Ten Reasons Why the Peace Process Is All But Dead

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According to timetable of the Oslo Peace Accords, Israelis and Palestinians ought by now to be living happily ever after in two separate states, following a consensual divorce that finally resolved their dysfunctional but codependent relationship. Instead, they're shooting at each other throughout the West Bank and Gaza and negotiating cease-fires rather than good neighborliness. Peace skeptics may believe this was the way it was ordained to be, but a closer examination reveals a number of factors — some inherent to the peace process; others circumstantial — that may have contributed to its failure. And it may be worth carefully examining those, because the one certainty amid the current crisis is that even if they don't try to revive the moribund Oslo agreement, two peoples who live cheek by jowl are bound to be forced, at some point in the future, to try again. Herewith, 10 reasons why it failed:

1. The Balance of Power

Throughout the peace process the Israelis metaphorically called the shots, because they literally called the shots. Their military and economic dominance and continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is almost as total today as it was when the Oslo Accord was first agreed in 1993 — as is the Palestinians' absolute military weakness, diplomatic disadvantage and economic dependence. Arafat's only real leverage has been to appeal to Washington, which has made no secret of its partiality to Israel. So, when the Palestinian leader found himself pushed by the U.S. to accept a deal on Jerusalem he regarded as political suicide, he simply hit the rewind button, restarting the intifada in the hope of changing the diplomatic odds.

An ugly reality of geopolitics is that peace tends to work best when each side has a grudging respect for the other's power, usually because they've fought themselves to a standstill. Oslo was different. Israel went in from a position of strength and confidence, having dealt decisively with all threats to its security. The only thing impelling into negotiations was the hope that transforming its political relations with its neighbors would secure its long-term survival. The Palestinians entered from a position of extreme weakness — four years of the intifada had given Israel a lot of bad publicity, but no military headaches; the end of the Cold War and then the Gulf War had moved some of the Palestinians' Arab backers closer to the U.S. and therefore made them more amenable to peace with Israel; and the PLO was financially and diplomatically bankrupt after earning the ire of the Arab world for backing Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.

And the latest violence shows that seven years of peacemaking hasn't fundamentally altered the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians as occupier and occupied. The destruction of Palestinian Authority buildings by Israeli rockets following the Ramallah lynching was a symbolic reminder to the Palestinians that the autonomy which Israel has given, Israel can take away. That may preclude the current process from achieving a deal that Arafat could sell to his people.

2. History, Honesty and Might

The imbalance of power meant that Israelis and Palestinians weren't forced into an historical reckoning. Israel's military superiority allowed it to dictate terms that shielded Israelis from confronting the real price of a lasting peace with the Palestinians. And the denial and obfuscation of that reality by Yasser Arafat meant that ordinary Palestinians were never fully apprised of the terms of the deal he was making. Thus, until June this year Israel was insisting that its control over all of Jerusalem was non-negotiable, while Arafat was blithely telling everyone who'd listen that he was on track to get his coveted Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Something was going to have to give.

Ehud Barak once remarked that if he'd been born Palestinian, he too would have joined a guerrilla organization. This is a profound observation on the part of an Israeli leader, and Israel has, to its credit, revised its high school history curriculum to examine some of its own history through Palestinian eyes, introducing young Israelis to the fact that the price of the birth of a Jewish state amid Arab hostility was almost 1 million Palestinian refugees. And after the conquests of 1967, a further 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were ruled by Israel as an occupying army. Sadly, there's little sign that the Palestinian leadership has done much thinking about how they might have responded to the circumstances the Jewish leadership encountered in 1948.

But changing the textbooks is a long-term project, and the peace process has done little to reckon with the historic sense of injustice that has fueled the conflict. Israel has shown little interest, for example, in discussing the plight of the refugees from 1948, planning simply to endorse some form of limited compensation paid for by Washington.

Moreover, the power imbalance also prompted Israel to demand that some of its conquests of 1967 — its control over East Jerusalem, for example, and the presence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza — now be politically legitimized by the Palestinians. That was always going to be hard for Arafat. And when it came down to negotiating the fate of Jerusalem a month after Israel had conceded defeat to Hezbollah by withdrawing from south Lebanon, Arafat may have realized his game was up. Growing numbers of Palestinians had begun to ask, if the Lebanese had fought for two decades until Israel withdrew from all of their territory, why should the Palestinians settle for less than all of the West Bank and Gaza — even if that required a return to force.

3. Is There a Referee in the House?

From the time the Oslo Accord first landed on his desk in 1993, President Clinton has made himself the exclusive mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But the U.S. was never a disinterested adjudicator of the conflict; it was deeply and openly committed to the Israeli side and hoped that by serving as both referee and coach to both sides it could conjure a paradigm-shifting agreement. But once both sides were forced to confront their most intractable differences at Camp David, Washington's ability to mediate simply fell apart. Clinton blamed Arafat for the breakdown and tried to exert pressure on him to accept Barak's final offer. But the fact that the U.S. was forced to concede a greater diplomatic role to the United Nations, the Arab states and the European Union in efforts to broker a cease-fire is a stark indicator that Washington is no longer regarded as an honest broker in the conflict.

