“When the pursuit of peace becomes the entire objective of foreign policy, it becomes a weapon in the hands of the most ruthless. It produces moral disarmament.” —Henry Kissinger
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement that peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which are set to resume on Thursday, “should resolve all final-status issues within one year” indicates such a profound misunderstanding of the complexity of the issues, the history of what has occurred until now, the fragility of the situation on the ground, and what actually lies at the heart of the disagreement, that it would be almost comical, if it weren’t so lethal.
A bit of recent history is in order. On July 25, 2000, the Israelis, led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and under the cajolery of President Bill Clinton, made a maximalist offer to Yasser Arafat in the summit known as Camp David II. That offer included up to 97 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza (then in Israel’s hands), shared sovereignty of Jerusalem, and a “right of return” of thousands of Palestinian refugees or a compensatory package for refugees who could not be resettled.
I was attending a talk at a Washington think tank the day the talks broke up, and Elyakim Rubinstein, who had been Israel’s attorney general, addressed the group on the news. He told us, “I could look every one of you in the eye and tell you that we went as far as any responsible Israeli government could possibly go. In fact, “there are many who would argue that we weren’t acting responsibly. There are people, at this very moment, who are crying in their limousines on their way to the airport. … We thought if we made Arafat an offer that was so good he couldn’t refuse it, he wouldn’t [refuse it].”
The Israelis had made it clear, according to Rubinstein, that because the terms of the offer were so generous, that this was supposed to be a “now-or-never offer. There would be no official written record of the offer”, he added.
That proved to be a double-edged sword, however. Israel believed that not recording the offer would wipe the diplomatic slate clean for future Israeli governments so that they would not be bound by Barak’s Camp David II offer. In so doing, Barak no doubt, believed that Arafat would feel pressured by time: This is the deal you have on the table today, and it will not be on the table tomorrow.
On the other hand, an unwritten offer meant removing proof of just how far Israel had been willing to go for peace. That led revisionist historians, such as Rashid Khalidi, to deceptively describe Israel’s offer as “minuscule.” That deception is particularly dangerous, because the pernicious claim now appears in syllabi (such as Khalidi’s Resurrecting Empire) that are used in Middle East studies curricula throughout the United States.
As we know, Arafat walked away from the table without responding. His answer came almost immediately, in September 2000, in the form of violence, known as the Second Intifada. The sorry history of all such talks and their almost invariably resulting in violence, was outlined so well by Cal Thomas in his recent column, when he described that often in the Middle East — contrary to the maxim, “There is no harm in talking” — there is a great deal of harm in talking.
What also happened on that fateful day at Camp David was that the Israelis, under the reassuring confidence of President Clinton’s State Department, “bet the barn.” And, although the offer was not written down on official Israeli government paper, we have learned to never underestimate the memory of Israel’s Arab negotiating partners. Israel’s making such a maximalist offer created an impasse that could last for generations. How, after all, could a respectable Palestinian interlocutor go back to his people and save face with less than what the Rais, Arafat, walked away from?
And how, after all the years of violence that have ensued, can any respectable Israeli interlocutor go back to his people, after all the years of Palestinian-provoked violence that ensued, and possibly offer that much?
A bit more history: Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon in May 2000 amidst assurances from the international community that, according to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, Hezbollah would also withdraw, and that Lebanon would be free of all foreign forces. As we know, Hezbollah never withdrew. In July 2006, it attacked Israeli soldiers at the border and launched a war against Israel. Moreover, Southern Lebanon has come increasingly under the influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah, so much so that the group has infiltrated considerably into the military and political establishments. Some in Israel’s security apparatus regard Lebanon as an Iranian proxy along Israel’s northern border, with an arsenal of approximately 50,000 missiles that can reach into every Israeli city.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, and the strip is now under the total control of Iranian-backed Hamas, making it another proxy of Teheran in Israel’s south. The raining down of more than 10,000 Kassam rockets on southern Israel, and the Gaza war in December 2008–January 2009, are sufficient reasons to explain why the Israeli populace turned rightward and elected Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Since then, the Israelis have been hammered by the international community, which imposed on Israel duplicitous moral standards through the UN’s Goldstone Report and the UN’s condemnation of Israel’s response to the Turkish flotilla this past May.
