By Barry Rubin
The U.S. announcement inviting Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) for direct talks shows quite clearly, though unintentionally, why the talks will fail.
Special Envoy George Mitchell explains:
“We are all well aware that there remains mistrust between the parties, a residue of hostility developed over many decades of conflict, many previous efforts that have been made to resolve the conflict that had not succeeded, all of which takes a very heavy toll on both societies and their leaders. In addition, we all know that, as with all societies, there are differences of opinion on both sides on how best to proceed, and as a result, this conflict has remained unresolved over many decades and through many efforts. We don’t expect all of those differences to disappear when talks begin. Indeed, we expect that they will be presented, debated, discussed, and that differences are not going to be resolved immediately.”
This is a good explanation that the administration knows how hard it is to bring peace, though it does not jibe well with his saying a few minutes later: “We believe that if those negotiations are conducted seriously and in good faith, they can produce such an agreement within 12 months. And that is our objective.”
Of course, Mitchell is right that the task’s difficulty shouldn’t preclude an attempt to negotiate and that understanding the difficulty is essential to doing a decent job. The one-year thing, though, is nonsense. If negotiations would be conducted seriously an agreement could be reached in a month but there are reasons this has never happened and won’t happen for a long time.
As an analyst not a diplomat, I can point out that the problem is not just “mistrust,” “residue of hostility,” and “differences of opinion,” but rather structural impediments to success. Western media and leaders are all too eager to point out alleged problems on the Israeli side—domestic politics—but never really discuss the same thing on the Palestinian side.
I have pointed out HERE that the problems posed by Israeli politics and public opinion for peacemaking are greatly exaggerated, sometimes due to ignorance and sometimes due to a malicious effort to make things seem Israel’s fault.
–Hardline views by the overwhelming majority of Fatah leaders, who do after all control the PA.
–The belief that it is not necessary to negotiate peace because in the shorter-run the PA can get the West to hand them a state on a silver platter and in the longer-run the Palestinians can win the conflict and destroy Israel entirely.
–The almost 100 percent lack of any effort to prepare and moderate Palestinian public opinion by its own leadership, clergy, media, and politicians. There has been an extensive debate in Israel and there is a great willingness to compromise, something simply not there on the Palestinian side. Israelis have empathy and even often sympathy for Palestinians; the reverse is simply not true. It is a cultural and political issue that lies beyond the bounds of any “Politically Correct” “Multicultural” mentality to understand but can be easily demonstrated.
Incidentally, here’s one of many such tricks used to avoid understanding these things. Fatah issues a new charter and Western media articles and experts gushed at how moderate it was, including not repeating material from the old charter that called for the use of violence. The only problem is that the new document explicitly stated that all of the old document was still in effect.
–The wooly mammoth, “elephant” is not an adequate description, in the room of a Hamas regime dedicated to warfare, terrorism, and genocide. There is no conceivable mechanism for dealing with this issue.
On that last point here is how Mitchell (didn’t) address it:
QUESTION: So you expect Hamas to accept any decision made by President Abbas at these negotiations?
MR. MITCHELL: It is not for me to make decisions for others….With respect to Hamas, let’s be clear. Hamas won a legislative election. They acknowledge the continued executive authority of President Abbas and his team, and it is entirely appropriate that we negotiate with the executive head of that government. When Democrats regained control of the Congress in 2006, that didn’t end President Bush’s tenure as president, and others who wanted to negotiate with the United States negotiated with the legally elected and then-chief of our executive branch of government. And that is the situation here.
Again, Mitchell says what he needs to say, but of course he omits the Hamas violent coup against the PA. Indeed, his statement jibes with the false history of Hamas and its supporters and is rather a mess factually. Abbas’s turn came to an end almost two years ago and Hamas could easily argue—and it sure will do so–that he is in office illegally and thus that any agreement he reached with Israel was not valid. By the way, Mitchell states that Hamas does “acknowledge the continued executive authority of President Abbas and his team.” I believe that this is false.
In short, Mitchell lays the basis in theory for an Israel-Palestinian treaty leading to a Palestinian state, then Hamas overthrowing the regime to seize control of that state, tossing out the treaty and calling in Iranian and Syrian troops to “protect” Palestine. True, this is leaping ahead in time but this is the kind of thing negotiators need to take into account.
Instead of Mitchell’s facile Democrats/Bush analogy, here’s a more accurate one: The Democrats regain control of Congress, the two sides reach an agreement, the Democrats than stage an armed coup and murder Republicans by the score then throw the Republicans out of the regions they conquer, and the United States has two governments that are in effect at war with each other. Bush doesn’t hold any elections but just keeps extending his term in office.
Would other countries then be able to rely on agreements made with Bush and consider him “legally elected?” Of course not.
Moreover, Mitchell’s comparison of Hamas to the Democratic Party reveals the silly habit of making parallels among widely disparate Western and Middle Eastern ideas, institutions, and groups. Hamas is a genocidal, terrorist, revolutionary Islamist group dedicated to wiping out Israel and the Jews, overthrowing all existing Arabic-speaking governments, and creating a totalitarian state ruled by a caliph.
Is this a group Mitchell wants to compare to the Democrats, who are not known for throwing opponents off tall buildings, machine-gunning the enemy wounded in hospital beds, and teaching children to be suicide bombers.
And consider this, too: By forcing Israel to end the high level of sanctions against the Gaza Strip, the West has in effect recognized the Hamas regime as an independent entity that can stay in office for decades. Certainly, it has ceased any effective attempt to bring down that regime. So what is Hamas’s incentive to accept a PA-Israel negotiation process that it has denounced as treasonous?
I don’t want to spend so much time on this single issue but it is worth reviewing as an example, one of the more obvious cases where the real world and the fantasy world of Washington’s Middle East come into collision.
Mitchell also states:
“But we do believe that peace in the Middle East, comprehensive peace, including, but not limited to, an end to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, is very much in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians, of all people in the region; it’s in the national security interests of the United States, and therefore, we are going to continue to pursue that objective with patience, perseverance, and determination.”
Trying to promote negotiations is certainly in the U.S. national security interest. Yet the strategy and tactics used cannot ignore regional realities.
Here’s one of them: Is “comprehensive peace” in the interest “of all people in the region?” On one level that seems obvious but on the level of actual reality it is completely false. Consider this: having peace in Europe was arguably in the interests of everyone at all times between, say, between 1337 (start of the Hundred Year’s War between England and France) and 1990 (the Cold War’s end), yet nonetheless there wasn’t peace much of the time.
Why is that? Because there were ideologies, nations, and leaders who thought there was something more important than peace: gains, victories, land, glory, the will of the Creator of the Universe, and other things. Moreover, they perceived that triumph was easy and that they could have everything they wanted. This worldview does not characterize the position today of, at most, more than 10 percent of Israelis (or Americans and Europeans for that matter) but does characterize the position of more than 95 percent of Arabs, Middle East Muslims, and Palestinians.
An element of this doctrinaire, deterministic “even-handedness” and “mirror-imaging” practices by Western governments today is to misunderstand much about the Middle East (and Israel as well) to the point that they fail in their efforts and stumble into crises. This point also applies to their understandings of Islamism, Iran’s ambitions, the internal problems of Iraq and Afghanistan, and much more. These mistakes cost lives and produce strategic disasters.
Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, and most of the PA’s own Fatah rulers don’t think a “comprehensive peace” is in the interests of Palestinians, much less all the peoples of the region. They believe that anyone who does think so should be murdred. They are certain that the elimination of Israel, which they do not number among the “peoples of the region” is in everyone’s interest.
Certainly, from the standpoint of 2010, the relatively moderate regimes aren’t going to do much to make that happen and there are a number of Arab governments that behind-the-scenes understand the value to Israel for them. But they are generally going to avoid being much help because of their own interests. For them, the conflict with Israel–as long as it is carried out mainly or only on a rhetorical level–is tremendously profitable. The regimes use it to distract from domestic problems and to display their Arab nationalist and Islamic credentials.
These points are just not understood in the West. A typical example: the United States invites the Egyptian and Jordanian governments to observe the new direct talks believing they will pressure the PA and reassure the Israelis into making peace. A far more likely outcome is that they will simply back PA positions, making Israel feel the dice are loaded against it and convincing the PA that it can avoid making peace by using the usual Arab and Muslim levers to guarantee regionwide support for intransigence.
This kind of miscalculation is the problem when people like Mitchell conclude, in his words, that opposition cannot, deter leaders “who…recognize that the interests of their people, the future of their societies rests upon resolving this conflict and achieving the kind of peace and stability and security from which they will all benefit.”
But of course it can! Not understanding why is the mistake that has repeatedly led Western leaders and experts to predict diplomacy will succeed only to find, to their puzzlement, that it fails.
Indeed, this factor has been the centerpiece of Middle East history for the last sixty years. Fear of public opinion, fear of Islamists and hardline clerics, fear of rivals taking advantage of their concessions, fear of assassination, fear of political destruction, and other such things have deterred leaders. And those not deterred—King Abdallah of Jordan, Bashir Gemayel of Lebanon, Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt (and, yes, Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, too)–have been eliminated as a result.
There is a rather sharp gap between the reality of PA “President” Mahmoud Abbas’s political position (hardline) and thinking (scared to an extent which usually brings in a bad word at this point) and what Mitchell portrays it as being.
Again, this does not mean the West should not try to negotiate. It does, however, mean that the West should maintain its own credibility in fighting the radicals (in part, to encourage the relative moderates) and support Israel strongly to show that maximal aims cannot be achieved. The lack of these pillars helps to cripple any peace process.
To summarize, these negotiations are based on a set of false premises:
A. That Abbas is clearly the legitimate leader of the Palestinians who is empowered to make a deal. Mitchell bases this on a false claim that Hamas recognizes the Abbas government as legitimate and by not mentioning Abbas is ruling without elections and beyond the end of his term.
B. The idea that Hamas is not a real problem and will just go away. Wrong again.
C. The belief that Abbas and his colleagues view a formal peace agreement with Israel to be in their interests. Again wrong. They view such an agreement as dangerous for themselves and involving concessions they don’t want to make.
D. The concept that everyone in the region views peace with Israel as in their interests. Again wrong. The revolutionaries view the active and violent continuation of the conflict to be in their interests while the relative moderates like having the conflict around for their political benefit, especially if they don’t have to fight Israel or give money to the Palestinians.
E. The mistaken assumption that a treaty would be the end of the conflict and increase regional stability. In fact, desirable as peace would be, it would provoke a major radical upsurge to stop or destroy the agreement and would mark only the beginning of a struggle over Palestine and policies by the government of Palestine that would probably reignite the conflict.
The text is, “Transcript: Clinton, Special Envoy Mitchell on Push for Middle East Peace, U.S. Department of State, Office of the Spokesman, August 20, 2010.