walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: May 11, 2010
The Middle East Peace Industry

George Mitchell (below) has arrived in Jerusalem and the ‘proximity talks’ have started, but it is not at all clear what will come of them.

The Middle East peace process is the longest running piece of diplomatic theater on the world stage.  Dating from World War One, the effort to reconcile the aspirations of the Jews and the Arabs for statehood in the lands seized from the Ottoman Empire by the Allies in World War One and assigned to the British has inspired wave after wave of commission reports, diplomatic ventures, formal and informal negotiations direct and indirect between the parties, debates and resolutions in the League of Nations and the UN, passionate political debates within the region and beyond, one war after another, and waves of ethnic violence and terrorism by both Arabs and Jews.


The debate has always been between two general visions of the future of the land: a one-state solution in which the region’s Arab majority would establish a state with varying levels of possible protection and autonomy for the Jews (ranging from expulsion to some kind of confederal status) or a multi-state solution in which a Jewish state and one or more Arab states would divide the territory with varying levels of protection and guarantees for minorities caught on the ‘wrong’ side of the borders.

Classically, the Arabs have rejected partition plans, taking the view that the natural and historical majority of the people should be able to exercise the right of self determination and form a single state in Palestine.  During the Oslo era, many (though never all) Palestinian leaders accepted the idea that the best realistic option would be a further partition of British Palestine into two states west of the Jordan River.  (Jordan was carved out of Palestine earlier in the century; technically, what people now call the ‘two state solution’ should be called the ‘three state solution': there would be one Jewish and two Arab states in the territory Britain took from the Ottomans in World War One.)  Now there are signs that the two-state era in Arab politics is coming to an end, and that the next stage will see Arabs returning to the idea that there should be just one state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.  On present demographic trends, this state would have a Palestinian majority sometime in the next generation or so; at that time the Jewish state of Israel would convert into the non-confessional state of Palestine and the future of the Jews would be the concern of the state.

This, I think it is safe to say, will never happen.  The Jews resisted the Palestinian demand for a one state solution when the Jewish community in Palestine was weak, small, isolated and poor.  They will resist it again when their state is rich, strong, technologically advanced and enjoying strong trade and political relations with several great powers.

Some things don’t seem to change.  One is that outsiders want peace more than the participants in the conflict.  This isn’t because either the Israelis or the Palestinians are bloodthirsty and depraved.  It is because of the difference between the interests of outside powers and the parties to the conflict.  The outside powers — the British in the 193os, the Americans and Europeans today — want the conflict to end but aren’t wedded to any particular ending.  There is no line between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea that the EU and the US couldn’t accept as the border provided only that the Israelis and Palestinians both agree.  Most outsiders truly don’t care how the two combatants divide responsibility for the Noble Sanctuary and the Western Wall so long as they just stop fighting over it.  We can live with 0 Israeli settlements or 5 or 5,000 on the West Bank as long as both the West Bankers and the Israelis buy in.

That isn’t and can’t be the way the two parties think.  Israelis and Palestinians both care, passionately, about where the boundaries are, who gets what water, and what happens to the holy places.  One of the most fascinating and in its way hopeful presentations I saw here was from a Palestinian entrepreneur who is working with the Qataris and some other investors to develop what he hopes will someday be the first Palestinian planned city of Rawabi.  It’s a fantastic idea though the obstacles are formidable.  But as I listened to his pitch I found that one of the attractions of these centrally located apartment buildings is the view: from the balconies you can see the Mediterranean coast.

The equally visionary and enthusiastic mayor of an Israeli settlement in the Etzion Bloc of settlements deep in the West Bank made the same point: apartments in the settlement, he said, commanded high prices because of the panoramic views of the coast that they offered — from Gaza to Tel Aviv and beyond.

