Douglas Feith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, spoke to participants in a March 12 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about why America's repeated attempts to broker a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have failed, and what must be done to succeed.
According to Feith, for over half a century the "standard approach to Arab-Israeli peace diplomacy" in the United States was based on "the belief that the conflict was solvable through diplomacy." For that to be true, "the conflict could not be seen as essentially ideological in nature," he explained:
If the grievance of Arabs is that Israel has no right to exist because Palestine is the religiously and nationalistically sacred and inalienable inheritance of Muslims and Arabs, then their complaint is unlikely to be satisfied by having the parties to the conflict talk to each other.
Diplomats "defined the conflict in such a way that diplomacy made sense," assuming that Palestinian leaders simply wanted Israel to compromise on "what became known as the final status issues – borders, security arrangements, water rights, Israeli settlements, control over holy sites, and so on." These were "discreet, mostly practical issues," explained Feith, so "it was easy to imagine that they could be resolved through mutual compromise, that is, through a peace process."
Diplomats "defined the conflict in such a way that diplomacy made sense."
Since Israel was in control of the territories in dispute – the West Bank and Gaza – following its triumph in the 1967 Six-Day War, multiple U.S. administrations saw the problem as getting Israel to make sufficient concessions to mollify its Arab enemies. This view not only appealed to those in government who were not particularly sympathetic to Israel to begin with, but also reflected a propensity to look for solutions that could be produced by the tools one has at hand. "The United States, after all, had more leverage over Israel than over Israel's Arab enemies." Skeptics who disputed the willingness of Palestinian leaders to make peace were not heeded.
A "real-world test" of this thinking came with the birth of a new "peace process" under the 1993 Oslo Accords. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat became the head of the new Palestinian Authority, which took over administrative responsibilities in the West Bank and Gaza with the understanding that a comprehensive peace deal would be achieved through negotiations in short order.
But no such peace deal materialized. Although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed in 2000 to withdraw from nearly all the West Bank and Gaza and to divide Jerusalem, Arafat refused, insisting that millions of Palestinians be awarded a "right of return" to resettle within Israel's borders, eroding its Jewish majority. Israelis across the political spectrum understood Arafat's insistence as a demand for Israel "to commit suicide." This Palestinian red line that "there can be no Arab acceptance of a Jewish majority state in Palestine" has remained unchanged, said Feith, confirming that the conflict is "essentially ideological."
The Palestinian red line of "no Arab acceptance of a Jewish majority state" is unchanged.
The crux of the problem, then, is that the current Palestinian leadership is "unwilling to end the conflict on the basis of territorial compromise." The "peace process" has not overcome that unwillingness. On the contrary, it has entrenched the Palestinian side's "ill-motivated" leadership. The leaders of the Palestinian Authority are lavished with foreign aid and attention because of their unresolved conflict with Israel. As such, they "worry that they would lose diplomatic attention, they would lose foreign aid, ... and lose their own sense of dignity as warriors or revolutionaries in a great cause" if they reached a settlement with Israel.
"If you want to do something constructive, focus on getting the Palestinians new and better leaders."
"I don't believe that any diplomacy aimed at trying to negotiate a compromise peace with the current Palestinian leadership can succeed," said Feith, but "a solution is possible if the Palestinians have new leaders with a different ideology." Instead of pushing Israelis and Palestinians into resuming talks, the Biden administration should instead work to "cultivate new Palestinian leaders who don't have terrorist backgrounds and don't have ideological commitments to Israel's destruction, and are actually interested in improving ... the general wellbeing of their people." Once the Palestinians have accountable leaders "the way would be open" for a peace settlement. "If you want to do something constructive, focus on getting the Palestinians new and better leaders."
In the meantime, Feith expects that the broader Arab-Israeli peace process embodied in the Abraham Accords will continue to develop regardless of the state of Israel-Palestinian relations and regardless of the policies enacted by the Biden administration. "If Biden's team supports the Abraham Accords, the Accords will get stronger, and if they effectively oppose the Accords by reaching out to Iran, the Abraham Accords will get stronger."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.