Whenever the Israeli–Palestinian question arises in Washington, an assumption inevitably precedes it: the United States has an important and unique role to play in advancing peace between these two peoples. Israelis and Palestinians might make progress alone (the 1993 Oslo Accords). But the two can only go so far, so we are told, without American mediation, primarily because only Washington can push Jerusalem into taking risks— “land for peace” and military restraint toward the security deficiencies of the Palestinian Authority—that are the stepping stones to a two-state solution, the endgame for a peaceful settlement. Given Donald Trump’s rhetoric and his son-in-law’s still unannounced plan to recast Israeli–Palestinian relations, the president, too, would appear to believe that America has a major role in resolving the ninety-year-old conflict between Jews and Arabs.
So is it possible that Trump and Jared Kushner might advance a solution or even helpful incremental steps? And if not, might the Israelis and Palestinians still find on their own a better arrangement, one that provides more security, prosperity, and dignity to all?
Much of the American left is livid about Trump’s actions in the Holy Land, his apparent pro-Israeli bias, and his willingness to shred norms. Yet Barack Obama wasn’t all that into Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy either. He rhetorically made all the right noises, of course, and always offered his sympathy for the Palestinians and concern about Israeli democracy if Jerusalem controlled the West Bank. But he never came forward with new ideas or even suggested through a high-level initiative that more of the same would be useful. Neither of his secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton or John Kerry, was unleashed in Jerusalem and Ramallah.
One may dislike Obama’s approach to the world, but he certainly wasn’t unrealistic in his assessment that the Israeli–Palestinian imbroglio deserved less American attention; other things in the Greater Middle East demanded more.
The region has been transformed since 2000, when Bill Clinton’s extraordinary focus on the Israeli–Palestinian clash ended in failure at Camp David. The Iraq and Afghan Wars; the massive pro-democracy demonstrations in 2009 in Iran; the many Arab revolts against tyranny between 2010-2012; the vast slaughter of Sunnis in Syria and the obliteration of Aleppo in 2015; Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011 and the increasing Iraqi state dysfunction and internecine strife thereafter, which paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State; Obama’s quest to have a nuclear deal and a more comprehensive diplomatic breakthrough with the Islamic Republic; the return of Russia to the region in the wake of America’s retreat; and the Sunni Gulf states collective decision, a response to Obama’s Iran outreach and the unsettling prospect of rising Shiite power, to call off the Sunni Arab cold war against Israel. The new lethargic anti-Zionist sentiment among Arabs was on display when Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The only Sturm und Drang was in Ramallah, left-leaning Western papers, and European foreign ministries. Today, the ideological center of the Arab world is pretty damn hard to find and certainly isn’t located in East Jerusalem.
Many in the United States and Europe remain passionate about the Palestinian underdog, denied nationhood by an overwhelming Western power. But we no longer hear—not even among America’s military men, diplomats, and spooks, who’ve historically been cool towards Israel—that Washington’s ties to Jerusalem jeopardize our relations with 22 Arab countries and 1.4 billion non-Arab Muslims.
And contrary to what is now accepted wisdom on the left, Trump’s peace-processing actually seems pretty traditional. We don’t know what’s in Kushner’s plan, but it’s unlikely to veer far from the usual land swaps on the West Bank or the compromises in Palestinian sovereignty required to guarantee Israeli security.
And what’s possibly provocative or novel in Kushner’s approach probably isn’t really much of either. Reportedly, he has dispensed with the “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees. Yet everyone has known that, after the scourge of suicide bombings in the Second Intifada (2000–2005), which provoked the construction of the West Bank barrier and demolished the peace-process-loving Labor Party, Israelis would never accept more than a token of well-screened Palestinian immigrants. The Palestinian Authority knows this, but it doesn’t want to let go of the dream of thousands returning and changing the ethnic and religious balance of the Jewish State. The Palestinian national identity, given its edge by Yassir Arafat, whose aspirations nearly broke the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Second Intifada, in Beirut in 1982, and in Jordan in 1970, has never been tightly tethered to reality. More mundanely, Fatah, the lead member of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority and a deeply corrupt brotherhood, also doesn’t want to forsake the possibility of massive reparations, paid for by Israel, the Gulfies, the United States, and the European Union, even though such a deal is, to put it politely, quixotic.
