The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Getting to No

It’s delusional to think that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, whether proximate or direct, can end the conflict anytime soon.

Published on September 1, 2010

As proximity peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians appear to give way to a resumption of direct negotiations, the parties will shift their attention from pre-negotiation maneuvering to the substance of the negotiations themselves. When they do, conventional wisdom will reassert itself. That wisdom holds that there is already in existence at least the general shape of a deal to which both sides can agree. It is a modified version of what Yasir Arafat walked away from at Camp David and then at Taba in 2000, what an unofficial group of Israelis and Palestinians presented at Geneva in 2003, and what Mahmoud Abbas failed to answer definitively when it was presented to him by outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. With some fine-tuning, the chorus of pundits will say, perhaps an agreement can be consummated. President Obama himself said, during Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Washington on July 6, that he thinks an agreement can be readied within the year.

This is an illusion. There are important elements of the hypothetical deal itself to which each of the parties has strong objection. Even if those could be overcome, there are two greater obstacles standing in the way of permanent peace. The first concerns whether the negotiating partners, having agreed among themselves, are able to bring along enough others on their side to make peace. The second is even more daunting: Can either side make a credible commitment to deliver the future—that is, can a peace agreement, duly signed and sealed, really end the conflict once and for all? At this time, the answer to these questions is no.

Think of the problem as involving three concentric circles. In the center is the agreement itself, consisting of terms based on compromises to which the negotiators can give their assent. In the middle circle are politically influential segments of both sides whose starting views diverge from those negotiating on their behalf. Can they be induced to support an agreement that is far from what they see as optimal? In the outer circle are the spoilers and diehards, those for whom the conflict has an existential element. In ordinary circumstances, a good agreement and skillful implementation tend to marginalize people in this last category, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a special feature that makes the outer ring unusually problematic.

That feature is best described as the double irredentas. Irredentism can be defined as the desire to recover lost territory belonging to a particular ethnic group. Most irredentist impulses go in one direction only: State A makes a claim on territory occupied by state B that is said to be the patrimony of group A. For a long time, the Republic of Ireland, for example, had an irredentist claim on Northern Ireland. In the case of Israel and Palestine, however, the irredentas are reciprocal. Some Palestinians deny the legitimacy of Israel altogether, claiming it rests on a usurpation of Palestinian land, while some Israelis believe Jews should be able to live anywhere in what they call the historic Land of Israel, which includes the West Bank, known to them as Judea and Samaria. At least a significant minority of each side wishes to displace the other from occupying the land altogether—an unusual feature that makes these irredentas especially conflictual.

An agreement that divides all of historic Palestine permanently into an Israeli state and a Palestinian state will not readily find favor with either set of irredentists. Hence the problematic ability of negotiators to end the conflict, even if they can reach agreement on particular terms and even if they can carry along elements in their coalition who would have preferred different terms.

On the surface, this seems to be a good time to make peace. Internally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in a strong position despite the fragility of his coalition arrangement. Even the far-right partners in his coalition, such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have shown a conciliatory side: They did not object to a West Bank settlement freeze. And even if the Israeli Right cannot stomach the final terms, perhaps it can be replaced in the coalition by the Kadima Party, whose former leader Ehud Olmert offered Abbas rather generous terms in 2008. Kadima led by its current standard bearer, Tzipi Livni, could join and keep the deal alive.

Furthermore, if in the past Israel has felt secure in the knowledge that it could hold out for its preferred terms, its position now is not what it was. The Goldstone Report on Israel’s alleged war crimes in Gaza gave ammunition to Israel’s enemies, including those embarked on a campaign to delegitimize it. So did the “peace flotilla” fiasco of May-June 2010. Regionally, Israel finds itself in an even more hostile environment than it was a decade ago. Hizballah has rearmed, and Syria has reasserted its hegemony in Lebanon. Hamas survived the war in Gaza. Israel’s relations with traditional ally Turkey are far poorer than they were, and Turkey is warming up to Syria and to some extent to Iran. Even Egypt, which, with Hamas on its border, has good reason to cooperate with Israel, shows signs of reconciling, or at least of hedging its bets, with Iran. And then, of course, there is Iran itself, with its nuclear threat looming.

