(March 4, 2019 / JNS)
A Nobel Peace Prize seemed within reach last week; the only thing missing was a small step by the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, after which U.S. President Donald Trump could have ended the 60-year conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
At the moment of truth, however, North Korea’s young leader refused to repeat the mistake made by former Libyan tyrant Moammar Qaddafi, who under Western pressure gave up his nuclear program in exchange for Western promises that proved useless the moment the revolution in Libya erupted.
The failure on the Korean Peninsula is insufficient to infer about the Middle East, where things are more complex and murky. And yet, even in our neighborhood, anticipation is building as the Trump administration prepares to unveil its “deal of the century,” as if the American peace proposal can resolve a conflict that is over a century old.
History teaches us that compromise proposals presented by foreign mediators have not enjoyed success in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Efforts by the international community to force an agreement have also failed—starting with the United Nation’s partition plan in 1947, which was nothing but a futile attempt to force a solution on the sides. On the other hand, diplomatic breakthroughs and even peace have only been achieved when the warring sides themselves have come together to hash out a deal. Such was the case with the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, as well as the peace accord between Israel and Jordan.
The basic assumption at the heart of the American proposal is that it’s possible to force upon the Palestinians a peace deal that doesn’t come close to meeting their expectations and demands. It is a faulty assumption that won’t pass the reality test. Indeed, Arab countries will do all in their power to support a deal between Israel and the Palestinians because they view such a deal as a vital interest. Arab rulers will put heavy pressure on the Palestinians, but they won’t dare make concessions on their behalf or in their name because they don’t want these concessions attributed to them in the annals of history.
Hence, the Palestinians will always have the last word, and they are either incapable or unwilling to make the historical decision to end the conflict. First, Palestinian leaders have always assumed that time is on their side, and that by delaying the Trump proposal a better deal will be offered—whether by Trump’s successor or via the international community, Russia or the European Union, which have openly told the Palestinians to shun Trump’s offer.
Second, the sense of despair on the Palestinian street is insufficient to prod the leadership towards a deal. The Americans, similar to the Arab rulers, don’t have the bargaining chips to pressure Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and his cohort, who prefer a sputtering, teetering P.A. in Ramallah over a quasi-state that far from meets their minimum demands. It’s interesting to note, incidentally, that the notion of a quasi-Palestinian state doesn’t thrill younger Palestinians in the least, and many of them see the single-state solution—that is to say, receiving Israeli citizenship—as the only solution capable of meeting their needs and advancing the Palestinian interest, certainly in the long term.
Finally, the Palestinian leadership’s weakness and the splits within its ranks certainly aren’t conducive to any courageous decisions, let alone concessions.
The American deal of the century, therefore, will most likely join the long list of peace plans to end in a thud. With that, when the dust settles, Israel must not be perceived as the side that scuttled Trump’s efforts; it must seek to exploit the momentum the American plan could provide to bolster its relations with the Arab world. Either way, long-awaited peace isn’t around the corner.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.