Original photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Joe Biden reviews a guard of honor alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prior to their meeting on March 10, 2010, in Ramallah, West BankOriginal photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
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The Peace Process That Never Was

A brief history of a failed idea

Josh Hammer
March 23, 2021
Original photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Joe Biden reviews a guard of honor alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prior to their meeting on March 10, 2010, in Ramallah, West BankOriginal photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

In January 2020, President Donald Trump unveiled his “Vision” for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The plan—which included a path to an eventual independent Palestinian state but also countenanced the application of Israeli sovereignty over roughly 30% of Judea and Samaria—was promptly put on hold as Israel waited, Godot-like, for its elusive peace partner to show up.

The Palestinians never did, but the plan’s inclusion of Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank quickly paid handsome dividends as a bargaining chip for something else: a full normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the first in a series of “Abraham Accords” and Israel’s first such normalization agreement with an Arab nation in 26 years. Successive agreements with Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco soon followed.

This rapprochement upended decades of bromides—illogical but desperately clung to in the corridors of neoliberal think tanks and progressive Middle East studies departments—as a blind article of faith that Israeli peace with the Palestinian-Arabs was a purported prerequisite for reconciliation with the broader Arab world. The normalization deals also laid the foundation for what a truly hard-headed, nonsectarian regional containment of the Islamic Republic of Iran can, and should, look like.

But this long-overdue pivot away from the primacy of Israeli-Palestinian peace has not survived the results of the 2020 election, which have elevated anew that most vexing of issues to the forefront of our foreign policy dialogue: unresolved peace between Israel and her Palestinian-Arab neighbors.

Sadly, it is increasingly obvious that President Biden intends to ignore the loosening of the ground effected by Trump and instead return to President Obama’s failed playbook: a toxic combination of relentless pressure on Israel to yield concessionary “land for peace,” a dogmatic pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace above all else, and a ruinous appeasement of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. The full-court press to reenter the U.S. into a successor Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also entails a deliberate distancing of the U.S. from its core Sunni Arab allies and partners in the Abraham Accords, evidence of which we’ve seen in the obtuse reneging on F-35 sales to the UAE, and faux hysteria induced by the national security establishment’s unfolding influence operation regarding Jamal Khashoggi. The young administration has also verbally committed to a traditional Oslo-esque conception of a “two-state solution” with the Palestinian-Arabs. The emergent combination of pro-Iran sycophancy and appeasing bad faith Palestinian leaders makes the Biden-Harris administration look an awful lot like a third Obama term. All that remains is for anti-Semitic trope peddler Ben Rhodes to rev up his infamous “echo chamber” all over again.

Continuing down this well-worn path will, of course, be a tragic mistake—not merely for Israel, but for the United States. The “inside-out” approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace—unquestioned for decades by the bipartisan elites comprising America’s ruling class—had been consigned to intellectual irrelevance and revealed as the fanciful nonsense many on the ground always knew it to be. Whatever theoretical attractiveness “land for peace” may have had for liberal utopians and nation-building democracy exporters has been disproven, not merely by the blood of the Second Intifada and the erection of a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist regime in Hamas-run Gaza, but also by the reality that the Abraham Accords themselves were only possible because Israel was emboldened and strong. Counterintuitive though it may seem, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama are turned off by the sight of a regional power and essential partner forced to beg for scraps at the Foggy Bottom trough, and were quite obviously buoyed by decisions such as Trump’s successful relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018.

Alas, the third Obama term continues apace. There are no signs of either circumspection or abatement. Our present crossroads, and all early indications of the foreign policy direction of the Biden-Harris administration, thus calls for a historical look back at the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” that never was—nor perhaps will ever be, absent a forthright, unapologetic advancement of regional policy in accordance with the Trump administration’s fundamental paradigm shift.