Finally, Israeli Arabs have undergone a degree of radicalization. They no longer vote in significant numbers even for Jewish parties of the Left. The war in Gaza polarized them further, and last fall there was Arab-Jewish violence in the northern town of Acre. All are good reasons for Israel to make peace now, and that is indeed the position of much of the Israeli Left, which fears a future without an agreement and so is willing to take risks to get one.

On the Palestinian side, President Abbas has brought an unprecedented period of tranquility and economic growth to the West Bank. His career may be coming to an end, but for the time being he is stronger than ever. The 2009 Fatah conference gave him a central committee of loyalists.1 Younger, more tied to the West Bank, less drawn from Fatah’s armed wing, they are committed to building Palestinian institutions. With help from the United States, Abbas has professionalized Palestinian Authority security forces. His extraordinary security cooperation with the Israelis has enabled him to eliminate the multiplicity of militias that made the West Bank such a disorderly place under Arafat. The resulting quiet has allowed Palestinian institution-building that was unthinkable in Arafat’s time. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has shown himself to be a skillful administrator, with little tolerance for corruption. Courts, universities and private businesses are rising, and a middle class, with an interest in peace, is emerging. The change is palpable. Why risk it—and foreign-investor confidence—in further conflict?

So if the Israelis might have an incentive to negotiate in order to stop the deterioration of their position, the Palestinians might go to the table to build on their gains. But if some objective conditions suggest good timing, not all of them do. The division of Palestine, with Fatah in control of the West Bank and Hamas in control of Gaza, makes both Israel and the Palestinian Authority leery of negotiating: Israel because an Israeli pullout from the West Bank risks a possible Hamas takeover; the Palestinian Authority because the compromises necessary to an agreement render it vulnerable to a Hamas claim that it has sold the Palestinian patrimony. Neither side would like to sign an agreement that does not include Gaza, yet Gaza will be difficult to bring under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction anytime soon. It is no surprise, then, that both Netanyahu and Abbas responded to Special Envoy George Mitchell’s initial attempt to revive the talks with reasons not to proceed.

There is more to it than that, however. Some 70 percent of Palestinians believe it is impossible to reach a peace agreement with the current Israeli government, and about the same number believe the chance of a Palestinian state arising within the next five years is slim. Most Israelis are positively inclined to trade land for peace, but they have grown pessimistic that Palestinian leadership will actually make the trade. Even prominent doves, including Israelis who disdain Jewish settlers on the West Bank, despair of any negotiated solution. They point to all the protracted negotiations and promising proposals, especially the most recent Olmert proposals, that failed to secure Palestinian assent. Israel has a right-wing government today because Israeli voters perceive the Palestinian leadership to be intransigent.

Palestinians, in turn, see the current Israeli government as favorable to the settlers, implacably opposed to a divided Jerusalem, and unwilling to acknowledge the plight of Palestinian refugees. For now, Abbas is willing to let the Americans and Europeans push Israel while its international position is problematic, rather than engage in a serious negotiated exchange. The lesson of all this is that the previous series of negotiations that looked promising but ultimately went nowhere have produced a downward spiral of distrust and pessimism. Failed negotiations are not cost-free; they have reverberations in domestic politics and in the subsequent willingness to take risks for peace.

With this in mind, it is worth assessing the actual prospects for peace. To do that we need not just to examine the range of agreements that should attract the parties’ assent, but also whether the leaders could actually deliver the assent of their respective sides to what outsiders think is reasonable and, perhaps most importantly, whether they really have the power to end the conflict. When we do this, we find that what appears to be a reasonable agreement does not necessarily command the assent of both negotiating sides on all questions; that, even if it did, the leaders might not be able to produce a consensus in support of it; and that it is most unlikely that they could commit themselves credibly to ending the conflict. Thus the real question is whether they can take steps now that could lead to an agreement later.

