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Five myths about Middle East peace

By Aaron David Miller
Sunday, October 3, 2010; B03

Yet again, Israelis and Palestinians are negotiating (or trying to), and yet again, a U.S. administration is in the middle of the muddle. We've seen this movie many times before, and I've watched it up close as a negotiator and adviser for both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state. Is there any reason to believe that this time around, there will be a happy ending? Mutual suspicions, domestic political constraints and substantive differences between the parties are hampering the talks. Meanwhile, myths about Arab-Israeli peacemaking cause the Obama administration's mediating role to be even more difficult.

1. Direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are the key to reaching an accord.

History argues strongly to the contrary. With the exception of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of October 1994, every negotiation that has resulted in an enduring Mideast agreement was brokered by the United States.

The Oslo Accords of the 1990s -- the poster child for direct negotiations -- ended in disaster, as broken commitments, terror and violence, and unmet expectations overwhelmed Palestinians and Israelis.

Still, the power of direct negotiations is compelling. I'll never forget chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat telling me in a moment of great frustration in 1995 that he could get more from the Israelis directly than he ever could from us.

In the current phase of the peace process, direct talks that build trust between Israelis and Palestinians are vital, of course, but they are not sufficient to reach an agreement. Sooner rather than later, the United States will need to invest itself more heavily in the negotiations in order to bridge gaps on core issues such as borders and the status of Jerusalem; will need to marshal the billions of dollars required to support an agreement; and probably will need to deploy U.S. forces to the Jordan Valley to monitor security arrangements. Without active U.S. involvement, it is unlikely that an agreement can be reached and implemented.

2. The United States is an honest broker in the peace process.

It has been before and can be again. But in the past 16 years, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, we have failed to be as tough, fair and reassuring as we need to be to broker a solution. Our relationship with the Israelis is special -- and it has to be because of Israel's unique security position and the values that bind us -- but if we intend to be a credible mediator, it cannot become exclusive.

We cannot advocate for one side over another or clear our positions with one party in advance; our client must be the agreement itself. And we need to adopt negotiating positions that reflect the balance of interests between the two sides, not use Israel's position as the point of departure for U.S. policy. The challenge for the Obama administration is to find this balance, one that neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush achieved.

3. Settlements are the main obstacle to peacemaking.

On the Israeli side, there is indeed no greater obstacle. For more than four decades, the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has reshaped Israeli politics for the worse, humiliated Palestinians and made an already complex process even more complicated. And Israel's recent refusal to extend a moratorium on settlement construction has threatened to undermine the negotiations before they have a chance to get serious.

Successive American administrations have not taken the settlement issue as seriously as needed. The U.S. line has always been the same: Getting to the negotiations is the only way Palestinians can address the settlement issue. Even then-Secretary of State James Baker -- who took a tough line with the Israelis on settlements and occupation -- believed that negotiation was the only way to resolve this issue, saying to the Palestinians in 1991: "If you're asking that we send in the 82nd Airborne, forget it."

But even if the settlement issue were resolved today, negotiations would still confront another galactic challenge: a crisis within the Palestinian national movement, with two authorities governing two discreet areas with two different security services, two different patrons and two different visions of the Palestinian future. The upshot of the battle between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is that without a monopoly over the forces of violence in Palestinian society -- without one authority to silence the guns and rockets -- no agreement can be implemented.

4. Pressuring the Israelis is the only way to reach an agreement.

The idea that the United States can pummel a close ally into accepting a deal that undermines its security or political interests is flat-out wrong. The Middle East is littered with the failed schemes of great powers that tried to impose their will on small tribes.

Pressuring Israel (and the Arabs, too) has been an inevitable part of every successful negotiation in which the United States has been involved. But that fight must occur within a relationship of trust and confidence, and with U.S. willingness to offer not just the prospect of pain but the prospect for gain.

The Obama administration -- which spent the better part of the past year not sure whether it wanted to punish the Israelis or pander to them -- decided to make a comprehensive freeze on settlements the make-or-break issue. President Obama believed (wrongly) that he could push the Israelis into agreeing to such a freeze, something not even the most dovish Israeli prime minister would ever do. As recently as last month at the U.N. General Assembly, Obama stated that Israel should extend the settlement moratorium -- when it was already clear that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would not. Such declarations make the United States look weak and feckless.

The administration may be learning. To keep the current talks afloat, it seems to be offering both sides assurances on the substance of the negotiations: for the Israelis, security guarantees that might constrain Palestinian sovereignty; for the Palestinians, a commitment on the June 1967 borders, with land swaps from Israel proper for any West Bank territory the Israelis plan to annex. This is risky if the assurances go too far, but it shows that Obama now understands that fighting Israel over settlements is a dead end.

5. Arab-Israeli peace is critical to securing U.S. interests in the Middle East.

It would help, but it wouldn't come close to overcoming our challenges in a region so troubled and turbulent. National security adviser James Jones got caught up in this belief, asserting in 2009 that "if there was one problem that I would recommend to the president [to solve], this would be it."

Arab-Israeli peace will not stabilize Afghanistan or facilitate an extrication of U.S. forces from there. 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 force Arab states to respect human rights. 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.

In fact, an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that does not prove viable and is not seen as fair will make our position in this region even more difficult. The president shouldn't minimize the importance of Israeli-Palestinian peace, but he shouldn't oversell it, either.

aaron.miller@wilsoncenter.org

Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has advised several U.S. secretaries of state on the Middle East peace process. He is the author of the forthcoming "Can America Have Another Great President?"

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