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Is the U.S. Too Engaged in Peace Talks?

Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, the administration has navigated foreign policy through the fog of public war-weariness. It may now find its diplomacy hounded by the other side of that coin: peace fatigue–or, rather, peace process fatigue. Israel Hayom reports on a new poll, commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, that surveyed Americans’ opinions on a range of issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the broader Middle East.

The poll found high support for Israel, with 76 percent of respondents agreeing with the sentence: “Israel can be counted on as a strong, loyal U.S. ally.” When asked to choose if their sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians, 48 percent said Israel against 16 percent for the Palestinians. Outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, 50 percent of respondents supported using force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with 41 percent opposed. If Israel launched an attack on Iran, 40 percent said the U.S. should support the Jewish state and nine percent said the U.S. should oppose the action.

But on the peace process, currently enjoying yet another round of American diplomatic attention, respondents were pretty realistic on a key point:

A large majority of Americans believe the U.S. should have minimal involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, according to the results of a new survey released by the Anti-Defamation League.

Some 62 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “It is up to the Palestinians and the Israelis to solve their own problems. Any lasting peace agreement between them must be reached with minimal involvement from the U.S.,” while only 29% agreed with the statement, “Peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will never take place without the leadership and involvement of the U.S. government.”

A few caveats: we don’t know what “minimal involvement” means exactly, so there is only so much we can take away from such results. Additionally, the ADL’s report on the poll seems to present only two options, so how the choices are phrased could make a real difference. And finally, it’s impossible to know just how much of the response to this question is intended as a referendum not on the broad contours of the peace process but on the hapless and often clueless chief American diplomat leading the charge, John Kerry.

With that said, the peace process fatigue is a good instinct. The series of events that led to Oslo and the famous handshake at the White House between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were part of a conscious peace process, admittedly, but one without the attention of later years. It’s no coincidence that this period was also the most productive diplomatic push of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even after the formal process got underway, the two sides were doing two things that were crucial to progress: keeping expectations modest and talking directly. And this was at a time long before the Likud Party officially adopted the model of “two states for two peoples” as its guiding force for the talks–even Rabin was famously uncomfortable with the idea of an independent Palestinian state–so there was plenty of reason on the Palestinian side to doubt Israel’s ability to carry out any comprehensive deal.

The problem is that when the sole superpower becomes closely involved (and at the time of the Madrid conference the Soviet Union was well on its way to dissolving, leaving the U.S. alone on the world stage), everyone’s incentives change. For the Americans, there is the lure of legacy. President George H.W. Bush was less susceptible to this than his successors because he already presided over America’s official emergence as the world’s great power. But politicians are only human, and the longer the conflict drags on, the more impressive “peace in the Middle East” appears.

The incentive structure got no better for the U.S. as time dragged on because of the natural evolution of the process. At first, vague notions of “peace” were seen as the objective. But after Bill Clinton left office and George W. Bush took over, the creation of a Palestinian state became the benchmark by which the conflict would be deemed “resolved.” The race to create a Palestinian state has run up against a by-now familiar obstacle: the sense of urgency among world opinion for a Palestinian state progressed while the actual task of state-building in the West Bank and Gaza stagnated.

The expectations game has been managed terribly by all involved, and the high profile of the peace process has become an obstacle. With their domestic populations–and the world–following along, Israeli and Palestinian leaders behave as though their every step is being watched closely, because it is. All the American attention has resulted, finally, in needing to lure the Palestinians to the table.

This is insanity. If the Palestinians have to be bribed to even enter negotiations, then they don’t have a desire to end the conflict. And Israeli leaders are not going to take major diplomatic risks if they’ve already spent their political capital on freeing Palestinian terrorists from jail or halting construction in Jewish communities for a process that keeps going nowhere. The United States has a constructive role to play in the peace process, but it’s not the one Kerry envisions. And the ADL polls suggests Americans are starting to agree.



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