Start with the terms of an agreement, first and foremost, on territory. After the Six-Day War of 1967, U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 did not speak of a return to the armistice lines of 1949, which had held with very minor exceptions until that war, but to “secure and recognized borders.” The Israelis believe that the 1949–67 lines are by no means sacrosanct. The Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, on the other hand, demands Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries. The Palestinian Authority and the Israelis have, however, repeatedly negotiated about swapping West Bank territory inhabited by Jewish settlers for Israeli territory contiguous to what would be a Palestinian state. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement of last November spoke of a Palestinian state “based on” the 1967 borders, not coterminous with them, but rather involving “agreed swaps.” In 2008, Olmert and Abbas differed on the amount of territory to be exchanged (Olmert’s map from those negotiations contemplated sizeable annexations of Jewish settlements contiguous to Israel, where the vast majority of settlers live), but they did not disagree on swapping territory as a matter of principle. Nor are most Palestinians questioned in surveys averse to the idea of territorial swaps.

Clinton’s statement went on to refer to “the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.” The “subsequent developments” referred obviously to concern not just for some Jewish settlements in the West Bank but for changes in East Jerusalem neighborhoods. The Palestinian Authority may very well be able to live with some adjustments in Jerusalem, but it is not willing to do without a capital in that city. Olmert’s proposals envisioned a division of Jerusalem, with Arab neighborhoods to become the capital of the new Palestinian state. But the current Israeli government is unwilling to go that far. Netanyahu has said he would never agree to partition Jerusalem, and Olmert’s successor as leader of Kadima, Tzipi Livni, also takes the position that Jerusalem may not be the capital of Palestine. So some elements of territorial compromise are very much in doubt.

Olmert also offered to relinquish sovereignty over the holy places in Jerusalem to a consortium consisting of Israel, Palestine, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. This was similar to a concession that Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered at Camp David in 2000, but there is deep resistance to it in the current Israeli government. The holy places are also among the most important issues for Palestinian public opinion.

For Israelis, a paramount issue is the right asserted by Palestinian refugees and their descendants—after more than sixty years, it is overwhelmingly their descendants—to return to homes in Israel. Israelis are keenly aware of issues of demographic balance, for Israel already has a growing 20.2-percent Arab minority. The arrival of large numbers of refugees from Arab lands would be most unwelcome in a state seeking to preserve its Jewish identity. At Camp David in 2000 and in later negotiations, there were discussions of Israel’s acceptance of a significant but still limited number of refugees. Surveys show that almost no Israelis agree to such proposals. Fortunately, there are alternatives: acceptance of the principle of the right of return to “historic Palestine” but its implementation in the Palestinian state rather than in Israel. Although most Palestinians, including most refugees, accept this solution, even moderate Israeli leaders who have negotiated with Abbas claim they found him to be most unyielding on the issue. It is far from clear that a compromise acceptable to both sides on the right of return can be negotiated.

There are other sticky issues as well, notably Israeli demands for a demilitarized Palestine and an Israeli security presence along the Jordan River. According to Netanyahu, the Israeli military needs access to the West Bank proper in order to prevent the importation of rockets. (Experience after the Gaza withdrawal has chastened the Israeli establishment.) A significant Israeli military presence in the West Bank is unacceptable to the Palestinians.

Perhaps compromises can be found for such difficult issues, but here is the rub: The vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians want a comprehensive settlement, but once the demands of each side begin to be accommodated in part by the other, popular enthusiasm for the settlement declines sharply. Like a strong majority of Israelis, a strong majority of Palestinians support a two-state solution, but if its boundaries are not the 1967 lines because of territorial swaps, support shrinks. If Palestinians must acknowledge the Jewish character of the Israeli state, only a bare majority agrees. If the borders are not the 1967 lines, the territory is smaller, there is recognition of the Jewish character of Israel, and Palestine must be demilitarized, approval declines by more than half to about 33 percent, according to surveys conducted by the authoritative Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

So here, then, is the real problem concerning the terms of an agreement. On several issues, there are serious, possibly unbridgeable disagreements; but even if those can be overcome, that success gives rise to another difficulty: Compromise facilitates agreement but simultaneously reduces popular support for it. Of course, public opinion does not always lead; it can be led. But it is difficult to lead public opinion when political leaders have strong oppositions able to accuse them of selling out.