The point is that Israel and the West Bank are tiny.  Israel’s total area, including the Golan Heights, is about 8,000 square miles, smaller than New Jersey.  The West Bank is a little bit bigger than Delaware.  With 146 square miles, the Gaza strip is about twice the size of the District of Columbia.  Most of this land is uninhabitable desert.  Almost all of it lacks water.  At Israel’s narrowest point, the country is about nine miles wide; an intrepid 16-year-old could get from the hills on the western frontier to the coast in a couple of hours by skateboard.  The arid Gaza Strip holds roughly 1.5 million people in an arid and barren landscape without natural resources and with no sources of water other than overburdened aquifers.

Saeb Erekat, the eloquent and persuasive chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority and one of the most engaging human beings I have ever seen, speaks of creating a kind of greater Jericho of up to 700,000 inhabitants, many resettled from Gaza.  It’s a terrific idea (though I’m not sure that all of Jericho’s 60,000 current residents share my enthusiasm), but there is an enormous obstacle: water.  Jericho dates back 10,000 years and is one of the oldest human settlements anywhere in the world, but it owes its existence to a group of springs that could never support twelve times the current population.  There are no good alternatives nearby.  The Jordan River is almost exhausted by the time it reaches Jericho — near the receding shore of the Dead Sea.  Desalination of Dead Sea water is not a viable proposition; neither is desalinating Mediterranean water and pumping it over the mountains.  Israel, Palestine and Jordan will struggle for every drop of water in the Jordan basin; as their populations grow the struggle will intensify.


Every ridge, every aquifer, every inch of arable land and every acre of desert is the object of an intense, zero sum game for players who have gamed every scenario and matched wits for decades.  And behind the moderates in every camp are two groups of critics.  There are the hard men don’t believe peace is possible and don’t want their side to make any concessions in pursuit of utopian dreams.  And there are the crazies: the psychotic extremists found in both communities, addicted to a poisonous stew of rage, chauvinism and fear.  Both Palestinians and Israelis (like Yitzak Rabin) have been assassinated by their own crazies; the crazies on both sides also specialize in spectacular acts of aggression and murder calculated to stop the peace process dead in its tracks.

Oh: and some of the land is holy.  Abraham and his descendants wandered through this land for many centuries, hallowing groves and caves and hilltops.  Prophets preached, kings built, priests prayed and miracles occurred.  It all comes to a head in Jerusalem, where something like 2000 acres of the world’s holiest ground contain some of the most sacred shrines on the face of the earth.  Even the optimists shake their heads over this one.

Dividing Jerusalem so that each side can have a capital here is a colossal headache; the Israelis aren’t going to do this without checkpoints and barriers — and the Palestinians don’t want to go there.  In any case, physically dividing a city where people of different nationalities live on the same streets, the same alleys, in the same apartment buildings: this won’t be easy or fair or fun.

Now add in the politics and the geography of sacred space.

None of this means that peace isn’t desirable or possible.  But it means that when it gets down to the nitty gritty, both sides find much to dislike in any concrete peace proposal.  They have come tantalizingly close but they have never quite inked the deal; I suspect that is where things will remain.

There are powerful interests and powerful outside players pushing both parties towards an agreement; the Middle East peace industry isn’t going away.  The Americans want peace so this whole distracting and annoying headache will just stop.  The major Arab countries want to deprive Iran of the opportunity to play the Palestinian card as Iran struggles to gain street credibility in the Sunni world.  The EU hates all the noise and the brawling in the neighborhood, and with a growing Muslim population at home the Europeans want to reduce friction between the west and the Islamic world.  China, India and Japan would like to see less chaos and trouble in the part of the world that sends them so much oil.

Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis can afford to blow off the many interested outsiders who keep pushing them together.  But the gaps between the sides are so deep (even when they are not very wide), and the gaps within each side (between Israeli settlers and the pro-peace parties, between Fatah and Hamas) are so threatening, that peace is likely to remain a rare and temporary visitor to this troubled land.

show comments
  • nadine

    “And there are the crazies: the psychotic extremists found in both communities, addicted to a poisonous stew of rage, chauvinism and fear. Both Palestinians and Israelis (like Yitzak Rabin) have been assassinated by their own crazies; the crazies on both sides also specialize in spectacular acts of aggression and murder calculated to stop the peace process dead in its tracks.”

