Commentary Magazine


Repeating Clinton’s Middle East Mistakes

If there weren’t already enough reasons to be wary of John Kerry’s efforts to convene new Middle East peace process talks this week in Washington, the New York Times just gave us another. Now that his task of pushing parties who already know there’s no chance of an actual agreement being reached into a new round of negotiation has been accomplished, Kerry is prepared to delegate the supervision of this disaster-in-the-making to a subordinate, and his choice is one of the key players in the Clinton administration’s Middle East peace process team. If the job qualifications for the position required experience in presiding over failed peace talks and stoking unreasonable expectations about the Palestinians’ desire for peace while pressuring Israel to make concessions, Martin Indyk is the perfect candidate.

Indyk served as assistant secretary of state and had two separate terms as U.S. ambassador to Israel. As former Israeli diplomat Dore Gold told the New York Times, Indyk certainly has an institutional memory of past efforts and knows the players involved well, though, tellingly, the Times noted that Indyk has “maintained a good rapport with Mr. Abbas, and has also conferred with Mr. Netanyahu.” But Kerry’s selection of one of the grizzled veterans of the crew that piloted the peace process ship and has shown few signs of understanding or even acknowledging all of the mistakes that were made during that time is a sign that Washington is set to be put on course for a repeat of what has already occurred. If Kerry is intent on getting the old band back together that orchestrated the post-Oslo euphoria of the 1990s that culminated in the crackup of the 2000 Camp David summit, he may be setting in motion a chain of events in which that tragedy will be repeated.

It’s useful to think back to the era when Indyk and the rest of his old pals were pursuing peace in the 1990s. The Clinton White House and State Department may not have conceived the Oslo Accords, but they were determined to see them implemented in such a way as to create the “New Middle East” that Shimon Peres wrote about at the time. Many Americans and Israelis shared the optimism that Yasir Arafat’s handshake with Yitzhak Rabin on the White House Lawn had engendered. But that optimism was slowly worn down in the following years as the newly created Palestinian Authority repeatedly demonstrated that it was primarily interested in amassing power and money for the Fatah elites that run it. Indyk and his colleagues steadfastly ignored Arafat’s double game whereby he talked peace to the West and war to his own people. The U.S. position was to treat the PA’s fomenting of hatred for Jews and Israelis and connections with terrorism as irrelevant to the goal of brokering peace agreements. They believed if Israel made enough concessions, and if enough foreign aid were funneled into PA coffers, the result would inevitably bring peace to the region and glory to all those involved.

They were wrong. Rather than renouncing terror, Arafat continued to employ it and a steady toll of attacks undermined Israeli confidence in the process. Though Israel’s critics would argue that its reluctance to make more concessions was to blame for Palestinian behavior, it soon became apparent to all but true believers in the peace process that he had no intention of ever making peace. But Indyk and company never caught up to reality. Their catastrophic miscalculation was made obvious in the summer of 2000 when Arafat refused the first of three Israeli offers of statehood including almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. His response was to launch a terrorist war of attrition known to history as the second intifada, which cost more than a thousand Israeli lives and far more Palestinians.

In retrospect some of those involved with the process, like Dennis Ross, eventually admitted that they had made mistakes. But while Ross was right to note that Washington was wrong to ignore Palestinian incitement, terror, and thievery of aid funds, that miscalculation was no aberration. It was based in a fundamental misreading of the goals and the beliefs of Arafat and the entire Palestinian leadership (a group that includes his successor Mahmoud Abbas). The notion that a kleptocracy that based its legitimacy on a notion of Palestinian nationalism that rejected true peace with Israel could ever be persuaded or bribed to do so was a myth. Most Israelis absorbed this lesson as they coped with the after-shocks of the Oslo-era fiasco. But it was one that Kerry and some of the professional peace processors like Indyk seem never to have learned.

The notion that Israelis and Palestinians could simply split the difference between their positions was quintessentially American and hopelessly naïve. But it came with a high price in blood. Almost 13 years ago the Clinton team, assisted by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, blithely pushed ahead with peace talks that set the stage for an unprecedented outbreak of terrorist violence. Though Kerry has labored mightily to get the parties back to negotiations, he has given little indication that he has any idea of how to make them succeed and even less to the consequences of failure. Experience is a virtue, but there is another word to describe those who keep repeating the same behavior while expecting different results, and it isn’t flattering. Enlisting someone who has already made these same mistakes in a previous administration with no sign of having learned from them to help the secretary stage manage a new round of talks is an ominous sign that history could be repeating itself.

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