May 7, 2009
The effort to find a formula that will lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians now rests in the hands of President Obama. Committed to playing a more active role than his predecessor, and priding himself on being open to new ideas, the new president’s advisers would do well to alert him to the three books under review.
Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East
by Martin Indyk, Simon & Schuster, 494 pages, $30
Innocent Abroad was written by Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Bill Clinton. Indyk’s memoir is a riveting account of how both Clinton and George W. Bush failed to bring peace to that turbulent region. Along the way, he offers intimate portraits of the American, Israeli, and Arab leaders who have engaged in the peace process, without hesitating to state the reasons why his roster of political personalities failed at the task. He is highly critical of Bush, who, in the first six years of his presidency, virtually turned his back on diplomacy. In rejecting Clinton’s approach to conflict resolution, Bush summarized his attitude toward the process when he glibly remarked, “There is no Nobel Peace Prize to be had there.”
Indyk, who was present at Camp David in 2000 when Clinton brought together Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, places the blame for the summit’s failure on the PLO chairman. Arafat, states Indyk, feared that he could not cede sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif to Israel or even share control over the Temple Mount lest he be condemned by Muslim critics or be targeted for assassination like Anwar Sadat.
The author views the issue of sovereignty over the holy places in Jerusalem as a nearly insurmountable obstacle to peace as long as the growing number of Palestinian Islamist militants such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are a political force in the area.
If Jerusalem’s sovereignty remains a major stumbling block, what choices does the Obama administration have in resolving the situation? Indyk argues that the path to resolving the conflict may be to focus first on a peace treaty between Syria and Israel. Syria’s opposition to the peace process, Indyk writes, is based less on theological concerns over Jerusalem than on the return of the Golan Heights, which it lost in the 1967 Six-Day War. He notes that before he was assassinated, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had conceded the return of the Golan Heights in return for a “normal” peace with Syria (the so-called “Rabin deposit”). During his tenure as prime minister, Barak was willing to recognize Rabin’s concession in talks with Syria, but at the last moment backed away from the return of the Golan fearing he lacked the support of the Israeli public.
What makes a peace treaty with Syria so crucial is that it is an ally of Iran, and both Egypt and the Saudis fear the penetration of the Shia Iranians into the Sunni Arab heartland. As Indyk writes, “Should negotiations between Israel and Syria yield a peace agreement, it would likely cause the breakup of the Iranian-Syrian axis. But that could happen only if the next president decides to involve the United States in the negotiations, since Syria will not abandon its strategic relations with Iran unless it knows that normalized relations with the United States would replace them.”
Inasmuch as both Hamas and Hizbullah are armed and receive tactical support from Iran, peace between Israel and Syria (which would be expected to rein in Hizbullah) would conceivably eliminate the region’s major obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In the case of Middle East politics, the axiom “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” has never been more of a factor. A treaty between Syria and Israel would seriously weaken Iran and its clients in the Arab Middle East, thus allowing the process between Israel and the Palestinians to proceed unimpeded by a weakened Hamas, a turn of events that would be welcomed and fully supported by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Indyk’s focus on Syria as the key to unlocking the peace process was prescient; the Obama administration, in a departure from Bush administration policy, recently appointed two “emissaries” to Syria for the purpose of opening a dialogue with the Assad regime.
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A World Of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East From The Cold War to The War on Terror
by Patrick Tyler, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 496 pages, $30
Patrick Tyler’s tome A World of Trouble traces the policies of presidential administrations from Truman to Bush 43 regarding the Jewish state. Highly critical of the pro-Israel orientation of recent presidents, Tyler, a journalist who has reported both from the Middle East and the White House for The New York Times and The Washington Post, finds that such strategies (except for Eisenhower and Bush 41) were influenced by a combination of pro-Israel advisers and lobbyists and a propensity to side with Israel even when it collided with our national interest.
Tracing the evolution of the relationship, Tyler states that no one was more influential in moving our Middle East policy in favor of Israel than Henry Kissinger: “More than any other official, [he] authored the notion that without a disproportionate bias in American policy toward Israel, the Arab camp would sense a loss of American support for the Jewish state and rush to annihilate it. He seemed deaf to the advice of his more knowledgeable peers that this was a military impossibility because of Israel’s total mobilization of its society for defense, but also because the U.S. Sixth Fleet stood as Israel’s ultimate security guarantor….”
Elsewhere, Tyler notes that Kissinger’s family were committed Zionists and that that commitment formed the bedrock of Kissinger’s view of the Middle East.
In regard to the Yom Kippur War, Tyler charges that although Kissinger claimed his concern for Israel was “secondary,” his actions throughout the crisis added up to a focused advocacy more for Israel’s strategic goals than for those of the United States.
As for Bush 43, the author argues that his administration was not only strongly pro-Israel but that he allowed American policy to uncritically follow Israel’s lead, rather than moving the peace process forward in a manner that would have served American interests in the region.
Tyler’s message to the Obama administration is to reaffirm America’s support for the security of Israel but to be firm when Israeli policy is perceived as detrimental to the peace process, such as Israel’s ongoing building of settlements. He urges the new president to be tough in insisting that both sides make difficult concessions if peace is ever to be achieved.
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Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace; American Leadership in the Middle East
by Daniel C. Kurtzer and Scott B. Lasensky, United States Institute of Peace Press, 190 pages, $13
Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace is the work of a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt (Kurtzer) and a senior researcher at the United States Institute for Peace (Lasensky). The value of this thin volume is that it catalogues the failures of various peace initiatives and offers concrete proposals to end the ongoing stalemate.
Having interviewed major Middle East diplomats, advisers, and experts who have engaged in the peace process, the authors conclude that if and when peace between Israel and the Palestinians materializes, they can predict the nature of the agreement that will terminate the conflict. The problem, then, is not what the peace between both sides will look like, but the means by which they get there.
So what would the final conclusion to the conflict look like? According to the authors, there will be two independent states whose boundaries will be based on the June 1967 lines, with adjustments. Palestinian refugees would receive compensation and the right to return to a state of their own. They would also be allowed to reside in the Jewish state, but the numbers would be determined by Israel. Israeli settlers would be relocated, except where territories are “swapped.”
Arrangements will be made for a shared Jerusalem that accommodates separate Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty, while protecting sites that Jews, Christians, and Muslims deem holy. Finally, both sides will allow for the presence of an agreed-upon international peacekeeping force.
The book is a blueprint for the Obama administration insofar as it provides a roadmap to past mistakes that should be avoided, and Kurtzer and Lasensky strongly urge a hands-on American participation in shaping the road to peace, where both sides have confidence in our presence as an impartial broker in fostering negotiations.
Jack Fischel, emeritus professor of history, Millersville University, Pa., is the author of The Holocaust (Greenwood Press, 1998) and The Holocaust and Its Religious Impact (Praeger) and editor of the Encyclopedia of American Jewish Popular Culture (Greenwood Press).