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There's Enough Blame to Go Around in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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It's common to talk about a couple of frustrating years of stagnation in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Roger Cohen, for example, refers to the last year as one of waste.

It is certainly true that the lack of progress is disheartening for outside observers, crushing for Palestinians, and threatening to Israel. But how we understand these past failures is an important factor for understanding how to move forward. Unfortunately, most of what passes for explanation of breakdowns is actually blame; and especially blame of Israel.

In Cohen's piece, for example, he notes that "There is no alternative to resolving this most agonizing of conflicts but neither party ever quite gets to that realization." But he immediately follows this by arguing that the balance of power is in Israel's favor, and that domestic politics in the US (presumably he means the activities of the pro-Israel lobby groups) prevents it from mitigating that imbalance. The rest of the article implies Palestinians have made mistakes, but only out of confusion or lack of real options, while Israel has purposely gone and sabotaged talks.

There are three problems with these types of analyses.

First, it is based on a presumption of expectations--of the United States and of American presidents. In the case of the former, it is assumed that Washington can move mountains if it wants to, and that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it could pressure either party into an agreement. When this doesn't happen, all sorts of odd explanations get posited, including that pro-Israel American organizations and Jewish individuals in government working on behalf of Israel are single-handedly responsible for preventing resolution.

In the case of the latter, it gets argued that Barack Obama's seemingly hostile position toward Israeli priorities is responsible for an unprecedented drop in Jewish support for a Democratic president. Or it leads to such high expectations that Obama's approval ratings since his 2009 Cairo speech then fall lower in the Arab world than even George W. Bush's had been!

But anything other than a surface reading of past agreements between Israel and the Arabs illustrates that the US has never been able to push the parties together until they wanted to; and it only had a hand in facilitating one of them. The 1979 Egypt-Israel treaty was made because Egyptian President Anwar Sadat wanted to move out of the Soviet orbit and obtain American aid. Jimmy Carter did help bridge the gaps between the two sides, but both Egypt and Israel badly wanted an agreement. The 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO was negotiated in total secrecy and the US was only briefed on it once or twice, almost as an afterthought. And the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty was again negotiated in secret and the issues almost all resolved solely between the two.

Second, the Palestinians always seem to escape their share of responsibility for failure, mostly because Israel is the stronger power and therefore assumed to be able to make the rules of the game and determine its outcomes. Again, even a glimpse at Palestinian actions over the last couple of years should be enough to redress this: Castigating Israel for not renewing the 10-month partial settlement freeze that began in November 2009 ignores the fact that during the first such freeze, PA President Mahmoud Abbas did not engage in any serious efforts at talks until the last month. It also ignores continuing violence by Palestinians--including those affiliated with Fatah--against Israeli civilians. Focusing only on Israel means missing a key part of the equation of failure, which leads to misinformed conclusions and therefore misguided policies.

Third, it is often forgotten that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a series of isolated events but rather an interactive dynamic. Israeli foreign policy is in many ways a function of this dynamic: Israeli public opinion polls, for example, indicate lower levels of trust of the Palestinians and less interest in major concessions to them during certain moments in time, such as more intense violence or stagnation in the peace process.

The electoral switching off between Labor, Likud, and (once, anyway) Kadima governments similarly indicates that certain governments come to power under particular conditions in the conflict. All of this demonstrates that it is less true that "Israel" is acting badly in the conflict, and more effective to say that it reacts to developments. This, in turn, brings us back to the dynamic process of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

None of this is to absolve Israel of its share of the blame. Certainly, settlement activity has continued apace under all types of Israeli governments. And the current government under Benjamin Netanyahu has imposed unnecessary and counter-productive conditions on talks; acted like an ungrateful bully toward its major ally, the US; allowed rightist members of the coalition to infuse foreign policy rhetoric with intolerance and belligerence toward its only available peace partner; and implicitly or explicitly worked to make the West Bank legally and morally part of sovereign Israeli territory--all of which progressively weakens the possibility of successful negotiations.

There is enough blame to go around in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Once we realize this, we can then move to more accurate explanations of the malfunctions in the peace process, as well as craft policies that directly address the proper causes of failure.