Renew the Mideast peace process? Not now

Ammunition of an Israeli army tank is seen at a staging area near the Israel-Gaza Strip Border in southern Israel.
(Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated Press)

Israelis cynically refer to the repeated rounds of violence with the Arabs as “happiness,” as in “it’s happy today.” Before the cease-fire, as Hamas fired 1,000 rockets at Israel, it was indeed very “happy.”

A diplomatic push put an end to the fighting, with intensive mediation efforts by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. If the truce holds, happiness will be behind us, for now.

It is standard diplomatic practice to view crises as an opportunity to seek fundamental change in the situation. Well before Operation Pillar of Defense started, strategists and pundits were calling on President Obama to devote his second term to a renewed effort to promote the long-moribund peace process. They are wrong.


The last thing the Middle East needs today — especially Israelis and Palestinians — and the last thing the U.S. needs is another failed American-led peace process. And it would fail. What Bill Clinton and George W. Bush could not achieve on the basis of Israel’s dramatic proposals in 2000 and 2008, Obama will not be able to do today. Regional conditions are far less propitious.

Hamas, which was not in power when Clinton was in office, is a fundamentalist Islamist organization whose charter refers to Jews as donkeys and dogs and calls for Israel’s destruction. It is not a partner for negotiations.

The “moderate” president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has refused even to negotiate for the last three years and has announced his determination to pursue U.N. recognition of Palestine as a non-state member later this month, despite repeated American, international and Israeli remonstrations.

United Nations recognition will not bring the Palestinians one inch closer to actual statehood. Establishing a state will require compromise, and it is so much easier for Abbas to play to the automatic Third World choir in the U.N. and receive support for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders than to negotiate seriously with Israel. Doing that would mean agreeing to some territorial changes and forgoing the fanciful dream of a return of refugees.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to sweep the January elections and to continue his hard-line approach. He will be further buoyed by an electorate that has long despaired of any Palestinian willingness to compromise and will be further hardened by recent events.

Egypt, which was firmly at peace with Israel for the last 30 years, is now governed by the radical Muslim Brotherhood, and the future of its peace treaty with Israel is far from guaranteed. In his speeches, Morsi has consistently found ways to avoid even saying the word “Israel.” He finally let it slip in the last few days. Leaders of his party call for Israel’s destruction. Self-interest forced Egypt to play a moderating role in this round, but its future direction is deeply worrying.


The entire Mideast is in an equally worrying state of transformation. The Arab Spring is becoming a nightmare. The slaughter in Syria continues unabated. It may result in an Islamist regime, and it is spilling over into Lebanon. Unrest threatens the regime in Jordan, Iraq is in shambles, illiberal winds are blowing in Tunisia and Morocco. Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia are failed states. Change is inevitable in Saudi Arabia too.

The United States’ stature in the region is at its lowest in decades, and when Obama tried to restart peace negotiations during his first year in office, he got nowhere. Attempting and falling short again could prove more dangerous than not trying at all.

Repeated failures have led both Israelis and Palestinians to despair of the prospects of peace, and we will need whatever residual hopes remain if and when circumstances for a breakthrough arise. We cannot afford to undermine these hopes.

Moreover, failure strengthens and emboldens hard-liners on both sides, “proving” their case that peace is not possible and risking further outbreaks of the violence, such as the bloody intifada in 2000. Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran successfully derailed past negotiations with spasms of terrorism. Nothing has done more to undermine Israeli faith in the peace process than ongoing terrorism.

The United States too cannot afford a further blow to its regional status. One aspect of American power is the perception that it can force the sides to reach agreement — and succeed in brokering a deal. Another aborted attempt would merely reinforce the Arab image of the U.S. as a weak, declining power, making it that much harder for the U.S. to play an effective role when the time is right.

Despite what has become a mantra, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict actually has little to do with the primary challenges facing the Mideast today, and resolving it will not significantly enhance other American interests in the region or its relations with Arab states. This is not to argue that the U.S. should only intervene when success is guaranteed — some risk is inherent and warranted — but the prospects for peace must be significant, and they are not now.

The Mideast peace process is too important for Israel, the Palestinians, the region and for U.S. interests to allow well-meaning but unrealistic hopes to propel precipitous action. If Abbas signals a willingness to conduct substantive negotiations, if the next Israeli government is more forthcoming than predicted, the U.S. should cautiously explore the possibilities.

The next time the U.S. engages, it must succeed. In the meantime, the Iranian nuclear program and the slaughter in Syria are far more pressing matters, and they are situations in which the U.S. can make a difference.

Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, was a deputy national security advisor in Israel under Labor and Likud governments. He is the author of “Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy.”