The achievement of peace between the Palestinians and Israel is the diplomatic equivalent of El Dorado, the mythical city of gold pursued by generations of Spanish explorers. President Donald Trump, too, seems to have been bitten by the bug. He has announced the appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner as his special envoy to the Middle East to broker a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel. Making the announcement, Trump sang the praises of Kushner as a “dealmaker.” “If you cannot produce peace in the Middle East,” Trump told his son-in-law, “nobody can.” He described a Middle East peace deal as the “deal of all deals.”
In appointing a special Middle East envoy at the outset of his presidency, Mr. Trump is emulating his predecessor, whose first act in office was to appoint former senator George Mitchell as his Special Middle East envoy. With the possible exception of President George W. Bush, every president since Richard Nixon has devoted great energy to the pursuit of peace between the Palestinians and Israel. All have failed.
At the very least, any president who seeks to reverse that series of failures requires a clear theory of where all previous efforts went wrong. Otherwise, following the same approach in the hope of achieving different results fulfills Einstein’s definition of insanity – repeating the same actions in the expectation of different results.
By characterizing Middle East peace as the “deal of all deals” and expressing an eagerness to show his skills as a dealmaker, as if this was just another real estate deal, only bigger, Mr. Trump gives the strong impression that he has no clear theory of why all previous efforts have proven futile. Until he does, it is worse than a waste of time to invest the prestige and resources of the United States in another futile effort. Doing so will push peace even further from realization and further drain the credibility of the United States.
Jared Kushner should politely tell his father-in-law that he does not want this particular job.
ONCE UPON A TIME, the energy and resources invested by successive American administrations in the Palestinian-Israel conflict might have made at least superficial sense. The theory went – always a bit implausibly – that resolution of that conflict held the key to solving all the ills of the Middle East.
Today, that theory lies shattered. Saudi journalist Aal Al-Sheikh addressed the Palestinians recently in the Saudi paper Al Jazirah (as translated by MEMRI). He told them bluntly that they “need to understand that the Arabs of today are not the Arabs of yesterday, and that the Palestinian cause has lost ground among Arabs. This cause is no longer a top priority for them, because civil wars are literally pulverizing four Arab countries.”
The Palestinian issue had nothing to do with any of those civil wars. The Iranian threat is what keeps Sunni leaders up at night, and in the struggle against Iran, they view Israel as a crucial, perhaps the crucial, ally, not as a foe.
If there were ever a conflict due for a bit of “benign neglect,” it is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As long as the United States and the rest of the Western world are obsessed with it and continue to give it attention out of all proportion to its actual importance, they reinforce the Palestinian belief that the world will hand them everything they seek on a diplomatic platter. As Daniel Pipes has written repeatedly over the past two decades, only the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan paved the way for the transformation of those former enemies into pillars of the Western alliance. And only Palestinian recognition that they are on a dead end course will ever persuade them to make peace. As Al-Sheikh wrote, “All I can say to my Palestinian brethren is that stubbornness, contrariness, and betting on the [support of] the Arab masses are a hopeless effort.”
President Trump has pledged to place America’s national interests first. America has no particular stake in Palestinian-Israel peacemaking, especially if its efforts end in the almost guaranteed failure. The Palestinians lack even a moral claim to American concern. Already over 90% of the population of Yehuda, Shomron and Gaza live under Palestinian self-rule.
But they have not exercised self-rule in such a way as to earn a state. Mahmoud Abbas is in the 12th year of his four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority. As soon as Israel withdrew from Gaza, a brief, but brutal, civil war broke out between Hamas and Fatah. And the same would happen in Yehuda and Shomron after the withdrawal of Israeli security forces.
The Palestinian Authority in Yehuda and Shomron and Hamas in Gaza have done little to develop institutions of a civil society that underlay any viable democracy, and much to thwart their development. They have preferred to spend their money on generous stipends to the families of terrorists and on building underground terror tunnels. A Palestinian state in the West Bank would soon come to resemble the Hamas mini-state in Gaza, and have similar consequences for Israel.
The strategic and moral claims for an independent Kurdish state in what was once Iraq is in every respect stronger than that of the Palestinians for statehood, both morally and strategically, The Kurdish speak their own language and have a long history as a distinct people; the Palestinians are indistinguishable to the other inhabitants of southern Syria from which most of them emigrated.
An independent Kurdish state in Iraq would be a major strategic asset for the United States, and American military bases there would magnify greatly the credibility of American military action against Iran.
