What Now? Saying Good-Bye to the Peace Process Illusion
The train wreck of the Palestinian request for recognition as a state at last year’s meeting of the United Nations, which could have been seen coming for at least the whole of last summer, laid bare the total vacuity of the term “Middle East Peace Process” and the impotence of the international diplomacy surrounding it. Such a disaster often occurs when process takes over substance and justifies its own existence by belated and ultimately unsuccessful attempts at remedy. Some of it is a matter of physics—when the train sets out it is relatively easy to stop with a timely application of the brakes. When, on the other hand, it is allowed to gain full speed because of arguments among the engineers, idle hopes that the train will run out of steam, or the simple refusal to acknowledge that it is even moving, the only thing left to do is to lie down on the floor and pray.
There are no innocent parties here. The Palestinians may have initially thought of the move as a pressure device to get the peace process restarted under favorable terms, but they predictably became prisoners of their own rhetoric and boxed themselves into a position from which the only way out was forward. The Israelis may have decided to call the Palestinians’ bluff, thus making certain that what may have been a bluff originally would change into the real thing. The Quartet (the UN, the EU, the US, and Russia) vacillated between hopes that the specter of Palestinian recognition would make the Israelis more willing to make concessions and that the specter of the failure of the effort would make the Palestinians more amenable to talk. The United States relied on the threat of its veto to make the Palestinians avoid the Security Council while visibly doing their best to avoid using the veto. The Palestinians were choosing between losing face among their constituents, a fatal weakness in the ruthless world of Middle East politics, and losing any realistic chance at moving ahead in the negotiations. The Israelis were choosing between accepting the Palestinian preconditions for the restart of the negotiations, which they believed would lead to the collapse of the government coalition, and seeing their international position undermined and weakened. Obama was choosing between alienating much of the Middle East by exercising the veto and possibly losing the presidential election the following year. The Europeans were choosing between demonstrating the real differences of point of view among the EU member countries and demonstating unity in helplessness. As often happens lately, only the Russians and the Chinese were the conceivable beneficiaries, although it is hard to tell of what.
A failure of this scope and predictability is not often seen, even in the failure-prone business of conflict resolution. The positions will now inevitably harden, the tensions will increase, and the risks will multiply. Yet the whole thing should have never happened. The reason for this is not that there should not be a Palestinian state. A majority of countries, a majority of people, and even a majority of Israelis believe that there ought to be such a state. The reason is that even if the resolution passes in the UN General Assembly, it will not bring such a state an inch closer to being and might even lead to a new confrontation. And yet, for all the protestations to the contrary by all involved, this problematic move by the Palestinian Authority is a proper reflection of the hopelessness of the negotiation track in the current conflict.