Furthermore, when Israel took the bold step — in the absence of a negotiating partner — to withdraw from Gaza, it was given assurances from President George Bush in a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004, which said that the United States “appreciates the risks such an undertaking represents. I therefore want to reassure you of several points.” The letter went on to state:
First, the United States remains committed to my vision and to its implementation as described in the roadmap. The United States will do its utmost to prevent any attempt by anyone to impose any other plan. Under the roadmap, Palestinians must undertake an immediate cessation of armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere, and all official institutions must end incitement against Israel. …
Second, there will be no security for Israelis or Palestinians until they and all states, in the region and beyond, join together to fight terrorism and dismantle terrorist organizations. The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, including secure, defensible borders and to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or combination of threats.
As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders. … In light of the new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete withdrawal to the armistice lines of 1949.
Several questions arise:
1) What happened to the road map, with its assurances that no other plan would be imposed, after Bush left office? In addition, the road map was not supposed to be time-bound — only performance-bound.
2) How do these assurances square with the assertions that are so frequently heard in think tanks and policy corridors in Washington, along the lines of: “We all know what the final parameters of an agreement will look like. A Palestinian state will, more or less, come to pass within the borders that were offered by Prime Minister Barak and President Bill Clinton to Yassir Arafat at Camp David on July 25, 2000.”
3) How do President Bush’s assurances square with Secretary of State Clinton’s assertions of “not one more brick” of last summer, referring to construction in the Gush Etzion bloc near Jerusalem, when that area, undoubtedly, is “an already existing major Israeli population center”?
Israel has had to learn, over and over, that it needs secure and defensible borders in order to survive. She simply cannot depend on the assurances of the international community for her survival.
Just one Kassam rocket fired on Ben-Gurion International Airport, which is only several miles from Israel’s West Bank security fence, would halt all air traffic and isolate the tiny nation. A withdrawal from the West Bank would mean that every major Israeli population center would be within easy Kassam rocket range.
Israel was offered many assurances by the U.S. government — specifically, by the Bush administration — in return for its bold and internally gut-wrenching decision to give up Gaza and uproot and imperil its population.
It appears that those in power in the Obama administration either are ignoring the assurances or are suffering from selective amnesia.
Why would the Israelis, or any nation under those circumstances, want to further demonstrate that they are willing to take more “risks” for peace? Why, in heaven’s name, would they have any reason to trust the assurances of the international community — or of the United States, for that matter?
I am hopeful that a day will come when there will be a true, enduring peace, one that will last for generations. The real litmus test is what the leaders are teaching their people, through words and through actions. Based on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ and Prime Minister Salam Fayad’s attendance at the August 19, red-carpet funeral of Amin Al-Hindi, one of the senior planners of the 1972 Munich massacre of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes and coaches, that day is a very long way away.
There is good reason why the announcement of the resumption of negotiations later on this week, was met with little enthusiasm on both sides. Early on in the “peace process,” everyone knew the name of Nachshon Waxman, the first IDF soldier kidnapped and killed. By now, there have been thousands of “sacrifices for peace”: casualties on both sides of the divide, whose deaths many policy makers and world leaders wish to dismiss with a simple wave of the hand. They have become the disposable victims. Every one of them is someone’s parent, child, sibling, relative, or friend. These people have simply become annoying, anonymous statistics that interfere with grandiose visions of “Peace in Our Time”.
But the reality is that a reign of terror in the streets is the exact antithesis of peace and the millions of people in Israel who voted for Prime Minister Netanyahu, have indicated by their ballots that they believe that all these grandiose gestures for “Peace” has brought nothing but terror and grief.
“Peace” is a seductive term. It seeks to persuade great people of noble intentions to want to secure their place in history for finally putting an end to this seemingly intractable, atavistic conflict. But in the Middle East, peace is as thorny as a desert cactus. Its flowers may be beautiful, quite appealing from afar, but if you go too close, you very well might get stung.