That brings us to the second question: If, despite everything, the two negotiating sides manage to reach agreement, can they bring along enough support to execute it? Can Netanyahu’s government survive? Can Abbas prevail over Palestinian opposition? Palestinians doubt that Netanyahu wants a peace agreement, and Israelis are unsure that Abbas, even if he wants one, has the strength to make an agreement.

Following the defection of members of the Likud Party to Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party in 2005, Likud became even more right wing than it had been previously. Some members of Netanyahu’s cabinet are extremely resistant to some of the compromises that would need to be incorporated in an agreement, and they might well defect. The assumption has been that, in such an eventuality, the Kadima opposition would be available to take up the slack, but this assumption may not prove accurate. Kadima itself is torn by a leadership dispute, and Netanyahu’s attempts at the end of 2009 to induce Kadima to join his government or, failing that, to attract Kadima defectors, produced accusations by its leader that the Prime Minister was engaging in “gutter politics.” Moreover, former Likud leaders now in Kadima are not uniformly moderate; some are right-wing hardliners who have opposed peace proposals offered by both Olmert and Livni. If an agreement being negotiated by Netanyahu proved the least bit unpopular, it is not at all clear that Kadima would come to his rescue.

The Fatah government in Ramallah has an analogous but bigger problem. As indicated earlier, Abbas has the central committee of his party behind him, and Fatah has relatively strong, but not overwhelming, support even in Gaza. Yet Abbas’s control is far from complete, even in the West Bank. For example, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has threatened an intifada against the Palestinian Authority because its security cooperation with Israel has allowed the Israel Defense Forces to kill alleged terrorists in the West Bank.

Abbas’s personal support in Palestinian public opinion does not match that of his party. In the wings (or, more accurately, in an Israeli prison) sits a potential rival, Marwan Barghouti, a veteran of the two Palestinian intifadas who is said nonetheless to support a two-state solution. But that does not mean he would necessarily support any agreement negotiated by Abbas. Barghouti is exceptionally popular, in both the West Bank and Gaza. In a December 2009 survey asking about a hypothetical Palestinian Authority presidential race between him and the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, Barghouti won in a landslide (67 percent to 28 percent overall, and by almost two to one even in Gaza). If an agreement negotiated by Abbas is to command assent, leaders like Barghouti will need to be on board and will need to resist the temptation to ride to power (assuming he is out of prison) by rejecting the terms of the deal.

Needless to say, Hamas is also a major problem. Both the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships will want to see major changes in the Hamas view of the peace process before they can reach agreement. Fatah cannot be confident in its ability to survive an agreement in the face of Hamas rejectionism, and Israelis fear that an upsurge of post-agreement Hamas popularity could produce a Hamas government not just in Gaza but in all of Arab Palestine. Egyptian-mediated unity negotiations between Fatah and Hamas have stalled, and Hamas shows no signs of moderating its objective of eliminating Israel and no willingness to accept prior agreements between Palestinians and Israel.

Therefore even if an agreement could be negotiated, it is difficult at this point to envision anything close to a political consensus favoring it on either side. It is always possible, of course, that if peace is in sight, momentum will develop that will make it difficult for opponents to prevail. But peace has been in sight before, and yet no peace agreement has been consummated.

A major reason for the elusive character of peace has been skepticism about its likely durability. Here the intractable, double-irredentist nature of the underlying conflict intrudes. Hardline Israeli politicians note that the Palestinian Liberation Organization never says it is aiming at “two states for two peoples”, although that was the official goal of the Quartet assembled by President George W. Bush to get negotiations started. They claim the Palestinians are aiming not for a two-state solution but a “two-stage solution”, the second stage of which is the obliteration of Israel. They note that Palestinian textbooks still contain ugly stereotypes of Jews, that the Palestinian Authority sends conflicting signals on the legitimacy of suicide bombings and the killing of Israeli civilians, that, in other words, it has not prepared its population for peace. A majority of Israelis surveyed in December 2009 believe that Palestinians aspire to conquer Israel, and 40 percent think they aim to destroy its Jewish population. The distrust obviously runs very deep.