Concerning economics, the Kushner plan’s reported emphasis on commerce and investment isn’t new either. American policy since Jimmy Carter has always had in the background a hope that greater Palestinian prosperity would moderate Palestinian politics. In particular, rising incomes would weaken the Islamist temptation. But economics beating politics/religion doesn’t have a brilliant track record. It’s hard to think of a single instance that this has been clearly true, even in the capitalist West. The examples of where it has been disastrously false are numerous. Americans, who are often uncomfortable with ideology and religion (even though they are among the most ideological people on the planet), persevere in believing that homo economicus may exist in large numbers on the West Bank and in Gaza.
Trump’s and Kushner’s plan has zero chance of success not because of its likely minor innovations or because Kushner failed to enlist either the Israelis or the Palestinians in deliberations. It’s going to fail because Washington, again, refuses to recognize the incompatibility of Israeli and Palestinian aspirations. Such deeply held convictions about land, family, and the Almighty might, just possibly, be overcome, but only if the Israeli and Palestinian people will it in elections.
There is no chance of a “peace party” returning to Jerusalem unless Israelis see that Palestinians have unequivocally denounced the past, that the celebrations of those who’ve died killing Israelis are rejected. That is impossible to envision in the near-term: neither Fatah, nor Hamas, nor the Israelis, nor Washington want the Palestinian people voting. All fear the worst—the wrong side winning. Perhaps most perversely, the Israelis are invested in a security status quo with Fatah that likely negates the chance of any Palestinian change, and surely makes Hamas more popular on the West Bank than its tyranny in Gaza has earned. But it’s possible that if there were a free vote among Palestinians the hostility towards Israelis—the fundamental rejection of the legitimacy of a Jewish state—could be the common denominator among Palestinians who otherwise loathe Fatah’s and Hamas’ dictatorships. Palestinians again voting could lead to intense violence, among Palestinians and against Israelis. Nonetheless, Palestinian popular sovereignty is likely the only way out of this cul-de-sac. We have two peoples wanting the same land with national and especially religious narratives that negate the other’s. For even non-practicing Muslims, Moses is a great prophet, trying to lead his people toward the one, true calling—Islam. A Jewish homeland wasn’t in Allah’s message. Yet the unrelenting secularism of Westerners reduces the most compelling stories we have to differences about water rights, East Jerusalem, and security checkpoints.
The basic character of a people and faith can change, but that usually happens after a truly devastating military defeat or a long evolution. The Palestinians haven’t actually seen a society-crushing catastrophe; they have endured foreign, non-Muslim overlords, with all of the indignities, and incompetent, avaricious, ambitious, insouciant, deluded and sometimes brutal native rulers (they, however, get a middling score in hideousness in the modern Middle East).
Since 2002, the Israelis appear to have a consensus: Palestinians cannot be trusted. On the other side, Palestinians seem more conflicted about the Jews, more divided religiously and culturally, more prone to internecine violence today than they were when the Israelis directly ruled all of the West Bank and Gaza.
The continuing decline of America in the Middle East will unavoidably remove certain delusions about what might be possible between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The torpor of the peace process under Obama and Trump is likely the new American standard. If they haven’t already, Palestinians will give up on the idea of Washington’s intercession, of American democracy coercing Israeli democracy into making concessions to unelected Palestinian officials. For the Palestinian people that will, at least, change the rhetoric and excuses of the ruling elite.
America’s retreat may tempt the Israelis to act more hubristically towards the Palestinians, to take land in the West Bank that has no plausible security value. But the most effective check on ugly Israeli actions has always been the internal debate, the tension between the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities in Israel’s messy democracy.
For decades out, it’s hard to see anything better than an unpleasant modus vivendi between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Given that it is the Middle East, however, that isn’t an awful state. Americans always want to believe that honesty is the best policy, that without honesty solutions aren’t possible. We are certainly tardy in applying that principle to the Israeli–Palestinian clash.
Mr. Gerecht, a former Middle Eastern targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.