4. Weak Palestinian Leadership

Yasser Arafat's unsentimental opportunism is probably the single most important factor in his political survival over three decades, and speaking out of different sides of his mouth comes naturally to a man who could go from Saddam Hussein's town crier to feted White House guest in three short years. From the outset of Oslo, Arafat took in what he wanted to take in — and told his people what he thougt they wanted to hear — insisting to the end that he was on track to get all of the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as his capital. Not that his people were listening — despite the tawdry baubles of sovereignty flaunted by Arafat, the daily reality of the occupation was ever-present in the lived reality of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, even after the Israelis withdrew to the edge of town. And the rampant corruption, cronyism and authoritarianism of Arafat's administration simply deepened his people's alienation from the peace process. Having failed to honestly relay the content of his negotiations with the Israelis to his own people, Arafat's ability to deliver them for the peace process was always in doubt. The aging, ailing Arafat may have managed to hold the reins through a period of Palestinian despair and passivity, but if Palestinians are once again risen, as they have been in recent weeks, it's unlikely that his leadership will survive — unless he completes yet another of his signature U-turns.

5. Weak Israeli Leadership

Unlike Arafat, the Israelis have to answer to an electorate — pity the Palestinian leader if he had to do the same! — and a sharply divided one. And that fact has bedeviled the peace process almost from the outset. Yitzhak Rabin was a visionary leader who saw the peace process as a way of securing Israel's long-term survival, and he recognized that he needed Arafat to do it. Thus, when the hard-liners of Hamas tried to sabotage the peace process with bloody suicide bombings in Israel, Rabin famously vowed to "fight terrorism as if there is no peace and pursue peace as if there is no terrorism." But when Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996 after having run against the peace process, everything changed. Netanyahu recognized the folly of withdrawing from the peace process altogether — primarily, he couldn't afford to court Washington's displeasure — so he simply slowed its implementation to a glacial pace. And unlike his predecessor, who saw the need to bolster Arafat's standing among his own people, Netanyahu was happy to humiliate the Palestinian leader at every turn. Three crucial years in which the Oslo framers had hoped would build the mutual trust necessary to tackle the most intractable "final status" issues were instead given over to continual crises and breakdowns.

Barak became the last hope for the peace process, but he had only a year in which to deliver; in addition, his predecessors hadn't prepared Israelis for the scale of compromise required to conclude a deal. So once Barak broached the inevitable topic of compromising on Jerusalem, he found himself without a parliamentary majority. Regardless of his own leadership abilities and vision, simply surviving in power right now may force Barak to make common cause with Netanyahu's party. Democracy, ironically, can be a major handicap for peacemakers.

6. Weak U.S. Leadership

It has to be said: President Clinton's intentions have been good, but they may also have helped pave the road to an unhappy place. Measured by the standards of parenting, the President was all indulgence and not enough tough love. Rather than being the stern and sometimes slightly distant guardian pressing his charges to reconcile their differences, he showed singular squeamishness when it came to doing any more than being a friend (in contrast to the previous administration, which once threatened to cut off Israel's U.S. aid unless it halted the building of new settlements in the West Bank). The reason for such squeamishness is probably domestic political calculations concerning the importance of retaining the support of the pro-Israel lobby. But thus handicapped, the President may not only have been unable to make the necessary interventions to move the process along, but also to keep the distance prescribed by his limitations.

Administration officials recently told the New York Times that Clinton felt betrayed by Arafat, whom he'd met more times than any other world leader. This was a startling admission both of a foreign policy that elevated Middle East peace brokering way beyond its priority to the national interest, but also of an extraordinary degree of micromanaging by the U.S. president of a distant negotiation process. And there's no hiding the fact that the authority of the U.S. has been somewhat squandered by that micromanaging — it's no longer a signifier of heightened seriousness when the president of the United States shows up for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders; it's expected. President Clinton in 1998 spent almost a week at Wye River brokering a minor agreement on Israeli troop withdrawals required by Oslo. And he spent even more time than that vainly pressing for a deal at Camp David. Then he saw fit to personally broker a simple cease-fire agreement at Sharm el-Sheik earlier this week, and spent hours on the phone two days later to Arafat and Barak in an attempt to stop a firefight in Nablus.

Not only is it worth questioning the appropriateness of such micromanaging by the President, it's also worth noting that the style of U.S. interventions can precipitate crises. Summoning the leaders to Camp David, for example, was plainly premature (and the U.S. knew it, because Arafat kept telling them so), and it may have helped set the stage for the current breakdown by opening a high-stakes bidding war for control over East Jerusalem. In addition, the unprecedented access both leaders have had to the White House has surely inflated their sense of importance (also, a little disengagement might actually help them realize that they'd better get their own act together). After watching Clinton get burned, it's rather unlikely that the next U.S. administration will be even nearly as intimately involved in the peace process as the current one — and that may even help the process. (After all, the Israelis and Palestinians had managed to negotiate the original Oslo Accord without U.S. involvement.)