The feeling is reciprocated. More than three-quarters of Palestinians believe that Israel wishes to annex the West Bank, and a 53-percent majority think it aims to expel the Palestinians. Abbas has explained that, although he has followed the Quartet’s road map by putting an end to terror attacks from the West Bank, Netanyahu has not even removed illegal settler outposts that the Israeli government committed itself to removing. Netanyahu and the Likud have been supporters of the settlers from the very beginning, which makes the Palestinian side doubt that a Netanyahu government would remove them. Netanyahu, they recall, voted against Israeli disengagement from Gaza and ultimately resigned from the government of Ariel Sharon that accomplished the removal of settlers from Gaza.

There is certainly widespread doubt about how easily any Israeli government could remove West Bank settlers. When Netanyahu agreed last year to a temporary construction freeze on the West Bank, settlers reacted forcibly against it. Some well-informed Israelis think the settlers learned from the removal of settlements in Gaza that, next time, they need to resist removal with force against their own government. Some pro-settler rabbis have urged IDF soldiers not to follow orders to remove settlers—advice that has produced a stern reaction from Labor Party Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. One third of Israelis support the refusal of soldiers to remove settlers.

The Olmert plan contemplates absorption into Israel of a significant number of West Bank settlements contiguous to Israel. Even if Palestinians accepted that plan, dozens of settlements containing about 20 percent of all settlers would still need to be evacuated. It remains to be seen whether the current Israeli government, or perhaps any Israeli government, could stomach the force that would be needed to remove so many settlers and the deaths that might be involved. And if it could not, then that government would have endorsed de facto the settlers’ claims in the West Bank.

The deep distrust, then, relates not just to the past—to the repeated failure of previous peace initiatives—but to the future: to the willingness and ability of each side to eliminate claims to what the other side sees as its land. Irredentist claims of this kind are hard to end, even after many decades—and doubly so if they are reciprocal.2 It is no wonder that while majorities of Israelis and Palestinians profess to support a two-state solution, neither believes that solution will be possible in the near term. Worse yet, neither side believes that the other side would support such a solution. Even if only minorities on each side harbor irredentist aims, those aims color the willingness of negotiators to trust the other side, and they impede the ability of each to make a credible commitment to deliver in the future.

Without such a commitment on both sides—that is, without an end to irredentist claims—an agreement could have consequences every bit as negative as failure to reach agreement. A peace agreement could actually produce warfare if internal divisions are poorly handled or a peace agreement proves controversial rather than satisfying. Hamas has fought Fatah in Gaza. At the moment, neither it nor other dissidents has the capacity to fight it in the West Bank, but an unpopular agreement could change that. Likewise, Jewish settlers in the West Bank could resist removal if a peace agreement required them to leave. Their resistance could become quite violent if Israeli opinion were not strongly in favor of the agreement.

So this is a case in which a peace agreement could exacerbate internal conflicts, but conflicts that could easily draw the two sides, Israeli and Palestinian, into violent confrontations with each other given the close quarters in which they live in the West Bank. Those confrontations could be serious enough to undo their agreement. To avoid such eventualities, an agreement has to be very popular. To achieve this, the respective populations have to be prepared in advance for the compromises embodied in it. Nothing at this point suggests that these conditions can be met.

Not all problems have solutions, and perhaps the Israeli-Palestinian problem is one of them—for now at least. But at the same time the status quo is unstable. It has been relatively manageable over the past few years if one disregards wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and some on the Israeli Right think it can continue that way, especially if Israel tries to improve the daily lives of the Palestinian population. Surveys, however, show there is still considerable support for anti-Israel violence among Palestinians. A failure of peace talks would be likely to revive this option. One more such failure would also deepen Israeli skepticism of Palestinian willingness to subscribe to any peace agreement in the future. Furthermore, the international context of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not improving. Warfare is made more likely by Iranian belligerence, with or without nuclear capacity, and by the availability of Iranian proxies in Gaza and south Lebanon.