    Beware the easy seduction of the false equivalence. This makes it sound like both sides are the same, as if both sides kill their moderates.

    But if you look at the whole political histories of the Jews and Arabs in Palestine since the days of the yishuv: you find that Rabin was the only Jewish leader killed by a Jewish extremist, and the whole country was shocked. Can you name other examples, even of lesser men, ministers, mayors, killed by fellow Jews? I can’t think of any, even though half the country bitterly opposed Oslo.

    But on the Palestinian side it’s completely different. Look at the career of the Mufti, and of Arafat – how many times did these men consolidate their power through assassination? How many moderate Palestinians were charged with “collaberation” or “selling land to Jews” (both capital crimes in the PA) and killed? And now, do you think moderates dare to speak up in Gaza?

    The crazies rule in Gaza. And Fatah, with their central committee full of hardliners like Abu Ghaneim, is not far behind them. The crazies do not rule in Jerusalem.

    No, the two sides are not at all the same. You do a great injustice to Israel to imply they are.

    ” They have come tantalizingly close but they have never quite inked the deal; I suspect that is where things will remain.”

    No, they didn’t come close. Israel has offered three deals which the Palestinians have refused but never countered.

    That’s what is basically abnormal about Mideast negotiations: in most negotiations, the sides start far apart and move closer together. But in the Mideast “peace process” the Palestinians response to offers is to move further away, make new demands.

    That’s because they don’t want to actually make an agreement; they just want to deal, and deal, and deal some more, thinking they will get offered more and more each time. Obama has only confirmed them in the idea that they only need to wait to get everything for nothing.

    Abu Mazen has already demanded that Obama step in and “impose” a deal — what does that say about his confidence that no conditions whatsoever will be imposed on the Palestinian side? Abu Mazen’s only concern at these “talks” is to get Israel blamed for their inevitable failure so that he can demand again that Obama impose a solution on the Israelis.

  • Luke Lea

    “Jordan was carved out of Palestine earlier in the century; technically, what people now call the ‘two state solution’ should be called the ‘three state solution’: there would be one Jewish and two Arab states in the territory Britain took from the Ottomans in World War One.”

    Keep in mind that when Britain took Palestine from the Ottomans it wasn’t just something that happened but part of a coordinated attempt by the allies to win WWI, which included the Balfour Declaration itself. For the motives and diplomatic consultations that preceeded these events see “The Question of Palestine: 1914-1918″ by Friedman.

    On the question of water, there is a saying out West that water runs down hill except where there is money; water runs uphill towards money. The same might be said of the problems of supplying water to Jericho and other parts of the region. Indeed, with enough money there is really no limit to the number of people who could be settled in all three parts of the original Palestine. Maybe the Jordanians could be bribed to join in to the peace talks?

  • ShrinkWrapped

    Very nice summary of an intractable problem. Sometimes conflicts can’t be solved; they can only be managed.

  • Norwegian Shooter

    As for the post, I’ll only say it’s despicable that you call two Intifadas, Hamas’ rockets, Gilad Shalit, the Occupied Territories, the blockade of Gaza, the thousands of Palestinian political prisoners, the dozens of Palestinian political assassinations, and the numerous outright wars, a “distracting and annoying headache” for the US. And btw, our entire military leadership, civilian and military, have called the issue a huge problem that endangers our soldiers.


    I don’t know how many intra-Palestinian assassinations there have been or how many “moderate Palestinians were charged with “collaberation” [sic] or “selling land to Jews” (both capital crimes in the PA) and killed?” Can you provide some more information?

    But there have been dozens of Israeli assassinations of Palestinian politicians. How many politicians have the Palestinians assassinated?

