When a key member of the professional Middle East peace processoriat acknowledges that his community might have, in fact, been wrong, it is worthwhile to read what he has to say. But in his article “Arab-Israeli progress seemed impossible. That’s because of old assumptions,” Aaron David Miller misses the mark.

In his view, “For decades, a core assumption of many, if not most American foreign policy thinkers has been that the Israel-Palestinian conflict was a veritable powder keg that could blow at any time, creating war and instability in the Arab world.” Therefore, Palestinians first; Arab states after. He explains how the current administration simply bypassed the Palestinians and, therefore, “This doesn’t mean the Arab-Israeli conflict is over or that Israel has untethered itself from a dispute with Palestinians that could profoundly shape its character, demography and security—the Israeli and Palestinian futures are inextricably linked.”

Perhaps. The Palestinians certainly should have a role in their own future when they are ready, but it isn’t wrong of the other regional players to move without them. The problems, though, are more (and bigger) than the order of events.

First, “land for peace” was never viable. The Palestinian goal was presumed to be “land” and Israel’s was “peace.” But “peace” is not a negotiable property; a historian called it, “The condition imposed by the winner on the loser of the last war.” The “peace” of Versailles contained the seeds of World War II; the “peace” of 1945 contained the seeds of a democratic Germany and Japan but consigned millions to almost a half-century of Soviet-dominated communism. Peace emerges, if at all, only after the resolution of competing claims, whether through negotiation or war. World War II ended when the allies were in Berlin and Hitler was dead in the bunker. The Cold War ended when Soviet satellites were freed from Moscow’s grip and communism died.

Second is the idea that “land for peace” could create a “two-state solution.” Miller believes that it didn’t happen because “the nature of America’s special relationship with Israel prevented bringing serious pressure to bear on Israel,” ostensibly to agree to a Palestinian state. That misses the parties’ actual bottom lines.

Israel’s requirements were/are:

  • Recognition of the State of Israel as a permanent, legitimate part of the region with “secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force,” as promised in U.N. Resolution 242.
  • “End of conflict/end of claims.” Israel expected an agreement to be the last Palestinian claim on additional territory or rights.
  • Israel’s capital in Jerusalem.

For the Palestinians, the requirements were/are:

  • Recognition of an independent Palestinian state, while preserving the right to future claims in “Palestine.”
  • The right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to live in Israel if they wish, or to take compensation; the decision would be theirs, not Israel’s.
  • Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital.

Negotiators, including Miller, assumed the Palestinians weren’t serious about their maximal demands; that Palestinian nationalism could find its full expression in a split rump state squeezed between a hostile Israel and a more hostile Jordan; and that there was a price Israel could pay to overcome any remaining Palestinian objection to Jewish sovereignty. The issue was how to make Israel to pay the price to get the peace.

The Americans shortchanged the Palestinians. That was the processoriat’s third mistake.

In fact, Palestinian nationalism is about the restoration of “Palestinian land” usurped by the establishment of Israel in 1948, which it perceives to be a mistake by an international community in the throes of Holocaust guilt. The Palestinian nakba (“catastrophe”) refers to the original error of Israel’s birth, exacerbated by its acquisition of more territory in 1967. To expect that the Palestinians desired no more than the bits left after Israel’s War of Independence—somewhat smaller than what the Arabs were offered in the unacceptable 1947 U.N. Partition Plan—ignores the Palestinian view of its own past and future.

On this and perhaps on this alone, Hamas and Fatah are in complete agreement.

That was the fourth mistake. Miller does note “a Palestinian national movement divided between the Hamas and Fatah factions … .” It is not a divided national movement. It is a brutal and ongoing civil war that began in 2007. The war was never addressed in the “land for peace” equation, which assumed that Gaza would be linked to the West Bank (giving Hamas a huge boost and dooming the P.A.), or that Gaza would be dealt with separately. Temporary peace for Fatah and Israel, and continuing war for Israel and Hamas—hardly a good deal for Israel or the P.A.

And so, the fifth mistake—the single one Miller acknowledges—was believing that “peace” would radiate out from Palestinian statehood. In fact, the Palestinians would necessarily be the last to make peace. Beholden to the most radical Arabs (once including Iraq and Saudi Arabia), plus Iran, the P.A. couldn’t say, “OK, I’ll defy my Arab/Iranian patrons and those who pay my bills, and I’ll make peace with Israel even while the Arabs reject it and arm for war.” States first for protection.

Miller does make one excellent point. “Analysts and diplomats should exercise care, and humility, in assessing the prospects for peace going forward.”

Shoshana Bryen is senior director of the Jewish Policy Center and editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.

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