THE BLOG
04/10/2014 12:42 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2014

American Peace Processing: Forget About It

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then the men with the white coats may have to take away to the funny farm some of those "peace processors" who keep going and going despite their failed attempts to settle the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The most recent act in this Middle Eastern theatre of the absurd has been Secretary of State John Kerry's shuttle diplomacy that, like other exercises aimed at reviving the always-dormant peace process, seems to be reaching a dead-end.

It is not clear what has driven Kerry to spend so much time in a fool's errand in a diplomatic la-la land despite the fact that anyone with some basic knowledge and experience in Arab-Israeli negotiations would have told him that his chances of success were close to zero, a sentiment that has probably been shared by some White House officials: Wishful thinking? Missionary zeal? Personal hubris?

More likely, Kerry was operating under what has, since the 1973 Middle East War, become a Washington axiom. That the United States has the interest and the obligation to "do something" to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict or else it would have to pay high costs for inaction: Backlash from the Arab oil producers, regional wars that could draw in the United States, the empowerment of Arab radicals, the threat to Israeli security.

Indeed, the components of such a worst-case scenario evolved during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It had triggered an oil embargo, ignited a dangerous confrontation with the Soviet Union, and forced the United States to use its diplomatic and military force to protect the Jewish State and reach a cease-fire between Israel and Egypt. That in turn helped create the conditions for the U.S.-led diplomatic initiative that was concluded with the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

If the 1973 war demonstrated the danger of U.S. inaction, the successful outcome of the Camp David negotiations in 1977 created the belief that American activism was not only necessary and likely to succeed, but that it could also advance U.S. interests.

In a way, the decision by President Bill Clinton to launch his own Israeli-Palestinian peace summit at Camp David in 2000 was based in part on the assumption that the old axiom was still relevant. Washington needed to "do something" to avert a regional disaster that could harm core U.S. interests and had the power to resolve the conflict.

But in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War and the signing of peace accords between Israel, Egypt and Jordan, and against the backdrop of a more stable global energy market and a thriving American economy, the conflict between the Jews and Arabs over the Holy Land was being "localized" and transformed into a tribal war which was unlikely to draw the United States into a confrontation with another global power or lead to an oil embargo.

In fact, the two sides were able to end the Palestinian intifada and take some steps towards resolving their conflict through the Oslo Process in which the United States played no direct role. But unable to reach an agreement on core existential issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites, and the Palestinian demand for the "right of return" of refugees, each side had hoped that the Americans would pressure the other side to make concessions.

And President Clinton obliged after concluding that the United States was enjoying its unipolar moment in the Middle East and was in a position to do business with the relatively moderate Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and conclude a peace agreement a la the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords.

That it didn't happen only helped to highlight an important point that both Clinton in 2000 and Kerry 14 years later failed to recognize: The conflict between Egypt and Israel had reached a stalemate after the 1973 war and both sides recognized that it was in their national interest to reach an agreement based on the peace-for-territories formula that was agreed upon before Carter convened Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David.

While Carter proved to be a creative peace negotiator, the Israelis and the Egyptians could probably have concluded a bilateral peace agreement without direct American intervention, which explains why Egypt even under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood would have not gone to war against Israel. Egyptian national interests and not American aid dictated such a policy.

And while the Israelis and the Palestinians were able to agree in Oslo on some basic modalities of co-existence, the main obstacle to concluding a final-status agreement has been the lack of willingness among the public and the elites on both sides to betray what they consider to be central and cherished components of their respective national and religious identities.

One of the myths that was embraced by Israeli and American peace proponents after the collapse of the 2000 Camp David talks was that the two sides were close to reaching an agreement and that "if only" they had more time to negotiate and with some added American pressure they would have been able to make a deal on the key issues, including Jerusalem and the "right of return."

But that is, well, a myth, which assumes a willingness on the part of the Palestinian-Arabs to give up what they see as their right to return to the lands they lost in their Nakba, or that the Israeli-Jews would agree to withdraw their claims for control of the Temple Mount. Ain't gonna happen.

If anything, with the power of the radical nationalist and religious forces in the Israeli and Palestinian communities gaining more strength as a result of demographic and domestic political changes since 2000, and with the United States losing some of its influence in the Middle East following the Iraq War and the Arab Spring, it made no sense for Kerry to assume that he could succeed where Clinton had failed.

Kerry's almost Pavlovian urge to get the Israelis and the Palestinians together may have lifted the spirit of the members of Israel's peace camp, who, recognizing their failure to win the support of the Israeli electorate, were hoping that American intervention and pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu would help tip the political balance in Israel in their favor. But advancing positions on resolving the conflict with the Palestinians that are in line with those of the Israeli Labor party has failed to change Israeli public opinion, and has been seen by the Palestinians as an indication that Washington was siding with Jerusalem.

At the end of the day, the United States should recognize that much of what has driven its diplomatic hyper-activism in trying to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has been over-ridden not only by growing belligerence on both sides, but by regional and geo-political changes that are not only reducing dependency on Middle Eastern oil but are also making that region of the world less central as far as long-term U.S. strategic and economic interests are concerned.

Moreover, even if Washington were to resolve the conflict over the Holy Land, it is unlikely that that would help reduce the power of the radicals to lessen the chances for war in the region. Much of what is happening in the Arab world today reflects political, economic and social pressures that have very little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

From that perspective, there is no pressure on Washington to "do something" to resolve this dispute. In fact, U.S. involvement may be encouraging both sides to refrain from taking steps that are in their own interests as they operate under the expectations that Washington would force Israel to make the necessary concessions (which is the Palestinian hope) or leave no choice for the Palestinians but to accept the current status-quo (which is the Israeli goal).

An attitude of American benign neglect toward the Israel/Palestine conflict could create incentives for both sides to reassess their positions and to make the hard choices. Or it could lead to new cycles of violence that could help establish a new balance of power, or end with a stalemate under which both sides would be pleading with Washington to save them from themselves instead of the American begging them to do what is in their own interest.

In any case, the time had come for Washington to conclude that when it comes its role in resolving the dispute between Israelis and the Palestinians enough is enough, or as the Johnny Depp's character in the 1997 movie, Donnie Brasco explained, "Sometimes it just means Fuhgeddaboudit (forget about it)."