  • Roy

    The water issue is vexing, but I thought countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia had in fact invested a lot in technologically advanced desalination plants.

    On a strangely positive note, I just finished Paul Berman’s new book, Flight of the Intellectuals, and though he is summarizing the work of other historians, he presents a fascinating summary of the history of the Nazi legacy in Palestine. It is astonishing. The Mufti of Jerusalem worked closely with Hitler and Himmler to craft a program of public diplomacy that tweaked the Nazi ideology about the treacherousness of Jews to be consonant with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, better known in Gaza as Hamas. (They had to soft-pedal the parts about semitic inferiority.) They proceeded to saturate the region, via newspaper and radio broadcast, which had a multiplier effect in coffee houses, with classic European antisemitism, which ended up taking root.

    Islamic scholars are correct; the racism is not found within Islam; it was an import brought wholesale into the region by the Mufti working hand in hand with Nazi ideologues and propagandists. Local OSS agents and American diplomats transcribed the broadcasts, which have only now been rediscovered. The upshot, in Berman’s view, is that the ideology of National Socialism was never really discredited in the Middle East, the way that it was in Europe. As a result it continues to flourish, perpetuated in the Hamas charter and their message.

    Identifying and recognizing the enormous fallout from this could plausibly light the way to a better understanding between Israelis and their Arab neighbors.

  • PetraMB

    When it comes to the water issues, there is no shortage of ideas on how to deal with it — I’ve described the most ambitious, and indeed attractive one, here:

    Similarly, re. Gaza, there are intriguing ideas about focusing the land swaps Israel would have to offer in order to keep the settlement blocs on Gaza — which could increase the territory by about one third. In terms of the often invoked “viability” of a Palestinian state, this would make sense, since Gaza has considerable economic potential and would be a Palestinian state’s outlet to the sea.

    However, I largely agree with nadine’s comments upthread: from the conduct of the Palestinians and their reactions to the various proposals, it is very doubtful that they are serious about ever agreeing to a state. The Israeli Peace Now movement collapsed for good reason after Camp David/Taba, and during the orgy of violence that the Palestinians proudly call the “Al Aqsa intifada”.

    One of the main problems is, of course, that the Palestinians have insisted for more than 6 decades on their supposed “right of return” — and since Palestinians have the unique status of an “inheritable” refugee designation, that is meant to mean that millions of Palestinians could claim a “right” to “return” to Israel — and thereby turn it into another Arab state.

    That brings me to Prof. Mead’s remarks re. the appeal of Erekat: he is of course the consumate peace processor, but I’d recommend listening to some of his appearance on Arabic TV (possible e.g. through Memri translations). It’s always fascinating to compare what people like Erekat say in English, and what they say in Arabic.

    One other point that is noteworthy is that Israeli and Palestinian public opinion is among the most surveyed, and it is pretty clear that there has never been a popular majority on the Palestinian side that would have supported any realistic 2 state solution.

    But in any case, I firmly believe that Israel has to find a way to extricate itself from the huge burden of ruling over the West Bank.

  • Luke Lea

    To my comment above let me append this sentence: Think big.

  • Luke Lea

    And how big is big?

    Well, if I were a Palestinian I would not settle for anything less than a Western standard of living in my future Palestinian state, including guaranteed civil rights for all citizens, free public education, old age assistance, universal health care, and artificial wage subsidies until such time as such subsidies are no longer necessary (to establish parity with Israel).

    Of course such a thing could not be achieved over night. It would take an ongoing commitment of aid and investment stretching over a couple of generations at least.

    And if I were a Jew I would demand that the continuation of such a commitment be made conditional upon the Palestinians honoring the terms of any final agreement with Israel.

  • Peter Burman

    You cannot honestly claim that the Israelis who oppose peace are anywhere near as violent or murderous or numerous as the Palestinians. There is no comparison. Claiming there is some moral equivalence is harmful to the Palestinians, because it excuses them of responsibility for their actions and unfair to the Jews. Please be more precise in your writing.