So while conditions seem unconducive to a peace agreement, the alternatives to one are admittedly daunting. In lieu of a comprehensive settlement, then, some have suggested a partial settlement that permits the parties to agree on whatever they can agree on while leaving the remaining issues for later. We have already seen, however, that there is actually less agreement on particular issues than is sometimes assumed.

Worse, even if there were agreement on some issues, the consequences of agreement on certain issues are asymmetrical—that is, they affect the parties differently. So, for example, if, among the Olmert proposals, the territorial issues were considered alone, the removal by Israel of West Bank settlers would be so difficult as to be unimaginable outside of a general agreement that ends the conflict. Similarly, one can envision concessions on the Palestinian side—on, for example, territorial swaps—but it is hard to imagine their acceptance outside of a far more extensive agreement. In short, partial agreements seem as difficult to achieve as a comprehensive agreement.

There is no need to think of partial steps purely in the abstract. Some concrete proposals are on the table. In August 2009, Prime Minister Fayyad proposed a plan to lead to de facto independence for Palestine within two years. Negotiations with Israel could be carried on during this period, but Fayyad’s idea is to achieve international recognition of a state on essentially all of the West Bank, with a road link to Gaza, a capital in East Jerusalem and an airport in the Jordan Valley. Needless to say, several components of this plan clash with realities in Gaza and with Israeli negotiating positions—on territory, on East Jerusalem and on Israeli control of the Jordan Valley. They also conflict with the Oslo Agreement not to change the legal status of the West Bank pending negotiations.

The Fayyad Plan dovetails, in an odd way, with a plan set out in late 2009 by Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni’s hardline rival for the leadership of Kadima. The Mofaz plan would concede a Palestinian state now, with temporary borders on 60 percent of the West Bank (plus Gaza) and allow four to six years to negotiate permanent borders. Of course, the Mofaz Plan envisions final outcomes diametrically opposed to Fayyad’s: settlement blocs annexed to Israel, a united Jerusalem and a demilitarized Palestine. Yet its temporary outcome is not far from where Palestine would be under the Fayyad Plan without Israeli agreement.

The only question is whether interim steps such as these help or hurt the cause of peace. There might be some advantages to them. If the Palestinians create their own state, even without the territory they aspire to control—and even without Gaza—and if this state really functions as Palestinian institutions are already beginning to function, then Palestinian leaders might be less willing to jeopardize their achievement for the sake of tough negotiating positions. For their part, Israelis might come to recognize the existence of a responsible partner for peace, and so might adjust some of their security demands. These developments might just bring the parties closer together and facilitate final-status negotiations.

On the other hand, the unfulfilled part of Palestinian territorial aspirations could result in more or less constant conflict with Israel over those parts of the West Bank Israel continued to occupy. And perhaps most dangerously of all, Hamas could not be expected to stand still while a Fatah-controlled West Bank moved into a newly sovereign status, marginalizing Hamas in Gaza. These interim steps might be a worthwhile gamble if there were no Hamas.

There are more modest steps that could be taken. The Institute for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University suggests that Israel could transfer more territory to Palestinian Authority control and continue to remove restrictions on mobility in the West Bank, thereby enhancing economic activity and strengthening the institution-building process there. Such steps fall far short of peace-building, but they might at least enhance cooperation and trust between the two sides, whereas another failure to achieve a comprehensive agreement could do the opposite.

Perhaps what the two parties really need is more third-party involvement than American mediation alone can provide. A common argument for outside intervention is that the United States can be a decisive force for peace, because it can make the hard decisions the parties cannot bring themselves to make. The Americans are said to have the power to do one or more of three things: They can pressure the parties to make concessions; they can take the parties’ established negotiating positions and bridge the gaps between them by proposing concrete compromises on each contested issue; and if the ultimate problem is securing credible commitments to end the conflict, perhaps they, conceivably along with other outside powers, can enhance credibility by guaranteeing whatever agreement is reached. There may be some American power to do these things, but it should not be overestimated.

