian obligations have been met; each failure resulted in new “agreements.”
- Reference the situation in Gaza following Israel’s disengagement in which Hamas rose and overthrew Fatah. Abu Mazen calls the Palestinian civil war Israel’s fault for leaving unilaterally. This is, again, an inversion of the problem. Internal Palestinian dissention and the war are a problem of the Palestinians, caused by the Palestinians and only resolvable by the Palestinians. Israel didn’t cause it and Israel cannot fix it.
- Jerusalem is the eternal, indivisible capital of the Jewish people, not only the sovereign State of Israel. As such, the Jewish people have a legitimate interest in the governance and security of the Holy City.
- JINSA has some specific experience here, regarding both the Golan Heights and Israel’s planned sale of Phalcon reconnaissance aircraft to China. In 1999-2000, Israel was proposing ceding the Golan Heights to Syria with the – inaccurate – assumption that the United States could be induced to secure Israel’s position through the use of American troops or monitors. Such a deployment was never considered possible by the U.S. government, and JINSA was instrumental in making the U.S. case in Israel. In the second case, JINSA advised the Israeli government that American military and political attitudes toward China in the late 1990s had changed. It was JINSA’s view – later proven correct – that prior American acquiescence to the sale would be reversed and Israel would come under fire for its military sales relationship with China.