  • steve

    Norwegian scooter, the operative phrase in your statement is “I don’t know.”
    Much of the conflict is a result of a massive campaign of assassinations and intimidation conducted by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, in the 1920s through the 1940s. He murdered any Palestinian leader who was willing to find an accomodation with the Jews. His campaign did not stop the Jewish state from coming into being, but it did stop the Palestinians from agreeing to have their own state alongside Israel.

  • http://??? tom kinney

    “…outsiders want peace more than participants…” says it all.

    But I must digress. There is a truly distrubing “piece” of rubbish by something called a Robert Wright in today’s NYT that finds simple answers from psychology 101 for terrorist behaviors (after having damned “simple answers” by more knowledgeable others such as Daniel Pipes and Jeffrey Goldberg). In dreaming up what must be for him less troubling motivations for the recent NYC attempted bombing, Wright paints a trace-the-dots picture of an alienated immigrant lost in a strange land (but also a tolerant and inclusive land–should one want inclusiveness, doubtful in the case of many if not most Muslim immigrants–all of which he conveniently fails to mention) and critiques the “jihadi intent” ascribed to others like Pipes.

    As if any of us who migrated somewhere and felt alienated would naturally think of mass murdering as many innocents as possible in the most brutal fashion possible all for a clearly defined cause, Jihad, as a solution to the personal problem of cultural isolation. Uh-huh! Sorry Fellow Traveler Wright, speaking personally, I’m pretty sure that’s not in my DNA nor that of anyone I’ve ever known. Speak for yourself.

    This is the most dangerous level of moral- equivalency imaginable, nearly approaching a hallucinatory state of disordered thinking, and yet sadly not unusual from the unhinged left as sponsored by the NYT. In that regard, I can’t say how refreshing it is to read an informed and moderate liberal like Mr. Mead who not only writes well and clearly but looks at these thorny issues with eyes wide open.

    I would question the last comment about how Israelis and Palestinians “can’t afford to blow off” these concerns from others who don’t live there. Reading that I could only wonder if these “concerns’ of complete outsiders aren’t themselves largely responsible to the continuing ratcheting up of the problem. Maybe we should back off.

    BTW, all good and thoughtful letters above as they usually are here.

  • Pingback: The Middle East Peace Industry « Israel: Daily Alert()

  • Paul Freedman

    On the other hand peace really is in the best interests of the Palestinians and the Israelis. Shadowing each other’s movements with all this tactical intensity (and weaponry) is one big colossal time sink. As is the now multi-layered zero sum stand off war of attrition that keeps everybody in a Mexican standoff. And if Hamas joins Hezbollah with Iran in making it a multi-layered zero sum nuclear Mexican standoff so much the worse. A little less “they started it” and God in the Head imperatives might be helpful in clearing out some of the mental baggage we all bring to this now monotonously never ending breast-beating exercise in mutual self-righteousness and victimhood.

  • Marc Salzberger

    This reasonable and accurate overview by a fair and thoughtful author suffers from one critical omission. It does not touch the biggest of all the obstacles to peace.

    The most powerful and central factor in the Middle East is Islam and for the Muslim world the Koran is the truth and whatever confutes or denies the Koran is sinful and an abomination.

    A sovereign Jewish state, the equal of its Muslim neighbors, at the center of the Arab world, is a direct contradiction of the Koran, and its truth. It is a living insult and refutation of Islam. Already in Mohammed’s lifetime the Jews of Arabia were defeated and reduced, by the Prophet, for eternity, to a subordinate condition. The dhimmis were a protected people, spared the fate of other non-believers, but confined to a special niche in Islam where they were subjected to humiliation and second class citizenship. For these despised Jews to now throw off the verdict of the Koran and repudiate their station and seize a land which Islam has since 640 considered its own, and aspire to equality with Muslim is a blatant contradiction of Mohammed’s words and a direct challenge to the truth of the faith.