For 73 years, since the modern State of Israel’s founding in 1948, the world’s most historically oppressed and persecuted minority population, the Jewish people, has sought to live in peace and harmony in its ancestral and divinely promised homeland. For those same 73 years, the Palestinian-Arab leadership has invariably sought the destruction of the Jews of Israel.

The civilizational jihad against them predates the founding of the Jewish state. In 1929, Haj Amin al-Husseini—Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, future Nazi ally, and Hitler’s guest in Berlin in 1941—fabricated false rumors of alleged Jewish attacks in order to instigate a murderous pogrom in Hebron, Judaism’s second-holiest city, then under the control of British Mandatory Palestine. Nearly 70 Jews were slaughtered. Days later, 20 Jews were murdered as a result of Arab rioting in Judaism’s third-holiest city, Safed. Similar anti-Jewish pogroms in the Holy Land continued throughout the 1930s, around the same time that the Third Reich laid the groundwork for what would eventually be the systemic genocide of the Jews of Europe.

After Israel’s founding in May 1948, the surrounding Arab powers immediately unified in an attempt to eradicate the nascent Jewish state. Having rejected the United Nations’ November 1947 proposed two-state partition plan, which would have left the Jews with a ragtag, barely defensible state, the Arabs failed in spectacular fashion in the war of 1948. Undeterred, they tried again in 1967 and, over the course of only six days, failed. They tried a third time in 1973—and failed yet again.

From the geopolitical perspective of 2021, the Six-Day War was the most important of the annihilationist attempts to toss the Jews of Israel into the Mediterranean Sea. After 1967, Israel took possession of the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, the accompanying Gaza Strip, and the biblical Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria. In taxonomically nonsensical fashion, the international community still refers to the latter as the West Bank (of the Jordan River), which the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan had occupied only in 1948.

These four regions have had different fates. Israel gave up the Sinai as part of Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s landmark 1978 peace agreement with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005—forcibly uprooting Jewish settlers and cemeteries in the process—and was rewarded with the election there of Hamas, a jihadist outfit and Muslim Brotherhood offshoot whose founding charter still calls for the elimination of Israel and the death of all Jews. Hamas has so far instigated three wars with Israel and fired thousands of indiscriminate rockets targeting Israeli civilian infrastructure, but the wary establishment of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—to say nothing of Israel’s sclerotic political establishment—has no plans to meaningfully meddle with the strip any time soon. As for the Golan Heights, Israel annexed it in 1981, and in 2019, for the first time ever, the White House recognized it as sovereign Israeli territory.

The goal of our struggle is the end of Israel, and there can be no compromise or mediations. We don’t want peace, we want victory.

That leaves us today with Judea and Samaria. More than any other interested party, the State of Israel has the best legal claim to possess it, thanks in part to declarations under international law put forward first by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, then by the San Remo Conference of 1920, Article XXII of the Covenant of the League of Nations, and the venerable principle of uti possidetis juris, under which Israel assumed British Mandatory Palestine’s full borders in May of 1948. Nevertheless, it is in Judea and Samaria—and, to a much lesser extent, in Gaza—that the fate of the Palestinian-Arabs has primarily played out, and will continue to do so.

In 1974, a year after the Arab world’s third failed genocidal war against Israel, and only 11 days before he received a standing ovation at the United Nations General Assembly, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat forthrightly declared, “We shall never stop until we can go back home and Israel is destroyed. The goal of our struggle is the end of Israel, and there can be no compromise or mediations. We don’t want peace, we want victory.” In 1977, top PLO official Zuhair Muhsin let the cat out of the bag even more clearly: “There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation. It is only for political reasons that we carefully underline our Palestinian identity. … Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel.” A decade later, King Hussein of Jordan—the original site of a Palestinian state under the League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine and Transjordan—only accentuated the point: “The appearance of the Palestinian national personality comes as an answer to Israel’s claim that Palestine is Jewish.”

