American Peace Plans Never Work
For months we heard a drumbeat of criticism of the Bush Administration for its lack of engagement in the Middle East; now the President is immersed in the conflict with the Palestinians and issued a new peace plan. This may satisfy the critics, but isn’t likely to bring peace. In fact, history shows that American peace initiatives have never succeeded, and that it is the parties themselves who must resolve their differences.
The Eisenhower Administration tried to ease tensions by proposing the joint Arab-Israeli use of the Jordan River. The plan would have helped the Arab refugees by producing more irrigated land and would have reduced Israel’s need for more water resources. Israel cautiously accepted the plan, the Arab League rejected it.
President Johnson outlined five principles for peace. “The first and greatest principle,” Johnson said, “is that every nation in the area has a fundamental right to live and to have this right respected by its neighbors.” The Arab response came a few weeks later: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it....”
President Nixon’s Secretary of State, William Rogers, offered a plan that sought to “balance” U.S. policy, but leaned on the Israelis to withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, to accept many Palestinian refugees, and to allow Jordan a role in Jerusalem. The plan was totally unacceptable to Israel and, even though it tilted toward the Arab position, was rejected by the Arabs as well.
President Ford’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had a little more success in his shuttle diplomacy, arranging the disengagement of forces after the 1973 war, but he never put forward a peace plan, and failed to move the parties beyond the cessation of hostilities to the formalization of peace.
Jimmy Carter was the model for presidential engagement in the conflict. He wanted an international conference at Geneva to produce a comprehensive peace. While Carter spun his wheels trying to organize a conference, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided to bypass the Americans and go directly to the Israeli people and address the Knesset.
Despite revisionist history by Carter’s former advisers, who now pontificate on talk shows, the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement was negotiated largely despite Carter. Menachem Begin and Sadat had carried on secret contacts long before Camp David and had reached the basis for an agreement before Carter’s intervention. Carter’s mediation helped seal the treaty, but Sadat’s decision to go to Jerusalem was stimulated largely by his conviction that Carter’s policies were misguided.
In 1982, President Reagan announced a surprise peace initiative that called for allowing the Palestinians self-rule in the territories in association with Jordan. The plan rejected both Israeli annexation and the creation of a Palestinian state. Israel denounced the plan as endangering Israeli security. The plan had been formulated largely to pacify the Arab states, which had been angered by the expulsion of the PLO from Beirut, but they also rejected the Reagan Plan.
The Bush Administration succeeded in convening a historic regional conference in Madrid in 1991, but it ended without any agreements and the multilateral tracks that were supposed to resolve some of the more contentious issues rarely met and failed to resolve anything.
President Clinton barely had time to get his vision of peace together when he discovered the Israelis had secretly negotiated an agreement with the Palestinians in Oslo. The United States had nothing to do with the breakthrough at Oslo and very little influence on the immediate aftermath. In fact, the peace process became increasingly muddled as the United States got more involved.
Peace with Jordan also required no real American involvement. The Israelis and Jordanians already were agreed on the main terms of peace, and the main obstacle had been King Hussein’s unwillingness to sign a treaty before Israel had reached an agreement with the Palestinians. After Oslo, he felt safe to move forward and no American plan was needed.
In a last ditch effort to save his presidential legacy, Clinton put forward a peace plan to establish a Palestinian state. Again, it was Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s willingness to offer dramatic concessions that raised the prospects for an agreement rather than the President’s initiative. Even after Clinton was prepared to give the Palestinians a state in virtually all the West Bank and Gaza and to make east Jerusalem their capital, the Palestinians rejected the deal.
Now, the latest American peace plan is the Bush Plan. He offers a provisional state to the Palestinians in three years after they meet a number of strict conditions. Israel has accepted the plan, but, once again, the Arabs have rejected it.
History has shown that Middle East peace is not made in America. Only the parties can decide to end the conflict, and the terms that will be acceptable. No American plan has ever succeeded, and it is unlikely any will ever bring peace. The end to the Arab-Israeli conflict will not be achieved through American initiatives or intense involvement, it will be possible only when Arab leaders have the courage to follow the examples of Sadat and Hussein and resolve to live in peace with Israel.