The Endless Road to Middle East Peace

To understand the challenge of the Middle East peace process, try this analogy: Imagine you are a conscientious, intelligent official in your state's highway department. The public complains that suburbanroads are becoming intensely overcrowded. Voters demand you widen the roads to relieve congestion.

Now you know perfectly well that road-widening is useless. Long experience has taught you that when the state widens roads, it only invites more commercial development along the roads. New development encourages more traffic, and soon the congestion has clogged more than ever.

The real answer is radically different: more mass transit, different kinds of zoning, etc. The trouble is, you work in the highway department. You have no control over any of those things. The only thing you can do is build roads. So, in full awareness of the pointlessness--indeed the total counter-productivity--of the exercise, you do the one thing you can do. You widen the road.

They are reasonable people, but they are engaged in an unreasonable task.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are trapped in the same futile cycle. They don't work. But the things that might work are not typically included in the remit of the peace processors.

The "peace process" is bilateral; the peace problem is regional. The "peace process" is concerned with boundaries between Israel and Palestine; the peace problem is concerned with the unwillingness of Israel's Arab neighbors to accept the Jewish state as a permanent fact. The "peace process" is diplomatic; the peace problem is cultural, ideological and religious.

It's hard to criticize the peace processors. They are inspired by some of the best values in Western culture generally and American politics specifically. They believe in focusing on limited, solvable issues. They believe in compromise and negotiation. They believe that coexistence is the natural state of affairs, and that conflict is abnormal.

They are reasonable people, but they are engaged in an unreasonable task. Yet they return again and again to the hopeless spiral. Even the names are unchanged: Dennis Ross, George Mitchell, and all the other envoys, ambassadors, rapporteurs and plenipotentiaries.

It's often said that the Middle East peace process is very complicated. That's not exactly true. The tax treaty between Canada and the United States: That's complicated. The federal-state tax treatment ofundistributed timber royalties alone is enough to crack the jaw. Butnobody is detonating bombs over Canada-U.S. timber taxes.

Managing cooperative relationships like those between Canada and the United States is complex, because cooperation creates ramifying connections and relationships that demand ever more elaborate governance. Conflict, by contrast, is not complicated. Two parties want the same thing--and only one can have it. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even simpler, because very often the only reason that something has value in Palestinian eyes is precisely in order to deny it to the Israelis. Daniel Pipes has demonstrated this point very learnedly in the case of the holy sites of Jerusalem: Through most of the past 1,300 years, Muslims have attached very little value to those sites. Theybecome important only when anybody else gains possession of them. Only in three brief periods of contestation--the 7th century, the 12th,and now the 21st--has the city been felt to matter. When Muslim sovereignty was regained, the city was forgotten.

A British official who worked on the Irish peace process told me that the process really took hold when people from both sides sat downand listened with some understanding to the narrative told by the other--when Sinn Fein could acknowledge the Unionists' view of history,and the Unionists could recognize Sinn Fein's. They did not have to agree with each other, but they had to abide each other.

Israelis and western Jews have generally had little difficulty recognizing--if not accepting--the Palestinian narrative. There's no Israeli equivalent of the attempts to deny, not just the Holocaust, but the existence of Herod's Temple or the Maccabean Commonwealth.

Equal recognition of the Israeli narrative, however, is adamantly repudiated by Palestinians. Look at the Clinton/Arafat/ Barak peace negotiations of 1999-2001. They did not break down over water rights or work permits. They broke down over moral issues: the Palestinian demands for a so-called "right of return" into Israel, for exclusive jurisdiction over the holy sites of Jerusalem and for some monetary actof atonement from Israel. It is striking how many of these demands are mimicked from Israel's history: the right of return from Israeli law, the monetary compensation from West Germany's payments to the Jewish state after World War II.

The trouble is that so long as the Palestinians signal their repudiation of Israel's legitimacy, Israel must in turn impose stringent security conditions upon any Palestinian government: demilitarization,policing by NATO or some other international organization and prohibition of any military alliance with other regional states. Under these conditions, an independent Palestine would begin to look more like a Vatican City autonomous region than a full-fledged state.

Palestinians resent and reject such supervision. But failing an internal commitment to live in peace, such external conditions become inescapable. The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously observed that in war, everything is very simple, but the simplest things are extremely hard. So it is in the Middle East. And the effort to circumvent those difficulties by focusing on other things--Israeli settlements, for example--only plunges us into the same hopeless repetition as a state's attempt to pave its way out of traffic congestion.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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