Five Myths About the U.S. and the Peace Process

Israelis and Palestinians should give a busy U.S. president reason to play a bigger role in peace: by undertaking serious talks

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U.S. President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Sept. 1, 2010
U.S. President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Sept. 1, 2010Credit: Reuters

Of all the urban legends circulating about Arab-Israeli negotiations and the peace process, none are more fantastical than the ones focused on the American role, usually focusing on why America won’t or can’t do more.

My advice to Israelis and Palestinians: You want the U.S. to play a more effective role? Give a busy president a reason to do so by assuming responsibility for a serious negotiation. Otherwise don’t bother him.

Myth No. 1: The U.S. really can want peace more than the parties

Sure the United States has its own interest and reasons for seeking a two-state solution. But the idea that we can or should own this process and invest in it more than the Israelis and Palestinians is both naïve and wrong-headed. More than that, it almost always leads to failure. In the history of the world, the old saw goes, nobody ever washed a rental car. And the reason: because people care only about what they own.

In a conflict driven by memory, trauma, and political identity and existential issues, only those who bear the costs can take the risks; no outsider can create the ownership required for that. It’s driven by pain and gain – usually generated by the locals themselves (see: the October 1973 war; Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem; the first intifada). No outsider can impose, or create circumstances for this regional ownership. And right now there simply isn’t enough of either. And there’s nothing Washington will or can do about that.

Myth No. 2: The White House is Israeli-occupied territory

The idea that American Jews in collusion with the Israeli government (and, for some time now, evangelical Christians) hold U.S. foreign policy hostage is not only wrong and misleading but a dangerous, dark trope. It coexists with other hateful – and, yes, anti-Semitic – canards about how Jews control the media and the banks, and the world as well. It’s reality distortion in the extreme, with little basis in fact. The historical record just doesn’t support it. Strong, willful presidents who have real opportunities (and smart strategies to exploit them) to promote U.S. interests almost always win out and trump domestic lobbies.

Indeed, when it counts and national interests demand it, presidents who know what they’re doing and have genuine opportunities move forward in the face of domestic pressures and usually prevail. Whether it’s arms sales to the Arabs (advanced fighter jets to Egyptians or AWACS to Saudis) or taking tough positions on Arab-Israeli negotiating issues in the service of agreements (see: Henry Kissinger and the 1973-75 disengagement agreements with Israel, Egypt, and Syria; President Jimmy Carter, Camp David, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1978 and 1979; and Secretary of State James Baker and the 1991 Madrid peace conference) – administrations have their way. The fights can be messy and politically costly, but that doesn’t preclude policy makers from having them.

Myth No. 3: The U.S. is an honest broker

No we’re not. We can at times be very effective (see: Kissinger, Carter and Baker), but our close ties with Israel, particularly on the security side, means that we’ll always give the Israelis an edge in that category, which tends to affect other issues too. That doesn’t mean we can’t do serious mediating (see: Jimmy Carter and Egyptian-Israeli peacemaking). Indeed, when we’re fair, tough and reassuring we can use or special relationship with Israel to our advantage as long as it doesn’t become an exclusive one that undermines our capacity to see the needs and requirements of the other side, and to factor them into U.S .mediation efforts.

Myth No. 4: Arab-Israeli peace is the key to protecting U.S. Middle East interests

It would certainly help. The Palestinian issue continues to resonate deeply throughout the region and is a primary source of anger at the U.S. But Middle East peace wouldn’t come close to overcoming our challenges in a region so troubled and turbulent.

Arab-Israeli peace will not stabilize Afghanistan. It will not create a viable political contract among Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. It will not stop Iran from acquiring enough fissile material to make a nuclear weapon. It will not produce democratic polities in the region. Nor will it end anti-American sentiment fueled by our support for authoritarian Arab regimes, our deployment of forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, our war against terror and our close relationship with Israel.

Myth No. 5: Everybody knows how the conflict will end.

Sure everyone knows. But so what? Can they act on what they know? And knowing doesn’t mean agreeing. There’s a minimum/maximum problem here. The maximum Benjamin Netanyahu can give doesn’t come close to the minimum that Mahmoud Abbas can accept. And in any event, it’s never been the absence of clever diplomatic fixes that has stood in the way of a peace agreement. Instead it’s the absence of will, skill, and luck. The incessant mantra that everyone knows what the solution is only serves to trivialize how wide the gaps still are and underestimates how tough it’s going to be to produce a conflict-ending solution.

That doesn’t mean giving up. But it does mean reading reality correctly. After all, unless you understand the world, how do you even begin to know how to fix it?

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