Leslie H. Gelb
AMERICA PRESSURES ISRAEL PLENTY
Scholars, pundits, propagandists, and journalists have created two dangerous pieces of conventional wisdom about the Middle East: that Israelis, not Palestinians, have been the main stumbling block to peace, and that the United States has failed to use its influence to pressure Israel for serious compromises. Both propositions are largely untrue. If uncorrected, these myths could make both Palestinians and Israelis feel irretrievably wronged and unwilling ever to negotiate in good faith.
Israel has a long and compelling history of making major concessions to Arabs. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem in 1977, and less than two years later, Israel agreed to return the entire Sinai Peninsula, booty of a war it did not start and an act of territorial generosity unprecedented in modern history. Israelis negotiated with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, whom they rightly considered a terrorist. At the end of U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians several key concessions, including more than 90 percent of the West Bank. After the Annapolis initiative put forward by George W. Bush's administration, one of Barak's successors, Ehud Olmert, upped the offerings considerably: more of the West Bank, a sliver of Arab East Jerusalem for a Palestinian capital, and a land swap to give the new Palestinian state a land link to Gaza. Olmert even privately accepted "the right of return" to Israel for a certain number of Palestinian refugees. To both generous proposals, the Palestinians said either no or nothing.
In return, the Israelis received little, and the Palestinians insisted on more of everything. Their rationale was that they needed further concessions to compensate for Israeli demands limiting the size and capability of Palestinian security forces. These restrictions, they said, would undermine the very feasibility of a sovereign Palestinian state. The Israelis argued that they needed these added protections because Israel could not count on Arabs to accept Israel's existence. They cited the Palestinians' rejection of a Jewish history in Israel and even any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount in the heart of Jerusalem. For good measure, the Palestinians still refuse to recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." Nor do the Palestinians acknowledge that when Israel departed Gaza in 2005, it uprooted 9,000 Israeli settlers. In return, Israel got rockets and a terrorist enclave run by Hamas.
At each step in this tortuous negotiating process, the United States has pushed and pulled Israel toward concessions, but received little or no credit from the Arab side. Sometimes this pressure has been public, as in President Barack Obama's recent scolding of Israel over its West Bank settlements, but more often it has been private. Yet Arabs have not wanted to credit Washington's role as a peacemaker because they think the United States is capable of exerting even more pressure on Israel. Nonetheless, the American role has been real and substantial.
Israel has only made this world of misperceptions worse. It has explained its concessions badly, if at all. Consider, for example, how Israeli governments refuse to tout their history of concessions on the West Bank for fear these would be taken as starting points in ongoing negotiations. Apparently, Israelis would rather look guilty than weak.
Israelis certainly deserve criticism for continuing their West Bank settlements. But they deserve credit for their concrete efforts to make peace. And so does the United States. Yet the myths prevail, and dangerously so.
Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former senior U.S. government official, and a former columnist for the New York Times.
Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos