The final chapter of Dennis Ross’s 800-page book on the Oslo Process (The Missing Peace) is entitled “Learning the Lessons of the Past and Applying Them to the Future.” Among his lessons was a warning that the process can become “essentially an end in itself” — self-sustaining because there is never a right time to disrupt it. He concluded that less attention should have been paid to the negotiators and more to preparing their publics for compromise. With respect to the Palestinians, it is a lesson still unlearned.
The lessons the Bush administration drew from the Clinton experience were that Arafat was an obstacle to peace; the Palestinian Authority needed new leadership and democratic institutions; and peace could be achieved only in phases, not all at once. Bush endorsed a Palestinian state in 2002; arranged the three-phase Roadmap in 2003; assured Israel in 2004 of the U.S. commitment to defensible borders; facilitated the Gaza withdrawal in 2005; began moving the parties in 2006 to final status negotiations; and sponsored the Annapolis Process in 2007-08, which produced another Israeli offer of a state and another Palestinian rejection. In the meantime, the Palestinians elected Hamas — an inconvenient fact that peace processors simply ignore.
There were multiple lessons to be drawn from the successive failures of Clinton and Bush, but Obama did not pause to consider them. He appointed George Mitchell on his second day in office and sent him immediately to the Middle East on the first of an endless series of trips. He sought a total Israeli construction freeze and reciprocal Arab concessions — getting nothing from the Arabs but obtaining a one-time Israeli moratorium, which produced nothing. The administration has tried “proximity talks,” followed by “direct talks,” and now “parallel talks.”
The process has produced an endless supply of names for unproductive procedures, but not much else. It has become essentially an end in itself, and it is time, once again, to learn the lessons of the past so we can apply them to the future. Aaron David Miller and Jennifer Rubin have produced about seven between them.
But the most relevant lesson may be the one Obama disregarded when he rushed into his own peace process. In a December 2008 article, Obama’s erstwhile adviser Robert Malley urged him to slow down and reflect on “the reasons for recurring failures, the effectiveness of U.S. mediation, the wisdom and realism of seeking a comprehensive, across-the-board settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even the centrality of that conflict to US interests.”
The Palestinian goal seems less to obtain a state (they have repeatedly rejected one) than to reverse history: a return to the 1967 lines would reverse the 1967 war; a “right of return” would reverse the 1948 one; and controlling the Old City (aka East Jerusalem) would reverse the history before that. At the end of his book, Ross describes the Oval Office meeting where Arafat rejected the Clinton Parameters, with Arafat denying that the Temple ever existed in Jerusalem. Ten years later, the PA denies any Jewish connection to the Western Wall. Not only has the PA taken no steps to prepare its public for peace; its maps and media presume Israel does not exist.
In thinking about the recurring failures of the peace process, it is time to reflect on that.