STILL, THERE IS ONE WAY that President Trump and his special envoy could make a contribution to peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. But it would involve getting out of the mindset that the basic contours are well known, and all that remains is some fine-tuning of the details.
What is needed, Dr. Max Singer of the Begin-Sadat Center argues persuasively, is a new truth-telling agenda. Donald Trump is no fan of received wisdom, polite diplomatic fictions – e.g., terrorists shouting A-lahu Akbar have nothing to do with Islam, and political correctness in any form. Such a truth-telling agenda might just appeal to him.
The first myth that needs to be disposed of is that the Palestinians have made a strategic decision for peace. In 2006, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas the Kerry parameters in every respect. Abbas replied that he would look over the offer, which came with detailed maps. That was the last Olmert every heard from him.
Like Arafat before him, he was simply too terrified to go back to the Palestinians and tell them they must give up on their dream of returning to the homes that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers once lived in. Journalist David Bedein has just produced a video made in 59 UNRWA refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. In those camps, writes Sol Stern of City Journal, a daily drama of “redemption and return” is played out. In the UNRWA educational system, of which 30% of the budget comes from the United States, children are taught that the day fast approaches when they will return to their homes in Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre. They sing songs of praise for martyrdom and suicide bombings.
Two decades ago, Abraham Sofaer wrote in Commentary that when the Palestinians dismantle the refugee camps, we will know that they are serious about peace. That has not happened. The United States could help that process by ceasing all support for UNWRA, writes Stern, and putting aside the money saved in an account for resettling the “refugees.”
The myth of over five million Palestinian refugees is another that should be tossed in the garbage can. In fact, there are no more than 50,000, according to the standard definitions used by the UN. With respect to none of the other of the tens of millions of refugees from ethnic conflict in post-World War II, including 700,000 Jews from Arab lands, did refugee status last beyond the lifetime of those expelled in ethnic fighting. And the presumption of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was that those refugees would be resettled in countries of their own ethnicity.
Only the Palestinians were granted special multi-generational refugee status and a separate U.N. organization UNRWA of which they became wards. The surrounding Arab states refused, by and large, to resettle those who abandoned their homes in 1948 at the behest of Arab leaders. That special status for Palestinians who left their homes in the 1948 fighting has ill-served the Palestinians themselves or the cause of peace. They remain in squalor nursing dreams of return – a fantasy that UNRWA has perpetuated.
The third myth mentioned by Dr. Singer is the false equivalency between Jewish and Muslim claims to Yerushalayim, i.e., that it is a city holy to both religions. Daniel Pipes has shown that Yerushalayim, which is unmentioned in the Koran, has taken on importance to Muslims only in response to Jewish claims. When Jews were largely absent, Muslim rulers were content to relegate Yerushalayim to backwater status.
It has been a staple of Palestinian education for decades that the Jews have no ties or claim to Yerushalayim. Just this week, a senior Palestinian official reacted with outrage to the statement by a high UN official that the Temple destroyed by the Romans was the Bais Hamikdosh. Perhaps the Palestinians even believe their myths, but the longer they dwell in cuckoo land, the less the chances are for peace.
As Dr. Singer puts it, Israel cannot exist without Yerushalayim as its capital. On the other hand, granting the Palestinians a toehold in the city that would foster violent conflict would be an important advance towards the Palestinian goal of destroying Israel.
Which brings us to the fourth of the current fashionable myths shared by much of the Western world, and too frequently acquiesced in by Israel as well: the myth that Israel occupies Palestinian land. There is not and never has been any state of Palestine, so Israel cannot be said to be occupying Palestinian land. Individual Arabs may have claims to land in the West Bank, and those claims should be respected, and generally have been.
But there is no occupied Palestine. Indeed, both the League of Nations and subsequently the United Nations designated the entire area up to the Jordan River for the Jewish people. The 1948 UN partition plan was accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Arabs. The Arabs cannot now claim what they rendered void by going to war.
Recognizing that there is no land of Palestine does not preclude territorial compromise between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, it may make it more possible. As long as the myth of Israeli occupation continues, no Palestinian leader has discretion to concede stolen “Palestinian lands.”
President Trump’s willingness to break with received wisdom is well-suited to the truth agenda proposed by Dr. Singer. But first, he, too, must break out of the mindset that Middle East peace is just another New York real estate deal, only bigger.