Countless global actors, plagued by a rotten combination of Jew-hatred, hubris, and delusions of would-be peacemaking grandeur, have willfully decided to turn a blind eye to this remarkable candor from Palestinian and other Arab political leaders. Beginning in 1967, the Arab world—encapsulated by the Khartoum Resolution’s infamous “Three Nos”—began to make common cause with self-abnegating, identity-politics-addled, “anti-colonialist” Western liberals in an attempt to slander Israel as an illegal, “occupying” oppressor and the sole obstacle to Palestinian statehood. Never mind rudimentary principles of international law. Never mind the wholly defensive posture of Israel’s coming to possess, in 1967, Judea and Samaria at the expense of an illegal Jordanian occupation. A powerful coalition of Arab governments and Western liberals found a welcoming home in Turtle Bay, where it indulged the international community’s inveterate lust to ignore what is in favor of what it thinks should be. Much of the world thus turned on the Jewish state—hard.

The culmination of this decadeslong international pressure campaign was Yasser Arafat’s six-year-long First Intifada, followed by the Madrid Conference of 1991, and its diplomatic offspring, the Oslo Accords. Under the Oslo framework, for the first time since the November 1947 United Nations partition plan, Israel accepted the premise of two distinct political entities—one Jewish state and one Arab entity—living side-by-side in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (all of which was to be controlled by Israel under the original terms of the Mandate for Palestine). Oslo, negotiated on the Israeli side by Labor Party Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, established the parameters for the modern two-state “peace process”—a term generally used by those who harbor the ultimate goal of two separate political entities, roughly based along Israel’s pre-1948 armistice lines. Veteran peace process hands, often associated with Washington’s multi-organizational “two-state” cartel, glibly refer to this as “mutually agreed upon land swaps.”

But what might seem straightforward to Western neoliberals has proven, in practice, to be anything but. There are a number of unresolved issues, without which the Oslo framework remains a fanciful reverie of the professoriate and professional political class. There is the particularly thorny issue of Jerusalem. There is the issue of Israel’s security requirement to maintain a robust IDF presence, under any eventual settlement, in the Jordan Valley; even the dovish Rabin, prior to his assassination, warned that the Palestinian entity formed under Oslo would be something “less than a state,” though the peace process cartel quickly memory-holed that inconvenience. There is also the issue of the Palestinians’ so-called “right of return,” under which subsequent generations of the original 1948 refugees—using a unique definition of “refugee” applied by the United Nations to no other population in the world—can claim a right to “return” to the land of pre-1948 Israel. The purpose of this scheme is quite obviously to set a ticking demographic time bomb aimed at destroying the Zionist project from within.

Under sustained international pressure, and despite no change in Palestinian-Arab opposition to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state within secure borders, Israel offered a second two-state offer, this time at the U.S.-hosted Camp David Summit in July of 2000. Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer to Arafat—96% of Judea and Samaria—was emphatically rejected. Then-President Bill Clinton has since clarified the extent to which Arafat was to blame at Camp David: “[Arafat] did not negotiate in good faith; indeed, he did not negotiate at all. He just kept saying no to every offer, never making any counterproposals of his own.”

Two months later, Arafat used the fig leaf of Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount—the holiest site in Judaism—to launch what he had planned ever since spurning Clinton and Barak at Camp David: the Second Intifada. It would last over four years, cost over 1,000 Israeli lives, and feature some of the most gruesome bombings and suicide attacks in the modern history of jihad. It was during the Second Intifada that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA) became primarily responsible for mainstreaming the use of suicide vests against civilian targets, making it a fixture of the public imagination all over the world. The aftermath of the Second Intifada did not redound to the interests of a negotiated peace between Israel and the PA. On the contrary, it was something of a death knell. As a political movement, the Israeli left never recovered from the horrific spilling of Jewish blood that started with Oslo.

