2016-07-27
Some may look at the Middle East and draw only one lesson: Peace is not possible. Conflict is the norm. The decade of peacemaking efforts was noble, but futile.

I do not accept that. The peace process that began in Madrid in 1991 has altered the landscape of the Middle East. The idea of Arabs and Israelis talking to one another is no longer considered illegitimate. Even during the worst of the Israeli-Palestinian fighting of the last few years, Israelis and Palestinians have continued to talk to one another. Regular meetings between Israeli and Palestinian scholars, journalists, politicians, and officials have continued, and for the first time serious grassroots initiatives involving joint Israeli and Palestinian efforts have emerged in groups such as "One Voice" and the "People's Voice." Israelis (at least in small numbers) have also continued to travel to Egypt and Jordan-and in Jordan the economy has benefited significantly from Qualified Industrial Zones in which Israeli-Jordanian joint ventures produce goods that are exported duty-free to the United States. While Israel's relations with countries like Oman, Tunisia, Morocco, and Qatar have been frozen, they have not been broken, and quiet dealings and occasional public meetings continue to take place.

Mutual recognition of Arabs and Israelis proved to be irreversible. There has been no return to the mutual rejection and denial of the past. Moreover, a new consensus emerged among Israelis and Palestinians and internationally as well on the essential requirement for peace: two states, Israel and Palestine, coexisting and living in secure and recognized borders.


To be sure, there were reasons that peace has proved difficult to achieve. Translating general principles into concrete agreements has never been easy, particularly given the irreconcilability of objectives and the competing claims to the same territory. Too often that has reflected the reality that when one side was ready to make hard decisions the other was not. Here the historical pattern is striking. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Jews of Palestine were ready to find a compromise and the Arabs, rejecting the very idea of a Jewish state, were not. In the year following the first Arab-Israeli war, Syria's leader, Colonel Husni Zaim, was ready to reach a deal but the Israelis, given the price of Zaim's territorial demands, were not. After the 1967 war, Israel was ready to return nearly all the captured territories for peace, but the Arabs, guided by Nasser's "three no's," were not ready to accept Israel, much less negotiate with it. And when Anwar Sadat succeeded Nasser in 1970, his overtures were dismissed by the Israelis before the 1973 war.

Certainly in the decade of the 1990s-a decade in which the diplomacy of direct talks replaced the traditional diplomacy through denial-it is not surprising that the failure to end the conflict reflected an even more pronounced pattern of the Israelis and Syrians and the Israelis and Palestinians being out of sync. The historical reality of one being ready when the other was not was bound to be stronger at a time when negotiations had become legitimate but the stakes involved in ending the conflict became far greater.

In the case of the Israelis and Syrians, there were several key junctures at which the two sides may have thought they were in sync in their purposes but were not. Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 offered the Syrians full withdrawal, expecting an equally bold response. But Asad was only prepared to slowly grind out an agreement in a negotiation marked more by attrition than give-and-take. Similarly, Shimon Peres, after Rabin's assassination, offered to fly "high and fast" to an agreement, but Asad was ready to go only low and slow. With Barak, however, it was Asad who was anxious to move quickly in December-January of 1999-2000, and Barak who felt he could not.

Was it also a case of being out of sync in 1999-2000 between Israelis and Palestinians? The answer here may be more complicated. If Yasir Arafat, as it appears, has been simply incapable of making a permanent, comprehensive peace deal, the obvious approach should have been to do another, lesser deal. The problem, however, is that Barak wanted to end the conflict, seeing great political difficulty in 4oing partial deals in which Israel would give up more territory but receive nothing irrevocable from the Palestinians in return. Arafat claimed he wanted a permanent status deal, but proved unable to negotiate one. Was timing the issue or was Arafat incapable of transforming himself from a revolutionary into a statesman?

I came to believe the latter, but continue to ask myself whether the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon might have made a difference. I doubt it, because I never saw any indication that Arafat was ready to surrender his mythologies or level with his public. However, there can be no denying that the success of the Hizbollah model-violence works, negotiations don't-probably had at least some effect on Arafat. It may well have raised the costs, in his eyes, of making fundamental concessions. It may have convinced him that pressuring the Israelis through violence would produce more for him. It may have altered his calculus so that waiting seemed the best option. If that is true, we have another instance of the parties being out of sync, with Barak ready to end the conflict and Arafat either believing it to be too costly or simply being incapable of doing it.

I suspect that being out of sync reflects a deeper reality. The costs of making peace have always been perceived as high, and it takes great courage or profound pressure for Middle Eastern leaders to make the leap. It takes little to dissuade them from doing so. If there are leaders who see themselves in historic terms-as Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin did-the fact that one will take the leap is bound to leave the other feeling that he must also meet the challenge. More often there have been asymmetries in leaders: Rabin and Asad seemed alike in many respects. Both were cautious, prone to calculate carefully, disinclined to move in any but small steps, and highly suspicious. But Rabin, having been voted in as Prime Minister a second time, was poised for historic choices. Asad could not break the habit of a lifetime, finding it impossible not to haggle over every issue when Rabin was expecting boldness to be matched by boldness. Peres, by inclination, was a leader always looking for revolutionary, not evolutionary, moves. It was no surprise that Asad would not embrace the Peres approach, even if the Rabin assassination made him a more flexible negotiator. Later Asad, seeing succession as the overriding imperative, was ready to change his behavior for a short period during Barak's tenure. But peace was a derivative of the succession issue, and if he thought the pursuit of it would jeopardize his son's chances of succeeding him, he was bound to change directions.

And that is an essential point. Events have consistently undone opportunities. Violence has often reduced the ability and the willingness to make possible concessions for peace, and at times undercut those perceived as too accommodating. Four suicide bombings in nine days in 1996 changed the climate in Israel and elected Bibi Netanyahu. Without the suicide bombings in 1996, Peres (wearing the slain Rabin's mantle) would have won with an unprecedented mandate. Peres was already a man on a peace mission, and given the progress made at Wye, a deal with Asad probably would have been produced within a year or so. An Israeli-Syrian deal would have fundamentally altered the region. There would have been no Hizbollah model indicating that violence works. There would have been no base in Syria or Lebanon for militant rejectionists. There would have been pressure on Arafat to do a deal, not avoid one.


Why is the peace process so quick to come undone? One cannot ascribe this only to a lack of courageous leaders. Something more fundamental is at work here. As a rule, Arab leaders lack legitimacy. There is no sense of participation-politically or economically-among most Arab publics, and Arab leaders have traditionally been selected, not elected-or worse, they have seized power. So they are easily put on the defensive and fear being accused of conceding principles or perceived rights. Their sense of vulnerability makes them risk-averse, and events that heighten their perception of risks band to dissuade them from persevering.

Democratically elected Israeli leaders don't lack legitimacy. But they preside in a highly competitive political environment, with governments that are always based on coalitions of different parties. Their rivals can exploit acts of violence and terror, particularly because most Israelis continue to question whether the Arabs or the Palestinians are truly prepared to live with them. The inherent distrust of their neighbors' intentions makes it difficult for Israeli leaders to persevere in peacemaking in circumstances in which acts of terror take place. In such an environment, extremists on both sides have the capacity to undo moments of great promise.

For all that, peacemaking efforts have not died, even when moments of opportunity have been lost. That too reflects an important reality: There is an underlying desire for peace among both publics. There is an understanding among the mainstreams in the Arab world and in Israel that continuing conflict is ultimately not an acceptable alternative. But both sides will have to adjust their attitudes and behaviors if they are to make peace a reality. Here, too, lessons from the past provide a clear guide as to where each must change.

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