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The Future of an Illusion

A piece of paper will not bring peace to the Middle East

Apr 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 28 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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2. The failure to set standards for Palestinian conduct hurts the cause of peace. 

In the Bill Clinton years, the foreign leader who visited the White House most often was Yasser Arafat—13 times. Who can blame Arafat for failing to take seriously criticism of his “alleged links” to terrorism when the invitations kept on coming? For years, American officials of both parties have said the “incitement must end,” but they have imposed no penalty for its failure to end. When in March the Palestinian Authority (PA) named a square for a terrorist involved in an attack in 1978 that killed 38 Israelis, including 13 children, Obama, Biden, and Clinton were silent. Lower-ranking officials tut-tutted. In Palestinian society, the veneration of this terrorist, Dalal Mughrabi, is widespread; Fatah, not Hamas, is the one celebrating Mughrabi. PA radio and television incite hatred of Israel and Jews with regularity, as Palestinian Media Watch and MEMRI document every month. 

In recent weeks the Obama administration has stated that both sides have responsibilities to meet, but it made no serious demands of the PA. Had there been early and regular insistence that incitement end, the Mughrabi incident would never have taken place. The price for such negligence is being paid in both Israeli and Palestinian society: Every such action and every vicious broadcast helps persuade Israelis that Palestinians do not truly seek peace and helps raise a new generation of Palestinians who see Jews as enemies to hate, not neighbors with whom to reach an accommodation. This infantilization of Palestinian society, moreover, moves it further from the responsibilities of statehood, for it holds harmless the most destructive elements of West Bank life and suggests that standards of decency are not necessarily part of progress toward “peace.” 

A tough demand that all the incitement end now—no more terrorist squares, a clean-up of Palestinian broadcasting, the replacement of offending school textbooks—would both help Palestinian moderates undertake these actions and reassure Israelis that President Obama shares at least some of their concerns about the ability of Palestinians to negotiate and sustain a peace deal. The silence thus far, the unconvincing and rote handling of this issue, leaves the impression that Obama simply wants a deal signed and doesn’t much care about what happens after that. Like his distancing himself from Israel and his apparent lack of concern for Israeli security, this undermines any chance of successful peace talks. 


3. Israeli withdrawals do not lead to peace unless law and order can be maintained by responsible security forces. 

Israelis learned this the hard way in South Lebanon and Gaza, and it is unquestionably the greatest factor leading them to oppose a similar withdrawal from the West Bank. The Labor party leader Ehud Barak is not viewed in Israel as a hardliner; when he was prime minister he offered Arafat a dramatic peace proposal in 2000. But when, as defense minister, he met with President Bush in 2008 he handed over, and raised repeatedly in later meetings with Secretary Rice, a list of Israel’s security needs in the West Bank. He and Netanyahu (and the vast majority of Israelis) are of one mind on this: Terrorism from Gaza is a security challenge for Israel, but terrorism from the West Bank threatens Israel’s survival. There has been considerable progress in training Palestinian security forces, but no one believes they can yet maintain order without the presence of the IDF and Shin Bet. Those who say, as George Mitchell—Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East—and the Quartet have, that there can be a peace deal in 24 months are saying that fundamental security issues can be finessed or forgotten. Of course they can if your goal is a piece of paper—or, perhaps better put, a paper peace. If you want a real and lasting peace, you must have the answer to the question: What will fill the vacuum when Israeli forces leave? Today the answer is chaos or Hamas, and any prediction that in 24 months these matters will be resolved shows a lack of seriousness. Palestinians who value law and order and seek to build a decent society, as well as Jordanians who worry what forces will be across the river from them, cannot be so cavalier. This brings us back to lesson one: If the United States is intent on a deal in 24 months no matter what, Israelis will understand that we are not going to protect their security and that we’ll complain when they assert the need to do it themselves. 


4. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not the center of world, Arab, or Muslim politics. 

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