As we looked this week at the old photographs of beaming U.S. presidents grandly mediating between adversaries, what was happening in today’s Middle East? Russian President Vladimir Putin was cutting a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to avert a catastrophe in Syria and carve up that country in a peace of the tyrants.
Russia as a Middle East bullyboy has been a nuisance for the United States. Russia as the hegemonic regional power that brokers peace deals may be a more serious problem.
America doesn’t look so indispensable these days if you’re an Egyptian, Palestinian or Syrian — or a Saudi, Emirati or Iraqi, for that matter. Under President Trump, the United States has ceded the mediating role to others. Trump’s idea of a peace plan is “maximum pressure,” the demonstrably false idea that he can bludgeon Palestinians (or Iranians) into making peace on his terms by starving them of money, food, medical care and other basics of life.
If maximum pressure could bring peace, the Israelis would have bested the Palestinians decades ago. The reality, it turns out, is that as people become poorer materially, they cling to their dignity and often become less compromising.
Sadly, this month of peace anniversaries forces us to reckon with the reality that the efforts of a generation of Americans, Israelis and Arabs to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have largely come to naught. The “peace process,” as we knew it, is dead. To speak of Palestinian rights these days is to draw scorn, or just a big yawn. The Palestinians are yesterday’s problem. Even the Arabs are tired of their fractious demands.
The Palestinians are among modern history’s biggest losers. You can argue that it’s their own fault — that they kept balking at the peace deal that Israel would accept in hopes that if they waited and kept agitating, they could get more. The four-year-plus “intifada” that followed the Oslo agreement was a self-destructive waste for the Palestinians, poisoning good feeling in Israel. The same is true of Gaza, which greeted Israeli evacuation with continuing, self-defeating attempts to kill Israelis.
As a journalist who covered the Middle East in the years when Israeli-Palestinian peace was a diplomatic obsession, I have a trunkful of memories of how peace kept receding, even as U.S. mediation advanced.
To try to understand the Palestinians better, I lived for a week in 1982 in the West Bank village of Halhul with a stonecutter named Hammadeh Kashkeesh. What I took away was just how attached these people were to their land, and how vexed they were by the Israeli settlements sprouting around them and eventually preventing Kashkeesh from tending his beloved grapevines.
It wasn’t that Kashkeesh wanted to kill Israelis: He had jumped into a swimming pool to rescue an Israeli boy when he was a young waiter at a resort, even though he didn’t know how to swim. It was about dignity. When I saw him again a few years ago, that pride had become brittle, and the gentle peacemaker was gone.
A journalist’s treat in those years was interviewing Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was visionary about Israel and mordantly funny about life. He reluctantly signed the Camp David Accords with Egypt, but he risked his government in a vain attempt to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon. The 1982 war broke Begin instead.
PLO leader Yasser Arafat spoke with me many times over those years, wanting to communicate with the United States — but Israel, not so much. He played a cynical politics of personal survival. He allowed his chief intelligence officer to maintain secret contact with the CIA, even as he kept trying to kill Israelis. He wanted a peace deal, so long as he could hold out for a better one. The Palestinians deserved better.
No American has struggled harder with this problem than my friend Martin Indyk, Clinton’s ambassador to Israel
and chief negotiator for President Barack Obama’s unsuccessful peace attempt. “The peace I worked on for 35 years will not be achieved in our lifetimes,” Indyk told me this week. “But it will happen eventually, because there is no other way.”
That’s the faith that sustained U.S. peacemakers, and perhaps doomed them, but may someday sustain their successors. American power remains entwined with the aspiration for a better world.