Originally posted January 2008
Many Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians are convinced that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intractable because neither side has abandoned the goal of defeating the other, and neither really believes in compromise. This is a myth.
The reality is that large majorities of Israelis and Palestinians now believe through bitter experience that their historical struggle over the land they both cherish can only be resolved through negotiations for a two-state partition. Both peoples have come to realize that neither side can prevail through violence. They understand that Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are enduring realities. They know that both peoples are there to stay, and that the choice is not between victory for one and defeat for the other, but whether they will choose mutual compromise or mutual destruction.
Indeed, more and more Israelis and Palestinians grasp that both people’s fundamental needs for peace, security, dignity, and national self-determination are interdependent. In other words, the Jewish state will ultimately fail if Palestinians are not liberated in a state of their own in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, and that Palestinians will not win real statehood unless Israel is assured that this will bring peace. This conceptual change toward realism by majorities in both societies offers hope for a two-state peace to this century-old conflict. Why then, has this not happened?
The reason, as Ziad Asali and Ori Nir point out in their commentaries, is that hope and trust, vital ingredients for peace and reconciliation, are sorely missing on both sides. Although both peoples have grasped the reality of their situation and want peace, each is convinced that the other side does not. Fear and emotion distort their judgment. Extremist minorities on both sides who oppose compromise spread cynicism and mistrust through incitement and propaganda. These diehard elements also cling to the fantasy that violence works, and chronic mutual violence reinforces fear on both sides that the other wants victory, not peace. Worse yet, chances for human contact between Israelis and Palestinians have been severely curtailed by Israeli-imposed travel restrictions and the separation barrier.
Given this toxic environment, it is not surprising that both Israelis and Palestinians have responded with apathy and skepticism to President Bush’s call at the Annapolis Conference for a fresh start toward two-state peacemaking. How can hope and trust be rebuilt in order to transform public opinion, marginalize the extremists, and pave the way to real negotiations and a final status peace agreement?
It is doubtful that Ehud Olmert and Mahmud ‘Abbas can do this by themselves in bilateral negotiations, as the Bush Administration advocates. Both men are pragmatists who grasp the need for a genuine two-state compromise. Olmert has even said Israel cannot survive without it. But neither are strong, charismatic leaders in the mold of DeGaulle, Ben Gurion, or even Sharon and Arafat. And both are trapped in dysfunctional political systems in which extremist minorities and proponents of force are disproportionately powerful. For ‘Abbas, mobilizing a united pro-peace majority and marginalizing Palestinian extremists will be difficult, if not impossible, as long as Palestinians are politically and geographically divided between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Likewise, Olmert also faces a divided government. It is unlikely that he, acting alone, can prevail against the settler lobby that is now entrenched in the Israeli system. He also confronts a military and security establishment that exaggerates military force as the key to security and is skeptical of negotiations and compromise. Given these obstacles on both sides, it should have been no surprise that within days after the optimistic proclamations at Annapolis, the grim routine of violence and counter violence, settlement expansion, and mutual recriminations resumed as if nothing had changed.
This tragic dynamic will continue and the promise of the Annapolis peace process will fade without a new approach from Washington. The situation demands on the diplomatic front what Ori Nir calls for, “a more assertive, active American role.” It also calls for, as Ziad Asali urges, a more powerful “American national alliance” here at home of diverse parties who agree on the critical need for negotiating a solution based on “two viable secure states.”
The potential for success of such American leadership is greater than many Americans realize. We too have been demoralized and intimidated by the same kinds of misinformation and propaganda that have crippled Israeli and Palestinian politics. Yet repeated public opinion polls have shown not just American abhorrence of violence and terror by Palestinians, but opposition to Israeli occupation and settlement policies and strong support for more active American diplomacy.
Indeed, there are visible signs of an emerging majority of Americans — Christians, Jews and Muslims — who are alarmed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and want more effective leadership from Washington. More and more Americans understand the toll of fear, suffering, and injustice that this conflict imposes. They also know the price we are paying in terms of our reputation and national security interests.
But what about the widespread belief that a powerful “Israel lobby” whose mission is to support Israeli policy, right or wrong, ultimately controls our foreign policy? This is another myth. History proves that when American leaders like Eisenhower, Carter, Kissinger on behalf of Nixon, and George H.W. Bush asserted American leadership at critical moments in the Arab-Israeli conflict, they prevailed. Moreover, there are emerging and dynamic Jewish groups in the United States, as well as Christian and Arab-American groups, who know that Israel’s security and a real Palestinian state are two sides of the same coin, and who strenuously oppose both Palestinian terrorism and Israeli occupation and settlements.
If George W. Bush takes advantage of his Annapolis initiative and intervenes more actively to help Ehud Olmert and Mahmud ‘Abbas resolve final status issues they are unlikely to resolve by themselves, he would offer them a desperately needed lifeline that they would certainly grasp. In doing so, he could summon support from and help empower a large American pro-peace majority. Herein lies a bright opportunity for President Bush to help overcome America’s travails in the Middle East, leave a powerful legacy, and help rescue our Israeli and Palestinian friends from a bleak future.