In the introduction to his book, Power, Faith and Fantasy, the Middle East historian turned diplomat turned Israeli politician, Michael Oren, reflected on the chosen title. These three themes had guided the American adventure in the region power or “the pursuit of American interests,” faith or “the impact of religion in the shaping of American attitudes and policies,” and finally fantasy, “the idea of the Middle East has always enchanted Americans.” To be fair to America, it was hardly unique in its fantasies. In his magnum opus, The Chatham House Version, Elie Kedourie had aptly diagnosed the British fantasy “all those episodes show successive and cumulative manifestations of illusion, misjudgment, and failure.” Nowhere has this been truer than in the Holy Land.
As fate would have it, America’s serious involvement in the Middle East coincided with the birth of the Palestinian question. Cautiously moving to inherit Britain’s role as the security guarantor of the region after World War Two, America found itself saddled with the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. America’s learned hands on the Middle East had inherited from their British counterparts an antipathy to the Jewish project and, whether by sympathy or strategic arguments, emphasized that America’s future involvement in the Middle East depended on alliances with the region’s Arab states. To their dismay, Truman dissented.
But if the regional experts had lost a battle and grudgingly came to accept Israel’s existence, they were resourceful enough to seek to win the war. A proposition became a theory, and the theory soon became dogma - American interest in the Middle East could not be achieved before solving the Arab Israeli conflict.
On paper, the theory sounded reasonable. In the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, the Arabs, not Israel, were the necessary allies. Despite their obvious weakness, they controlled the region’s resources. The beginnings of America’s search for a regional strategy coincided with the rise of Egypt’s Nasser and of the Arab nationalist fervor that swept millions from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf. All those Arabs proclaimed the centrality of the Palestinian question to them.
In reality, no one actually cared about the Palestinians, at least not the region’s rulers. In the game of nations that soon became the Arab cold war, the rulers’ priorities were everywhere besides Palestine. Toppling the monarchs for some, searching for hegemony for others, or, for most, simply protecting their rule from revolutionary upheaval. The Palestinians, if they were considered at all, served simply as a bargaining chip; a cause to rally supporters and attack opponents.
Despite this, Washington’s Middle East experts were not deterred. The centrality of the issue was never to be questioned, but the method to solve it changed. Anwar El Sadat gave them the way forward. Instead of looking for a comprehensive solution to the Arab Israeli conflict, a step by step approach that attempted to achieve separate peace agreements between each Arab country and Israel was achievable. Carter had been reluctant to embrace the idea, but Sadat’s spectacular visit to Jerusalem forced his hands. At the end, as Fouad Ajami noted “Egypt was the last to proclaim the pan-Arab idea, and the first to desert it.”
The Palestinians themselves bucked this trend until violent reminders in Jordan and Lebanon forced them to recalibrate. A miserable bet on Saddam sealed the deal. The myth of a united Arab cause put on its last show in Madrid, but only as long as the cameras were rolling.
The new approach ultimately failed, however. An Israeli Jordanian peace agreement was easy. Issues of disagreement were limited and both parties had known each other for decades with the Israelis having saved King Hussein’s throne in 1970. A Syrian deal proved elusive, though not for lack of trying by consecutive American administrations, each failing to understand the realities of the Assad clan’s rule in Syria and the fact that it needed the pretense of a conflict with Israel to hide its sectarian nature. Lebanon, though the only area of active conflict with Israel, was tied to the Syrians’ game.
There remained the Palestinians and the final touch of an Arab endorsement, especially from the Gulf states. Clinton spent his presidency trying, Bush sought a new approach through institution building in the Palestinian territories, and Obama pushed for a final agreement, but none of these efforts succeeded - not a signed agreement with Arafat nor a unilateral withdrawal by Sharon nor another grand meeting in Annapolis. True, a Palestinian authority had been established, but beyond that things were actually getting worse. The daily plight of Palestinians was an unavoidable fact, no matter their leadership’s failings. From the rise of Hamas to the Second Intifada to the division of the Palestinian authority into two competing lands in Gaza and the West Bank, no solution seemed in sight.
Into this landscape comes Donald Trump. As different as Trump is from other presidents in character and dispositions, he, like all his predecessors, is not immune to the lure of Middle East peace. Which man can? Who can reject the temptation of being the man who finally brings peace to a land that has known little of it, of succeeding where all others have failed, of achieving the deal of the century as it is now fashionable to call it?
The Trump administration comes to the table with a new approach. Instead of an inside out solution, peace will be achieved from the outside. Syria is in shambles. Iraq irrelevant, Egypt preoccupied with its own misery and the Gulf frightened by Iranian hegemony. The Arab street, a fixture of the American imagination, is occupied with the streets of its own capitals and not with Palestine. The Palestinian leadership is weak, divided, and cannot reject the pressure from Arab states, so the rationale goes.
But the premise is faulty. True, Abbas is cornered, but even a cornered Abbas has his limits in what he can accept. No Crown Prince in the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia can change that reality. As to the notion that there exists an economic solution to an essentially political problem, one can only repeat the words of Jesus quoting Deuteronomy “man does not live by bread alone.”
But beyond what Abbas can accept is the question of what Netanyahu can offer. The Israeli leadership’s calculus has changed from Rabin to Bibi, and not simply because of the men’s different ideological dispositions, but because facts on the ground have changed. The threat of massive attacks on Israel has receded with the building of the security wall, the Israeli economy is no longer dependent on Palestinian workers, and no one takes the continued threats of a third or fourth intifada seriously.
More importantly, stepping back from the details and daily changes on the ground, there lies an inconvenient proposition: maybe there is no solution to the conflict. Afterall, it is uniquely American to think that every problem must have a solution. Maybe the reality is that there are two peoples who claim the same piece of land and that no amount of effort or innovative solutions can solve this simple fact. Describing America’s adventure in Egypt, Fouad Ajami had noted that “Ancient civilizations stir the imagination: They have a kind of malleability that enables others to read into them what they want; they can be hotbeds of revolution or fragile entities ready to be courted and redeemed. They invite those who have a sense of destiny.” The quest for destiny in the Holy Land is doomed to end in misery.