Can the United States Bring Peace to the Middle East?

Jeremy Pressman
Post-doctoral Fellow, Kennedy School of Government (Harvard)

October 23, 2002

To answer the question of whether the US can bring peace to the Middle East, most of my time will be spent on the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the conflict. This presentation contains two sections. The first part, and a large portion of the presentation, will look at past failures among the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a deal. The second section will then assess the US role both in the abstract sense and also specifically how the Bush administration has acted. The US has a central role to play, however the current administration has largely fumbled in its actions.

There are two central explanations that apply to the failure at the Camp David peace talks in 2000. The process explanation addresses the way in which talks were conducted and examines the factors that brought about the breakdown and failure of the initiative. There are numerous process-oriented examples for each side.

According the process explanation, the US did not do enough to enlist Arab support prior to the talks. It presented what were perceived as repackaged Israeli ideas. This would create two problems. The Palestinians would think that these were Israeli ideas masquerading as American ideas. Secondly, this would not be conducive for an alternative offer to be presented. The US also had no fallback plan when the summit broke down.

On the Palestinian side, proponents of the process explanation would argue that after the summit, the Palestinians committed a public relations mistake in failing to tell their side of the story. During the negotiations, the Palestinians framed their views and reactions in a nonconstructive manner. In addition, they misperceived how threatening Israel finds the right of return. By discounting this fear factor on the Israel side, the Palestinians overlooked a vital area of concern.

The signals Israel sent before the talks played a greater role than some of their actions. After arriving in office, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak puts off talks with the Palestinians for months, arguably to negotiate with Syria. Although a deal with Syria prior to the talks would signify a major breakthrough, it sent mixed signals about the Barak government's commitment to the Palestinians. Unwilling to engage in secret talks prior to Camp David, Barak played the hard line from the start. He also misjudged the Palestinian bottom line and what they would be willing to accept.

The structural explanation, is more fundamental, and comes in two different varieties. The Israeli version essentially argues that Arafat and the Palestinians never wanted peace. Their Participation in the peace process was for international consumption and their strategy remained the destruction of Israel, either by driving it into the sea or through the right of return.

The Palestinian version of the argument asserts that Barak never intended to end the occupation, or reach a final deal, unless that deal guaranteed Israeli settlements and control of borders, water, and other resources.

In assessing the structural arguments, we see an overlap with two present and vital dynamics. The first is bargaining strategies. Those negotiating will be reluctant to give concessions unless they must. Actors do not want to signal they are prepared to concede terms, as it may be seen as a weakness to be exploited. The second explanation is rooted in domestic politics. Laying out concessions one-by-one can result in public discontent. One can see these overlaps in both Barak and Arafat's strategies at the Camp David summit.

However, the evidence against the structural argument is remarkably strong. And there are several diverse reasons for this. One can not disregard the high degree of popular support among Israelis and Palestinians for the peace process. While one should not rely solely on statistics, it is important to note that when the peace process is going well, popular support increases dramatically. Secondly, if the Israelis and Palestinians fundamentally opposed peace, they would not have taken such risky leadership decisions, as reflected in the Madrid Conference, the Oslo Agreement and the subsequent Declaration of Principles. Another factor, security cooperation, also casts doubts on the structural case. Following the Oslo Accords, collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian security services brought concrete results. Very few Israelis died at the hands of Palestinian militants between the 1993 peace agreement and the breakdown at Camp David in 2000.

A vital issue is the recognition on both sides that military means cannot end the conflict. Violence may bring both sides back to the bargaining table. Marwan Barghouti, a prominent Fatah leader, like many of the other younger Palestinian leaders, considered violence as a lever. This is not an embrace of violence to destroy Israel but rather to force it to the bargaining table. Arafat agrees with this. I reject the notion that these leaders would plan a long and serious violent confrontation on September 29, 2000. It is more difficult to dissect the Israeli side. While this recognition is certainly present, it is often tenuous. The Israeli Defense Force initially expressed a desire to crush the Palestinian uprising with heavy-handed means. However, there is still a sentiment on the Israeli side that sees military action as a means towards improving their bargaining position.

Contrary to popular perceptions of the conflict, the diplomatic route has not been fully tested. At Camp David, there is never a single concrete offer on the table to accept or reject. Instead, there are pieces and portions of a deal, but no formal document for the sides to sign. The formation of a more comprehensive deal only emerges at the January 2001 Taba talks. It is also important to note that the gaps narrow as both sides have indicated areas of compromise. While the right of return has always been a Palestinian trump card, public statements made by officials such as Abu Mazen represent a change in rhetoric. In a speech to a refugee camp, Abu Mazen stated that the right of return might not be what many Palestinians want for themselves, for their old communities were now Jewish, Hebrew, and Israeli.

If the breakdown of the peace process can be attributed to process-oriented factors, what can the US do? There are 6 different theoretical ways in which the US can make a difference. One must also evaluate how the Bush administration is pursuing these methods.

As the largest player in the international arena, the US wields immense diplomatic power. With such weight, the US can engage in high-level talks and meaningful actions. The Bush administration has done a poor job in this category. Constantly sending and recalling General Zinni to and from the region was counterproductive. While it's understandable that senior officials would reserve their political capital, a special envoy's role is to be immersed in the region to achieve results.

The US can offer visions and pathways out of the violence. By engineering resolutions and focal points, the US can create goals for the future. The June 2001 Tenet Plan attempted to offer the sides a way out of the violence. While Colin Powell's November 2001 speech hinted at a roadmap for a Palestinian state, President Bush's June 2002 speech demonstrated some backtracking.

Public diplomacy, a difficult task, entails talking and negotiating directly with Israelis and Palestinians. Through this, the US can explain to the sides that they can achieve more through negotiations than violence. During the Bush administration, public diplomacy has been mixed.

The US can apply pressure, and sticks or punishment, to belligerent sides. Under the Bush administration, the sticks have been largely one-sided, directed at the Palestinian Authority. Although strong at times, US pressure for Palestinian regime change can also be described as intermittent. The Bush administration first called for Yasser Arafat to step aside, yet still negotiates with his lieutenants. The incorporation of a prime minister indicates a new dynamic of mixed messages.

On the flipside, the US can offer carrots or incentives, such as aid or peacekeepers to encourage further breakthroughs. There is obviously an important role for carrots in the future, although we have yet to witness it.

The US, by virtue of its role, can also build international and regional support. Like the Clinton administration before Camp David, the Bush administration has failed to build Arab support. However, it has recently improved its abilities to assemble support. The establishment of the Quartet, composed of the US, the EU, Russia and UN, represents a positive effort to coordinate international initiatives. On the other hand, the US failed to capitalize on the Saudi plan of March 2002, which offered normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for withdrawal to the 1967 borders, without mentioning other sensitive topics such as the right of the return. The Bush administration should have taken advantage of the plan, which signified a major breakthrough and demonstrated areas of flexibility.

Overall, the US remains hesitant to take risks, in favor of letting things burn. At this stage, the US needs to remain engaged and keep the parties talking. The US cannot bring an end to the conflict without the desires of the Israelis and Palestinians, but it can apply more resources than it is currently employing, as there are severe risks in letting the conflict escalate out of control.

Jeremy Pressman recently completed his dissertation at MIT's Department of Political Science. Prior to attending MIT, Pressman worked on the Middle East Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Rapporteur: Michael Faerber

back to Seminar Schedule, Fall 2002