7. Delaying the Hard Part

The architects of Oslo believed it was premature, in 1993, to try and reach agreement over questions such as the future of Jerusalem, the shape and nature of a Palestinian state, the status of Palestinian refugees abroad, the future of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and even water rights. Instead, they designed a series of incremental steps toward peace, in which the Israelis would make three troop withdrawals — handing over certain powers to a Palestinian Authority that would guarantee Israel's security — and in the process build up sufficient trust to go the hard yard. This assumed political continuities and an upward curve in goodwill. The size and scope of the withdrawals and nature of security arrangements were left to be negotiated along the way, and once the initial goodwill gave way to suspicion — and then when Israel elected a leadership openly committed to sabotaging Oslo — the open-ended, discretionary and incremental nature of the agreement meant that instead of building trust, it built resentment and suspicion, and turned almost every step in the process into a crisis or a showdown. With the wisdom of hindsight, it may be that sometimes a peace process needs to rapidly establish its conclusion as a fait accompli rather than give hard-liners on each side time to organize themselves to resist it.

8. Vulnerability to Hard-liners

From the outset, both Rabin and Arafat were dogged by hard-liners who wanted no part of the peace process. Keeping the peace was always going to be about maintaining their faith and trust in each other despite the actions of the hard men on both sides. But as the process wore on, that became increasingly difficult. First, Hamas strained Israeli commitment to breaking point with a series of deadly suicide bomb attacks in Israeli cities. Then the process suffered what may have been its sharpest blow when Rabin was slain by a right-wing Israeli assassin. The deterioration that followed eventually resulted in a situation where both sides now flaunt their own hard-liners as a means of pressuring the other side. In order to ratchet up the confrontation with Israel, Arafat's security forces recently released dozens of Hamas prisoners painstakingly rounded up with the assistance of Israeli intelligence and the CIA, and also invited the movement's leaders to his cabinet meetings. Such actions are calculated to stop Israel from resuming negotiations, and diminish its trust in Arafat. They may also reflect the fact that Arafat is recognizing his failure to carry Palestinian popular support for his peace initiatives, and is consorting with the hard-liners in part to save his own political skin. Barak, for his part, has responded to the latest crisis by seeking a unity government with Ariel Sharon — a clear message to the Palestinians that the peace process is in the deep freeze. Each side, in its own way, has brought the hard-liners back into play, diminishing the prospects for a revival of the peace deal.

9. Arab World Dynamics

From Morocco to Iraq, there isn't a single democracy in the Arab world, and so the peace process depends less on popular consent than on the ability of elites to guarantee order and back each other's decisions with political and financial support. The peace process has depended on the moderate Arab regimes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to give Yasser Arafat the political cover to make decisions that may not be popular among his own people or with the more hostile Arab regimes such as Syria. The Egyptians, Saudis and Jordanians have for the most part been happy to play that role, seeing resolution of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood as the key to a regional security that may help them revive their struggling economies.

Thus, President Clinton has been able to rely on support from those regimes when pressing Arafat to make concessions on issues of land and security. But Jerusalem is different. None of those Arab regimes has a particularly strong social base, and each faces a mounting challenge from Islamist elements who oppose any peace with Israel. Being seen to be endorsing Israel's claim to sovereignty over the Islamic holy sites in East Jerusalem may have been political suicide for President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah and the Saudi royal family. And so when Clinton urged them to press Arafat to compromise on Jerusalem, they instead warned him against making any concessions.

The subsequent violence has deepened the pressure on the moderate Arab regimes to take a tough stand against Israel. The high-profile role taken by the Lebanese guerrillas of Hezbollah in recent weeks also signifies a growing effort by Iran to influence Arab policy on Israel, while the power that derives from a rising world oil price is also prompting regimes such as Libya and Iraq to push for more pressure on Israel. And that may mean the current in the Arab world right now is in danger of turning against Oslo.

10. Trust, Love and Hatred

OK, Israelis and Palestinians were never going to love each other, given their shared history. But the peace process was predicated on their ability to build mutual trust by exchanging land for peace. But the latest violence has revealed a level of mutual hatred that may ultimately paralyze both sides. Whether in the shooting of children, the lynching of unarmed prisoners, the sacking of religious shrines or the shelling of buildings, the level of violent mutual contempt suggests that these two peoples are incapable of anything more than a cold cease-fire; a bitter pill swallowed by each side in recognition of their inability to destroy the other. The "peace of the brave" hailed by Rabin on the White House lawn seven years ago was not born of the necessity of having fought to a standstill; it was an invitation to both peoples to reimagine themselves and their relationship to each other. But the hard realities of history and power precluded that. Now, they may once again be shaping up to fight themselves to a standstill.