Commentary Magazine


“Solving” Israel to Solve the Conflict

With the Israeli-Palestinian talks at an impasse, now would be the time for some fresh thinking on how to move forward. Two pieces have appeared in recent days offering advice on what could be done to make progress. Both are written in a highly skeptical tone about the probability of success, yet both essentially offer the same suggested remedy. Although they come at it from slightly different angles, when it comes down to it what they both propose is a pretty simple formula: more pressure on Israel. And while these writers may temper their arguments with a certain pessimism toward the process, they still tap into a more commonly held notion about Israeli concessions being the gateway to harmony in the region.

Writing for the Nation, Bob Dreyfuss argues that the United States must first posit its own detailed outline of what a final agreement should look like. Then what will be needed is an almighty amount of pressure to be brought against rejectionist Israel and, in all probability, the bringing down of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “ultra-right” coalition. The other piece that comes to mind here is one by Aaron David Miller that appeared in the New Republic under the title Five Lessons That Could Save John Kerry’s Peace-Process Efforts. Miller served as an advisor to Secretary of State James Baker, and so perhaps unsurprisingly Miller recommends applying Baker’s approach. If it were possible to summarize the Baker doctrine on peace in the Middle East, it might be: the application of unrelenting and non-negotiable pressure on Israel. Miller paints this strategy as having been some unprecedented example of how to operate with success. While U.S.-Israel relations became more strained during that period than they have ever been under Obama, it is not clear what Baker and Miller actually achieved for all their trouble.

Both of these pieces are only able to pursue their line of argument by refusing to acknowledge the full reality of recent events. The line that Israel is impossibly intransigent has simply become enshrined as a doctrine unalterable by real events. Dreyfuss’s recounting of the collapse of the latest talks is an all but unrecognizable version of reality. He protests that Netanyahu breached his commitments by expanding settlements and refused to release the last group of prisoners. But settlements were never subject to the concessions the Palestinians were bribed with before they would consent to their participation in talks. In any case, the last round of prisoners would have been released like all the others had the Palestinians not announced that they were about to leave talks regardless of how many additional terrorists Israel offered to let lose.  

In Dreufuss’s view pressure on the Israeli side is warranted because Palestinian leader Abbas is essentially powerless. Yet if that’s true then it might legitimately be asked whether Abbas really has the ability to give Israelis any reliable assurances of peace in return for concessions that greatly weaken Israel’s security if those assurances aren’t guaranteed. Indeed, in both the case of Miller and Dreyfuss’s article, one wonders why, if the deal on offer is really evenhanded and promises an end to the conflict, would the Israelis need so much pressuring?

Miller’s piece acknowledges that under present circumstances there is little to be gained from pressuring either side. Yet Miller seems convinced that in the event that there was an opening for peace, it would be the Israelis that would need to be forced into it and he expresses his concern that this administration hasn’t got what it takes to get tough with Israel. Not like in the good old days of Baker when the U.S. would withhold loan guarantees needed to help absorb Jews from the former Soviet Union as punishment for Prime Minister Shamir not agreeing to the additional demand of freezing construction in Jerusalem as well as the West Bank. All that any of this achieved was the spectacle of the Madrid conference, which pandered to Arab demands for an international conference from which to condemn Zionism.

Perhaps it would be claimed that Madrid somehow opened the way toward the Oslo accords, but since neither side considers that to have been an overwhelming success, it’s not clear why we should celebrate Baker’s conference. Indeed, a more concrete result of the Baker diplomacy was the move to frame Israel as the problem and thus assault its underlying legitimacy. This is the assumption that both of these pieces rest on; that to solve the conflict you must first solve Israel.

Dreyfuss has a couple of telling things to say about such a solution. As well as claiming that everyone knows what that solution will look like he also claims that “Israel holds all the high cards.” The arguments put forward by Dreyfuss and Miller are really the logical conclusion of believing that this is a territorial conflict, in which case by holding the territory Israel does hold all the high cards, and so, Israel is the problem for blocking peace by retaining territory. As such, Israel will remain vilified until it can make the case that this conflict has never been about two states, but rather the destruction of one state: the Jewish state.  

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