The US blind spot in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs U.S. President Donald Trump as they talk during meetings at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria - RC15FD644460

In a new book, I argue that U.S. officials have long had a “blind spot” in two critical areas of diplomacy: power and politics. As most diplomats or negotiators understand, the success of any peace process depends as much as on the dynamics outside the negotiating room as what happens inside.

For one, the stronger party clearly has more leverage and greater options at its disposal than the weaker side. At the same time, most also understand that negotiations aren’t just between two leaders or delegations sitting across the table; each side also brings its own national narratives, public opinion, political opposition, and other internal constraints to the table. An effective mediator, therefore, must grapple with all of these factors in deciding how to create incentives and disincentives for the opposing parties. But this is not how U.S. mediation has operated in the Israeli-Palestinian context.

Since the start of the Oslo peace process in 1993, successive U.S. administrations have tended to ignore or downplay the vast power disparity between two sides. After all, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is not only one of conflict; it is also an occupation in which Israel directly controls the lives of millions of Palestinians. At the same time, in contrast to the enormous deference shown to the domestic political needs of Israeli leaders—often even allowing them to shirk their peace process obligations, such as freezing Israeli settlements, so as not to upset their ruling coalitions—U.S. officials showed little regard for the internal constraints or concerns of Palestinian leaders.

Where does the blind spot come from?

Both components of the blind spot stemmed from two equally flawed assumptions that have long been at the center of the U.S.-led peace process.

First and foremost was the belief that Israeli leaders would be more willing to “take risks for peace” if they felt secure politically and militarily. At the same time, for many policymakers on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue peace would also require transforming aspects of Palestinian politics to turn them into a suitable peace partner. Both of these, in turn, were byproducts of the extraordinarily close bonds between the United States and Israel and the inordinate influence of the pro-Israel lobby. In short, it was easier and less politically costly for U.S. officials to focus on things like reforming Palestinian politics and improving Israeli security than it was to pressure Israeli leaders on issues like Israeli settlements or respect for Palestinian rights.

How has the blind spot played out in practice?

By alleviating pressure on the stronger party and increasing pressure on the weaker party, however, Washington effectively reversed the normal mediation model, helping to reinforce the status quo and often even exacerbating the conflict. This became clear following the failure of the Camp David Summit in July 2000 and the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, known as the al-Aqsa Intifada. Although both sides had contributed to the failure of negotiations as well as to the escalating violence, Clinton opted to lay the blame solely on Arafat and the Palestinians. The reasons for this are not difficult to imagine. As the two most powerful actors bound by a special relationship, American and Israeli leaders had both the means and the motive to shift as many of the costs of failure onto the Palestinians as possible. In doing so, however, Clinton helped to narrow the political space for an agreement during his remaining time in office and to cement the narrative that Israel had “no partner” for peace, all of which helped to fuel violence in the months and years that followed.

The view that Arafat’s intransigence and Palestinian militancy were the primary drivers of the conflict—rather than Israel’s continued occupation—took center stage under George W. Bush. Despite becoming the first American president to officially endorse Palestinian statehood, Bush’s alignment with Ariel Sharon following 9/11 amid a wave of terrorist attacks by Palestinian militants gave Sharon a relative free hand in his bid to quash the Intifada while systematically destroying Palestinian governing and security institutions along the way.

Perhaps the most extreme manifestation of the blind spot was that of the Annapolis peace conference, convened by President Bush shortly after Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip and the routing of the Palestinian Authority’s forces in June 2007. While most ordinary Palestinians saw the internal division as a setback to the national project, U.S. officials saw it as an opportunity to advance the peace process without the menacing influence of Hamas. But this was an illusion, as the year-long Annapolis talks collapsed when fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas in late December 2008. Since then, Gaza’s isolation and the ongoing Palestinian division has persistently fueled violence, paralyzed internal Palestinian politics, and foiled peace negotiations.

In the end, the absence of pressure did not encourage Israeli leaders to “take risks for peace,” but instead relieved them of the need to do so, while helping to defray the political, economic, and even military costs of the occupation. Likewise, Washington’s attempts to sideline or reengineer Palestinian politics did not turn the Palestinians into effective negotiating partners but instead helped to weaken Palestinian leaders and political institutions while fueling instability and violence.

How has the blind spot played out under the Trump administration?

The Trump administration in many ways represents the blind spot in its purest form. On the one hand, it espouses a total identification not only with Israel, but with the most extreme and maximalist elements of Israeli politics. On the other, it displays a total disregard not just for Palestinian politics or history but even for Palestinian agency. In fact, one might argue that under Trump, the U.S. role has gone from that of an ineffective peace broker to one of an all-out spoiler.

President Trump’s December 2017 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has, in his words, taken the issue “off the table”—signaling to the Palestinians that they had more to lose from engaging with a Trump-led peace process than from avoiding it. In addition to abandoning the goal of a sovereign Palestinian state, Trump also seems set on doing away with the “land for peace” formula that has undergirded the peace process for more than half a century, as demonstrated by his recent decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Indeed, the administration’s rhetoric, including scrubbing the term “occupied territories” from its official lexicon, suggests that it is prepared to countenance permanent Israeli control over the five million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Finally, President Trump’s elimination of virtually all forms of economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people has reinforced the belief that his administration seeks not a peaceful resolution to the conflict but a permanent settlement based on Palestinian defeat and Israeli victory.