Nonetheless, Israeli governments continued to offer the Palestinians a seat at the negotiating table. Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 two-state offer was summarily rejected by PLO/PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who today is over 15 years into his four-year term, and whose 1982 academic dissertation trafficked in sordid Holocaust denialism. Nor did the situation change in 2009, after Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Likud prime minister to formally endorse the two-state framework, or in 2010, after Netanyahu implemented a 10-month “settlement freeze” in an attempt to entice Abbas to join him at the negotiating table. Abbas’ obstinance was, counterproductively, rewarded by an Obama administration that abstained from anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations, and tried to realign America’s regional interests toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The capstone of this regional realignment away from Israel and America’s Sunni allies was the capitulatory 2015 nuclear accord with the Iranian regime, known as the JCPOA. One immediate consequence of this agreement was a clandestine military and intelligence rapprochement between Israel and the Sunni Gulf states—perhaps Saudi Arabia and the UAE above all. It is therefore no small irony that the Obama administration’s Iran deal—already being resuscitated under the Biden-Harris administration—proved to be a catalyst for Trump’s historic brokering of the initial Abraham Accords between Netanyahu, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa.

At first, Trump seemed to be working simply to return America’s Middle East policies to the status quo ante. His first international trip was a May 2017 summit in Riyadh (remember the orb?). Trump’s son-in-law and senior presidential adviser, Jared Kushner, was said to have exceedingly warm relations with the reform-minded Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Trump cozied up to the Emiratis, coordinated extensively with the Bahrainis and Omanis, and lavishly praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who had himself succeeded the Obama-supported Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi. Trump was exceptionally hawkish about the Iranian regime, withdrawing from the JCPOA, imposing crippling economic sanctions on Tehran, isolating the mullahs in the international arena, and taking out Qassem Soleimani, the infamous commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, in a drone strike.

A realist with national interests at the core of his foreign policy and little appetite for moralizing of any kind, Trump evinced no tolerance for decades of recalcitrant Palestinian-Arab rejectionism. Assisted by Kushner and other like-minded senior White House staffers such as Avi Berkowitz and Jason Greenblatt, Trump consistently worked to bolster the U.S.-Israel relationship and disincentivize the stubbornness and corruption of Abbas. In addition to closing the PLO mission in Washington, D.C. and seizing aid to the PA due to its “pay-to-slay” scheme (both of which Biden has pledged to reverse), the Trump administration vociferously backed Israel at the United Nations, withdrew from UNESCO, and defunded UNRWA, the aforementioned special agency that perpetuates Palestinian refugee status.

But it is with respect to the nuts and bolts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—above all else, the territorial conflict in Judea and Samaria—that the Trump administration diverged most starkly from previous administrations. In November 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a landmark statement that Israeli ”settlements” in Judea and Samaria would not, in the eyes of the Trump administration, be considered illegal. That statement was a dagger to the bad faith partisans of the Palestinian-Arab cause, from Ankara and Brussels, to Turtle Bay and American university campuses. Against this backdrop, in January 2020, the Trump administration unveiled its “Vision” for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Under this plan, which retained IDF control of the Jordan Valley and envisioned substantial land swaps that would ensure full Israeli sovereignty for all settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria, Israel yet again agreed to the premise of a future Palestinian-Arab state. But that state would only have a viable path if PLO/PA leadership did something it has thus far never been able to do: renounce anti-Jewish violence, and recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state within secure borders. Trump’s plan would have also required rudimentary demonstrations that Palestinian leadership was prepared to reject barbaric activity, like helping end terror activity in Gaza and stopping “pay-to-slay” subsidies to the families of those who have murdered Israeli Jews.

Trump’s plan, at its core, was based on a dismissal of idealism, and an acknowledgment of the cold, hard reality of Palestinian-Arab rejectionism. No longer would U.S.-Israel policy be based upon hopeless wish-casting; instead, it would be based on that rarest of qualities in Washington, D.C.’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment—pragmatism.