First, the Americans have used pressure before. Bill Clinton was eager for an agreement in 2000 but did not succeed in convincing Arafat that an agreement was in his interest. Early in its tenure, the Obama Administration, tempted to consider imposing terms, wisely scaled back its aspirations. That changed with Vice President Biden’s controversy-filled visit to the region this past March. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton hammered the Israeli government publicly and intimated that they may be prepared to impose “parameters” for a settlement. Not-so-subtle leaks described the terms the Obama White House was and may still be considering imposing on the parties. Abbas declared that he was ready for the imposition, while Israel’s friends sensed Israel would be the party imposed upon.

The Obama Administration’s pique at Netanyahu should not blind it to the dangers of trying to decide what is right for the parties. It is a mistake to think that only stubborn leaders stand in the way of an agreement. The parties have what they conceive to be vital interests at stake, as well as support bases they must satisfy and serious fears of the intentions of the other side. That is what drives their decision-making. Pressure, therefore, can only go so far in creating negotiating opportunities.

Second, the power of third parties to reduce the local protagonists’ risk aversion by producing compromises they cannot reach by themselves encounters the same difficulty. This problem was vividly displayed in Cyprus in 2004, when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan secured authority to fill in gaps between the positions of Greek and Turkish Cypriots and produced what he saw as compromises, but what some Greek Cypriot politicians and voters saw as pro-Turkish Cypriot outcomes. The Greek-Cypriot electorate rejected the agreement in a referendum, and ongoing negotiations since 2008 have failed to produce anything close to an agreement. The Cyprus problem involves several issues similar to those of the Israel-Palestine problem, and it has dragged out nearly as long. As with the Palestine-Israel conflict, both sides wish a resolution, and as with that conflict, no third party has yet managed to produce the magic compromise.

Third, the utility of an international guarantee for an agreement presupposes an agreement. It is certainly true that an agreement would be easier to achieve if the unending irredentas could be removed. But it is hardly clear what form third-party guarantees would have to take to produce commitments that were credible. Third parties have not succeeded in ensuring fulfillment of earlier commitments. Who is to guarantee that they will have sufficient motivation and tools of enforcement if the parties to an agreement falter? For a guarantee to be credible, there would need to be dire consequences for whichever party breached its commitments. There is substantial doubt that the United States or any other third party would be willing or able to adjudicate such breaches and then inflict the dire consequences, especially while the United States is still involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are other outside parties that could help facilitate a peace agreement. The surrounding Arab states have some power to influence the Palestinians, but they have shown no inclination to use it. One recent speculation is that progress in negotiations between Israel and Syria might make the Palestinians more flexible. It is difficult to see how that would happen, unless the Syrians were to cut off support for Hizballah and do a dramatic volte face in their foreign policy as part of the deal that returned the Golan Heights to Syrian control. Nothing in previous Syrian behavior or in Syrian internal politics provides any reason to hope for such a change.

The Obama Administration needs to return to a less- rather than more-engaged posture, in which it presses the parties to negotiate but does not commit its prestige to full participation in making the agreement. That is a position that recognizes how difficult this process will be and also has the virtue of modesty. Such an approach does not create expectations that, if they are disappointed again, will produce even less faith on the part of the parties in what the other side is ultimately willing to do. It is, however, also an approach that acknowledges the serious possibility that there will be no peace agreement, and perhaps no sustained peace, in the Middle East for years to come.

1See Khalil Shikaki, “Fatah Resurrected”, The National Interest (November/December 2009); Hillel Frisch, “The Fatah Conference: Finally an Abbas Victory”, Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies Perspectives Paper no. 90, August 25, 2009.
2It took three quarters of a century to end the Irish irredenta. In 1998, it was agreed that the people of Northern Ireland could decide in a periodic referendum whether to remain in the United Kingdom or accede to the Irish Republic. Such a straightforward solution, based on a simple exercise of self-determination, obviously could not be applied to the Israel-Palestine problem, burdened as it is with its multiple complexities of boundaries, refugees, reciprocal fears of expulsion, the military capacities of outside actors, and so on.

Donald L. Horowitz is the James B. Duke Professor of Law and Political Science at Duke University and author of Ethnic Groups in Conflict (1985).