CAN THE PEACE PROCESS EVER RESUME?
The horror of Hamas’s murderous attack has shocked the global conscience. For many of us, the heavy grief felt for the lost civilian life on both sides of the Gaza border is compounded by a deep despair that any attempt to forge peace in the Middle East will forever be futile.
Whether the peace process can ever be successfully resurrected in the wake of such vicious terrorism, I do not know. But I do think we should recall these words from former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor: “The peace process is like riding a bicycle: When you stop pedaling, you fall off.”
That wisdom was shared in a Washington Post op-ed by former American diplomat Dennis Ross, back in 2012 when formal peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians had been suspended. Such talks resumed in 2013 then collapsed in 2014. Serious negotiations haven’t resumed since.
Can we get back on the proverbial bicycle after such unspeakable trauma? There are no easy answers, but the history of how we got here maybe can point the way out.
But first, here’s what’s leading the Washington Monthly website:
To assume American actions are the main cause for any foreign policy crisis is often, at minimum, overly simplistic. American-led diplomatic efforts failed decade after decade primarily because of the inflexibility of the Israelis and Palestinians (I have no interest in decreeing which party deserves more of the blame).
But America has been the geopolitical force that kept the parties on the bicycle.
In 1991, the George H. W. Bush administration organized the international Madrid peace conference, which sparked the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that produced the 1993 Oslo Accords.
That agreement established the Palestinian Authority, which had limited governmental responsibilities in the disputed territories.
Bill Clinton tried to build off the success at Oslo to reach a final peace agreement, but faced many obstacles: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli opponent of Oslo, a spate of suicide bombings by Hamas intended to sabotage negotiations, and the 1996 election of the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. During Clinton’s final year in office, after days of intense personal diplomacy at a Camp David summit with Netanyahu’s successor Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he came up short.
At his first national security meeting as president, George W. Bush said, “Clinton overreached and it all fell apart.” According to the book Days of Fire by Peter Baker, Bush instructed his team to “tilt” America’s posture “back toward Israel,” and set low diplomatic expectations. “If the two sides don’t want peace,” he declared, “there’s no way we can force them.”
In the absence of a peace process, a violent Palestinian intifada lasted throughout Bush’s first term and into his second. Israel constructed a border wall on disputed land and militarily confined Arafat to his compound until his final days.
But the violence was too much to bear. In 2003, the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a lifelong expansionist, proposed withdrawing from Gaza. In 2005, Sharon and Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas struck a ceasefire agreement.
Following a stroke in 2006, Sharon entered into a vegetative state and was replaced by Ehud Olmert. Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice soon breathed fresh life into the peace process, arranging talks between Olmert and Abbas. In November 2007, emulating his predecessor whose foreign policy he once scorned, Bush hosted a peace conference at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Months later, Olmert sketched out a promising peace offer, involving land swaps, prisoner releases and a divided capital of Jerusalem. Abbas hesitated, but talks continued until Olmert, facing corruption charges, announced his resignation.
Bush’s successor Barack Obama was quite interested in a peace deal. Olmert’s successor, the hardline Netanyahu, was less so. Years of America peddling furiously culminated in a nine-month frenzy of shuttle diplomacy, spanning 2013 and 2014, by Secretary of State John Kerry. He left the Middle East empty-handed, as both Netanyahu and Abbas would not fully bridge gaps concerning borders, resettlement of Palestinians and control of Jerusalem. An uptick of attacks on Israeli civilians followed the collapse of talks.
Then came Donald Trump, along with his inexperienced Middle East envoy and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Together, they threw the bicycle onto the scrap metal heap.
They sided with Israel over control of Jerusalem by relocating the United States’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv. They unilaterally recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which was seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Instead of negotiating an agreement with the Palestinians, Kushner boasted, “I’m going to drive their price down as much as possible,” as reported in The Divider by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. He offered $50 billion in international investment if the Palestinians ceded the West Bank areas where Israel built settlements as well as the vast majority of Jerusalem. Abbas said, “A thousand times over: No, no, no.”
Trump also abandoned the nuclear deal with Iran negotiated by Obama and Kerry, which drew him closer to not just Israel, but Sunni Arab powers like Saudi Arabia.
Because Sunni Arab concern about potential Shia Persian regional dominance outweighed their interest in Palestinian sovereignty, Kushner managed to forge Israeli normalization deals, known as the Abraham Accords, with Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Morocco. Though a similar agreement with Saudi Arabia proved elusive, the Arab world appeared to ready to cut loose the intractable Palestinian problem and tap Israel’s economic market.
The Trump administration did all this without sparking a fresh wave of violence perpetrated by Palestinians. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, no suicide bombing attacks in Israel occurred between April 2016 and November 2022, though attacks using rockets, guns, knives and cars continued. Also, a barrage of Palestinian rocket fire in May 2021, following an Israeli police raid on a mosque, prompted a two-week Israeli military response, but ended in a negotiated cease-fire.
Assumptions among foreign policy professionals were upended. Maybe you didn’t need to keep talking to the Palestinians about a final peace agreement to achieve stability in the Middle East. Maybe you didn’t need to keep pedaling.
In turn, the Middle East has been one area where the Biden administration has largely continued the Trump administration’s policies. Despite some diplomatic efforts, Biden has not been able to salvage the Iran nuclear deal. And he hasn’t tried to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But he had made progress on extending the Abraham Accords to Saudi Arabia until the October 7 attack on Israel. The relative lull in violence has proved illusory.
Abandoning a seemingly futile peace process has understandable appeal. Several American presidents have wasted precious time and political capital trying to fix what the region’s leaders refuse to fix themselves. Pursuing peace only to see more bloodshed makes the world’s biggest superpower look small and impotent. Why take on that burden, if you can … not?
We now see why. Even though the pursuit of peace is often maddening and thankless, ignoring conflicts allows them to fester and deepen.
Getting back on the bicycle now is exponentially harder following Hamas’s horrific coordinated mass assault on Israeli civilians, which Abbas, still the leader of the Palestinian Authority, has not condemned. Violence cannot be rewarded. Years may have to pass before a modicum of trust, necessary for any successful negotiation, can be regained.
But we should remember that just because past diplomatic efforts did not produce instant, perfect results does not mean they were worthless or counterproductive.