It was once conventional wisdom among a certain segment of Western policymakers that the Arab-Israeli dispute was the root of instability in the Middle East. Diplomats, both in Washington and Europe, resisted fiercely President George W. Bush’s belief that the road to peace and stability in the Middle East didn’t necessarily go through Jerusalem. It may not have gone through Baghdad either, but the subsequent Arab Spring should have demonstrated unequivocally that the Middle East faces myriad problems, few of which have to do with Israel.
That said, for Secretary of State John Kerry and his European counterparts, the Arab-Israeli conflict holds huge importance and drains disproportionate resources. Despite European murmurings abut sanctions against Israel; diplomacy—the so-called peace process—remains the chief policy pillar.
While it’s a parlor game in the State Department and European Foreign Ministries to debate whose fault it is that the Middle East peace process is moribund, the answer often lies in the mirror. Kerry and his counterparts are doing generational damage to any hope to reach a diplomatic solution to the decades-old dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
The reason is this: the basis for diplomatic agreements is trust they will be respected and upheld. But, increasingly, Washington and even more so European capitals are signaling that diplomatic agreements are empty promises and that outside guarantees are meaningless.
This was shown most recently by acknowledgment that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have moved into southern Lebanon alongside Hezbollah, growing so bold as to take photos and tweet about their presence. The Iranian presence violates the terms of the truce that ended hostilities in 2006 between Lebanon and Israel, as well as United Nation’s guarantees. That said, such violations are nothing new: In order to achieve the ceasefire, the international community supposedly made the United Nations mandate in southern Lebanon more robust and guaranteed Israel that Hezbollah would not rearm and militarize the south to the point where the terrorist group could once again launch cross-border attacks such as that which sparked the 2006 war in the first place. Today, despite such guarantees, Hezbollah has rearmed to the tune of possessing well over 100,000 artillery pieces and missiles, according to conservative estimates.
These two violations, of course, show just how empty Western promises and guarantees have become when it comes to its quest for peace in the Middle East. But, recent U.S. and European approaches toward diplomacy undermine the very concept of diplomacy. The 1993 Oslo Accords were a diplomatic triumph, widely seen at the time as being on par with the 1978 Camp David Accords. The agreements, brokered in secret in Norway, paved the way for Israeli recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), set the stage for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to return to Gaza the following year, and inaugurated two decades of direct talks between Israel and the newly created Palestinian Authority.
At the heart of the Oslo Accords was a Palestinian commitment to foreswear terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and commit to resolve outstanding conflicts through negotiation rather than unilateral actions.
And yet, in order to keep the diplomatic process alive, the Obama administration (and, to be fair, the second-term Bush administration and Clinton administration as well) soon showed a willingness to shift the goal posts. A comparison of declassified intelligence with congressional testimony shows that a senior Clinton administration official lied to Congress in order to keep diplomacy alive, even though the United States had clear proof that Arafat was directly complicit in terrorism. More recently, the Obama administration has reached out to Hamas, and even agreed to work with a Palestinian Authority incorporating Hamas, even though such action undercut the Palestinians’ commitment to foreswear terror and recognize Israel’s right-to-exist. Sure, Palestinians might be frustrated that Israeli negotiators don’t acquiesce to Palestinian demands. And Palestinian officials might even accuse Israel of violating agreements. After all, all diplomacy to date has been accompanied by he-said, she-said accusations, some of which might have merit, and some of which are more the result of differences in interpretations of the letter of the law. But, for any portion of the Palestinian Authority to turn its back on the commitment to foreswear terrorism and recognize Israel should void the Oslo Accords. In theory, Israel would be within its rights simply to return to the status quo ante, and end the Palestinian Authority completely. That’s not going to happen, but for anyone in Washington or Europe to acquiesce to such fundamental changes in Palestinian commitments regarding terrorism and Israel’s security sends the signal to both Israel and the Palestinians that Western guarantees are worthless, and no diplomatic commitment will last more than two decades. That makes reaching a final agreement almost impossible, if the object of an agreement is peace rather than a ceasefire to enable a new Palestinian entity to arm before a final Arab and Iranian push to annihilate Israel.
The Europeans, of course, are even more prone to show agreements to be worthless as shown by their willingness to recognize an independent Palestinian state, as blatant a violation of unilateral action as exists.
Throwing blame back and forth for the failure of diplomacy will not end any time soon, and both European and American officials will preach, preen, and seek to occupy a moral high ground. Alas, by transforming diplomacy into a job creation program for themselves, and ignoring that diplomacy isn’t simply talking, but involves immutable commitments and guarantees, they are—alongside the terrorists—largely to blame for the peace process nadir in which they have guided the parties.