A US President, needing a signature policy victory, faced with a hostile Congress controlled by the opposing party, nearing the end of his term, seeks ensure his legacy and make a major foreign affairs statement by brokering a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. He brings them together for a big meeting here in the US, hoping to put together the structure of a deal to bring peace to the region.
Sounds familiar. It could be George Bush, presiding over the Mid East Peace conference in Annapolis that starts today. Or, it could be Bill Clinton, making one last push for peace at Camp David back in 2000. You could even argue that it might apply to the senior George Bush and his Madrid conference in 1991. In short, we’ve seen this show before, and I’m not convinced that the current production will have an ending that is in any way markedly different.
Granted, there are a few thing new about Bush’s current conference that make it substantively different than previous peace process attempts. The first is that this is Bush’s first real foray into personal diplomacy for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Entering office in 2001, the administration disengaged from the Mid-East Peace Process that the Clinton Administration was so heavily invested in. Instead, the Bush Administration offered its ‘Roadmap’ for peace, largely removing the US from the daily push for peace talks. The current summit marks the most significant US foray into the issue in over 7 years. A lot has happened in that time.
First and foremost, there is different leadership leading different nations. Yassir Arafat, long the face of the Palestinians, has passed from the scene. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, presides over half a quasi-state, significantly weaker than his predecessor, having essentially lost Gaza to Hamas. Ehud Olmert comes from a secular, pragmatic centrist coalition that broke from the right and picked up some of the left, having up-ended Israeli politics and reduced the influence of certain right-wing religious factions.
Then, there’s the small matter of the Us invasion of Iraq. On the one hand, this makes the US a much bigger player in the Middle East, as it occupies an enormous country in the middle of the map, with hundreds of thousands of troops in the region engaged in active combat. On the other hand, it has significantly weakened and skewed US policy in the region, as everything has been filtered through the lens of Iraq, leaving the core Israeli-Palestinian issues on the sidelines until now. It has also reshaped the role and identity of the US in the region, providing new burdens to public legitimation of any US-brokered deal.
And, there’s the shift in regional power to Iran. Iran’s rise and growing influence (aided in part by the US invasion of Iraq) has troubled both the Israelis as well as some Arab states suspicious of Iran’s bid for regional hegemony. Shi’ia Iran’s ability to appeal to Islamisist groups potentially threatens the secular and Sunni regimes such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Finally, there are another 7 years of fighting between Israeli and Palestinian forces and people. Its been a long 7 years, with many on both sides tired of the fighting and eager for some sort of settlement.
So, you might think that these changes would make the conditions ripe for a peace agreement. Perhaps. But, I remain skeptical that this summit and the Bush Administration’s current push will achieve any significant and tangibile results (other than the obligatory joint statement and promise of future negotiations).
Part of the problem lies with the Bush Administration itself. To date, it hasn’t shown itself to be all that concerned with policy implementation and follow-through. It, has succumbed to the classic liberal fallacy that once compromises are made, interests satisfied, and an agreement is reached, the deal is done. The fallacy is that such agreements don’t implement themselves–someone has to take a compromise and legitimize the new set of interests it represents to the group required to make the deal work. The Administration thought that if it simply removed Saddam that the Iraqis would suddenly emerge from their shells, a civil society and market economy would spring up from the people, and everyone would realize that they are all better off in a democracy. Except that it didn’t happen that way–the removal of Saddam’s government removed what little order there was in Iraq, and with no alternative legitimate social order, chaos followed. The terms of the deal that Olmert and Abbas will strike are rather obvious to anyone who has followed this issue over the years. They, and their advisers know what that eventual compromise is. The issue isn’t reaching that compromise, the issue is politically legitimating that compromise to the respective societies in a way that both Olmert and Abbas can be seen as having achieved a victory and not having sold out their people. I haven’t seen any of that rhetorical groundwork in any major form. For such a deal to work, the Administration will need to sell it, legitimize it, and implement it with a concerted Presidential effort far more strenuous than that which was given to either Iraq or Afghanistan. Someone will need to take ownership of this process, in the way Chris Hill has taken responsibility for sheparding the North Korean nuclear deal to fruition.
And, part of the problem lies with the participants. As I mentioned above, the real key to any peace deal is the legitimation of a compromise to both societies. Each group has, over the years, incorporated into its national identity indivisible items that must be cut up in any deal. Israelis hold Jerusalem as the center of the Jewish state in which they live. Palestinians hold as central the right to return to their former homes. In practice, both must be compromised to reach a deal. But woe is the leader who sells out his people’s core identity. What Palestinian leader can go back to his people, having sold out the right to return? What Israeli leader can go back to his people having given away half of Jerusalem? Under the current conditions, its a political death sentence, and why there will be no real progress on a peace deal. (And not just these 2 issues–there are clearly more, but those serve to illustrate the point sufficiently).
What is needed is a reshaping of the rhetorical-identity topography. Someone, perhaps a US president (though perhaps not), needs to offer the Israelis a vision of an Israeli identity with a shared Jerusalem. Someone needs to offer the Palestinians a vision of a Palestinian identity without a right of return. Someone on each side needs to enact such an identity, producing the interests that support a peace deal. Then, and only then, is the potential for compromise possible.