    This is at the root of the conflict, not any injustice to the Palestinian Arabs, not land theft, or cultural nonconformity, or military defeat. None of that is unforgivable or unacceptable to the Arab world. It has inflicted and suffered worse. What is unforgivable however, and unacceptable on any terms, is having the Koran and the most fundamental of Muslim teachings confuted and defied in Islam’s very heartland. This is the source of the infection, of the enmity, of the hate and unacceptability of theJewish state.

  • Arthur Melmed

    Concerning water to the Jericho area, it is possible to imagine a conduit running from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, which is of course much lower. Water running downhill can be used to produce some amount of power, which could be applied to a desalinization facility at the Dead Sea. Some computation is required.

  • K2K

    “The Americans want peace so this whole distracting and annoying headache will just stop.”

    I disagree. A solid majority of Americans have zero issue with a frozen conflict between Israel and Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and the Palestinians of the West Bank. Ok, that solid majority includes those Americans who do not even think about this.

    The noisy minority of the left who only see Israel as “occupier” and worse, unfortunately includes President Obama, and a few key advisors, who also seem to want an American military presence inside Pakistan’s FATA, a schizophrenic idea for the same group who want no combat troops in Iraq. Why not just occupy Yemen, and push the conflict there, and leave Israel and the Palestinians to do what they were doing before President Obama decided apartments in North Jerusalem were an international crisis?

    I have now read Chuck Hagel’s October 2009 speech to J Street, and Jim Jones and Hillary Clinton’s speeches in April. This belief that only peace between Israel and Lebanon, and between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and the Palestinians will somehow undermine Iran, and placate the Pakistan Taliban who will then placate the Afghan Taliban, is inside-out foreign policy.

    Islamists who still believe in Salafist jihad and/or Shi’a millenialism would have to invent a new enemy if there were no Jews or Israel.
    Actually, the new enemy IS the United States, the Crusaders occupying Muslim land, playing whack-a-mole with missile strikes.

  • Salomon Benzimra

    A suggestion for seeing a clearer picture in this endless “peace industry”: look into the fundamental legal rights of Israel to the land, as they have been recognized under international law at the San Remo Conference in April 24-25, 1920, an event that was properly commemorated last month in Sanremo, Italy.

  • Pingback: Introduce to the Middle East Peace Industry()

  • Norwegian Shooter

    Steve, I have no embarrassment of asking questions, thank you for your response. However, “Much of the conflict is a result of a massive campaign of assassinations and intimidation conducted by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, in the 1920s through the 1940s” and “it did stop the Palestinians from agreeing to have their own state alongside Israel” are unsupportable.

    I’ve often seen reference to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, in forums such as these from Israel defenders. I don’t think he deserves much standing in the diagnosis of either the current or even the historical reasons of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And while a campaign of purging political-tribal enemies certainly existed, it was a small digression in the larger story of the conflict.

    The second phrase I quoted is ridiculous, where did that come from?

    The truth behind the collaboration issue is covered in great detail in Hillel Cohen’s book, Army of Shadows.

    I found two Israeli historians who both highly praised this book in 2008. Neve Gordon’s excellent essay on several books including Army of Shadows and Benny Morris’ review. Reading these two articles will vastly improve anyone’s knowledge of the complex relationships between Israelis and Arabs before 1967. (btw, the second section of Morris’ piece, which is strangely formatted in bold and centered, doesn’t match the historian’s viewpoint of the first section. It is really a polemic tying Islamism to the early period of Palestinian anti-Zionism.)

  • Norwegian Shooter

    Max Blumenthal has a current example of how Israel recruits collaborators:

    “Palestinian medical students were recently refused entry to Jerusalem after they rejected a Shin Bet officer’s demand that they spy on fellow students at Al-Quds University. They were thus prevented from continuing their medical training. As usual, the Shin Bet offered “security reasons” as its explanation for denying the students their education.”

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2015 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service