Official reactions from much of the Arab world were shockingly supportive. Saudi Arabia, for decades a geopolitical and intellectual heavyweight in the Arab world, said at the time that it “appreciates the efforts of President Trump’s administration to develop a comprehensive peace plan between the Palestinian and the Israeli sides, and encourages the start of direct peace negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.” The governments of the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, and Morocco all had similar statements. We have thus arrived at a curious moment in history when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is comfortable appearing more pro-Israel than the Democratic Party. Later in 2020, with the sly use of Judea and Samaria as a bargaining chip, Israel achieved full-scale normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. As the Sudanese accord makes abundantly clear, we have come a very long way since 1967 in Khartoum.

Regardless of whether the Biden administration will return to something like the JCPOA, realpolitik will remain the currency of the Middle East, Israeli military prowess and nuclear deterrence will remain useful in containing Iran, and the leading Sunni Arab states will continue to demote the Palestinian-Arab cause. The post-JCPOA thawing of relations between Israel and the Arab states will only continue apace. In the past, Sunni Arab dictators could point to Palestinian plight as a means to distract restive domestic populaces from their own doldrums. Now, that distraction has been superseded by the more pressing goal of ensuring regime survival, as the theocratic Iranian regime spreads its power all across the region.

In a sane world, partisans of the Palestinian-Arab cause would celebrate the fact that last year, a pro-Israel U.S. president and right-wing Israeli prime minister both agreed to a framework that included the potential for an independent Palestinian state. They, of course, did not. Which brings us back to the present moment.

There is a tremendous risk that the Biden-Harris administration is set to reverse the genuine progress of the Trump era, opting instead to raise failed pieties from the dead and reassert them anew. But there is no U.S. national security interest served by a return of pressure on Israel to concede “land for peace” in the absence of any Palestinian concessions. There is no American interest in subjecting Israel to public flogging and bribery, or dangling the sword of Damocles over Israeli military aid.

America’s interest, rather, is better fortified with a strong Israel, one that knows America has its back when it acts against common enemies in Bashar Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah-run Lebanon, within Gaza, or in Judea and Samaria. In a post-JCPOA world, an unapologetically strong Israel means a strong military counterweight to the threat posed by Iran, and a mighty bulwark against Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aspiration to neo-Ottoman hegemony. It means a greater chance of rapprochement between Israel and the Arab nations.

America has much to gain from an empowered Israel, which—paradoxical though it may seem—has quite obviously led to more peace, not less: more regional normalization agreements, better containment of Iran, more security for American interests, and more geopolitical stability. Only a stronger Israel can ever lead to a durable and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace. As America’s regional interests are supported by Israel’s military, diplomatic, and economic strength, it follows that America’s regional interests are effectively coterminous with a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. The analysis really is that simple.

To the extent that the Biden-Harris administration might change its current course and consider genuine alternatives to the failed “inside-out,” “land for peace” consensus, it has options. One intriguing idea is what Bar Ilan University Professor Mordechai Kedar calls the “emirates plan,” modeled after the eponymous Gulf state. Just as the UAE is a loose confederation of disparate Arab tribes, each overseeing its own tribal land, so too could the deeply fractious Palestinians of Judea and Samaria confederate into a series of noncontiguous, Palestinian “emirates” based around the relevant tribes’ home cities. That kind of plan is “based on the sociology of the Middle East, which has the tribe as the major cornerstone of society,” as Kedar has explained. In other words, a plan based on how the Middle East is, not how blinkered Western elites want to believe it could be.

Prevailing leftist orthodoxy holds that everything the dreaded Orange Man did was bad and must therefore be toppled. But the Trump administration, unlike so many of its predecessors, understood something about how the region works, decided to accept that reality, and worked with it. As a result, the region today is more stable, more secure, and more peaceful, and the United States’ own national interest is better served. Biden’s legacy will depend, in part, on his not mucking it up.

Josh Hammer (@josh_hammer) is the opinion editor of Newsweek and a research fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation.