No Exit to the Middle East Morass?


Governor Romney has said that as president his attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be to kick the can down the street. As a peacenik (and an Obama supporter) who believes that a two-state solution is not only the best way  but the only way out of the century old conflict, it hurts me to say that the governor, whatever his motives, is right. I would much prefer to be pressing a peace plan on the president of the United States, but in my judgment, there is very little he can do to move the two parties toward a negotiation, much less toward an agreement.

Both sides have made completely clear by their actions that they do not wish to negotiate anything that comes close to a peace agreement. They both of course want to blame the other side for the lack of any negotiating, but that is just talk. I am not privy to the motives of Netanyahu or Abbas, but it is not so difficult to see the peace -making world as they see it.

President Abbas is, as a political leader, an empty shell. He has no influence whatever in Gaza, and with only minor exceptions, nearly no influence even in Ramallah. The best one can say is that he is a figurehead. Since there is no way he could implement a peace agreement if he had one, he has worked hard to stay away from any process that could actually reach one. Some of Abbas’ weakness is due to Israeli efforts to not give him any victories he can show the Palestinian people. But much is also due to the failure of the Palestinian people, which includes their leadership, to accept the realities a peace agreement would require. The most glaring example is the insistence that Palestinian refugees have a  right to return to their homes in Israel. In 2000-2001 Palestinian leaders – but not President Arafat – were actively negotiating with Israel for a number and framework by which a modest number of refugees could return to Israel, but since then Abbas has participated in a Palestinian drift back to a sloganized commitment to a right of return for all.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, were he to consider a peace agreement, would need to confront 350,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank  (this does not include the settlers living in East Jerusalem). Some large number of these would, in the face of a peace agreement, accept money and move out. How many would not? No one knows, and it is part of settler strategy to keep it that way, but the most optimistic number suggests that at least 26,000 would resist all efforts at a financial arrangement. This is over three times the number of Jews who were removed from Gaza. And the West Bank is not Gaza. The West Bank has religious, historical, nationalist, and security meanings not present in Gaza; many settlers on the West Bank are armed, funded, and committed to not letting Gaza happen again. For strategic reasons the settlers mainly duck the question of whether they would use force to resist being moved out by the Israeli army, but what prime minister in his right mind would be willing to take the chance – even if it is estimated a modest one – of starting a civil war, of Jews killing Jews. And this doesn’t take into account the influence the settlers now have in all the relevant government ministries, the courts, and most importantly, the army itself.

More, the Israeli people, the religious settlers and the secular majority, have not faced the realities (for themselves) of an indefinite occupation by 4 or-500,000 Jewish settlers (and a substantial army) controlling 2.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank. The Israelis live in a protected bubble. Their economic and social lives are not bad. Their security is pretty good. What happens “over there” is just not their business.

In short, Israelis and Palestinians know the realities, realities they themselves have made. But facing them is too difficult, too frightening.

For both sides, then, there is no partner with whom to negotiate.

But, it is often said, the powerful United States, leading a coalition of European and other countries, could encourage, coerce, and cajole the parties, with a combination of carrots and sticks, to come to the table and negotiate. Israelis and Palestinians are both dependent on monies from the rest of the world, and of course from the U.S. in particular: threaten to withhold those monies, promise all kinds of economic and security benefits, and those parties will jump.

This is a plausible argument up to a point, and we have seen it actually work at least three times before: once in Madrid in 1991, once at Camp David in 2000, and once at Annapolis in 2007 In all three situations, many countries, led by the U.S., pressured one or both sides to come to the table, and they came. But we have also seen that on none of those three occasions did any agreement result; and in only one of them, Camp David, was there even any negotiating at all. (Arguably, Arafat didn’t negotiate there either.)

No force on earth can make a head of state negotiate if he/she doesn’t want to, and no force on earth can make a head of state come to an agreement if he/she doesn’t want to. (Bombing the parties might be an exception to this declaration.) Netanyahu and Abbas have looked at a peace process and decided that they are better off with no negotiation and no agreement.
So what is a president to do? The proper answer is: wait for a better opportunity, and if there are ways to help make that opportunity arise, go for them. The region of this conflict is, to understate considerably, volatile. No sane person can predict with much confidence what will happen in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, or Jordan (to take only the surrounding countries) over the next five years. Will the continued Israeli settlement expansion strike a nerve that inflames Arab resentment and large-scale violence? Will the people of those surrounding countries decide that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict deserves more than their rhetorical attention? Will the Palestinians decide that modest economic improvement is not a substitute for political improvement? Will the Sunni/Shia conflicts seek a common enemy? Will heavily armed Hamas and Hezbollah go from bark to bite?  Will an economic depression energize Israelis to pull back the huge public investment now used to support settlements and their expansion?  Will Iran…?

The US and the world’s other major players have their hands full with many other things that they can at least try to influence. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to evolve, and many, particularly Palestinians, will suffer (as will the U.S. reputation in the region) while it does. But ineffectual efforts at intervention, as we have seen, are worse than none.


David Matz

Senior Fellow, Center for Peace, Development and Democracy

Professor, Conflict Resolution, UMass/Boston

Partner, The Mediation Group

1 Comment

  1. The other type of blackmail is far less probable but far more dangerous. In the case of major political conflict between Slovakia and Russia, Moscow can decide to cut Slovakia off from the gas supply completely. In such a case Slovakia would be dependent on national resources (30%-40% of the demand), import from other countries (Norway, Germany, Central Asia) and national gas reserves (which is sufficient for 14-16 days in winter and approx 30 days in summer).

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