The Middle East peace process is very much a partisan issue in American politics. Until J Street figures out how to solve the problem of Likud penetration of the Republican Party, there is no American solution for the Middle East.
By Thomas G. Mitchell
It appears that Secretary of State John Kerry’s mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has come to an end as Israel refuses to release the last group of security prisoners that it previously promised to release. This is because Jerusalem has no confidence in the peace process, partly based on expectations of the Palestinians and partly based on the composition of the Israeli coalition.
Last summer Secretary Kerry started out on a peace process with only weak backing from President Obama. This is similar to the situation that Secretary of State William Rogers was in during the Nixon administration in 1969. Nixon and Kissinger let Rogers busy himself with Middle East peace in order to keep him from interfering with the foreign policy issues that they were really concerned with like Vietnam, superpower relations, and China. Rogers attempted to negotiate a comprehensive peace settlement among Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Syria based on Israel giving up the territories captured in June 1967 and the Arabs making peace. Neither side was interested in doing what Rogers expected of it. The following year, thanks to escalation in the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal, Rogers was able to negotiate a bilateral ceasefire along the Canal in August 1970 (which Egypt promptly violated by moving its forces forward). Seven years later Jimmy Carter also attempted to negotiate a comprehensive solution and he again failed. He also switched and because of his extraordinary efforts from December 1977 to March 1979 he was able to broker a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Today an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is the equivalent of a comprehensive peace agreement in the 1970s: it is a mirage until the situation is ripe. The situation in the 1970s became ripe for peace twice because of military developments. First, in the summer of 1970 the Soviet Union began to increase its military involvement in Egypt with Soviet pilots flying combat missions along the Suez Canal. This alarmed Jerusalem and led to the ceasefire. Second, the hard fought Yom Kippur War in October 1973 made both Egypt and Israel ready for peace as both realized that there was not a military solution to the conflict. This became the basis for Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy in 1974-75 and Carter’s peacemaking in 1978-79.
But today neither side is ready for peace. The Palestinians are divided between Hamas and Fatah/PA and Hamas is unwilling to agree to a formal peace with Israel. On the Israeli side the Likud has not given up its dream of Greater Israel through settlement of the West Bank. Netanyahu paid lip service to a Palestinian state and a two-state solution in 2009 but has done nothing since to advance it. He knows that both his party and several of the other parties in his coalition are committed to Eretz Israel haShlema — the complete land of Israel, i.e. Western Palestine. The Labor Party is too weak to form a coalition on its own — and Kadima has virtually disappeared as a party. Under these circumstances the best that Washington can do is help the Palestinians prepare for peace by helping them build the infrastructure for a future state.
The one positive development in Middle East peacemaking since the collapse of Oslo in the fall of 2000 has been the creation of a Jewish counterweight to AIPAC in the form first of Brit Tzedek vaShalom and second of J Street. The rationale behind these two organizations was that American Jews were the decisive American domestic community for Middle East peace. But is this really the case? This was the case in the mid-1970s when AIPAC organized Jews and conservatives in the Democratic Party to counter the Ford administration’s economic pressure on Israel in the summer of 1975. Since then, from September 1975 until the end of the Reagan administration, there was largely a bipartisan consensus on American policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But two things changed starting in the early 1990s. First, the Palestinians came into Middle East diplomacy by the PLO recognizing Israel in December 1988 and then engaging with the Israeli government as the Oslo talks in Norway in 1993. Second, Evangelical Protestants who had backed Reagan for the presidency in the 1980s became involved in the Middle East as an issue because of their religious beliefs about the Second Coming. AIPAC has switched to being a coalition of conservative Republican Jews and Christian Zionist supporters of Israel. Many of the neo-Conservative backers of Senator Henry Jackson in 1975-76 left the Democratic Party in the late 1970s and joined the Republicans. J Street has organized the remaining Jews who are active in Democratic politics.
J Street and others cite Northern Ireland as a model for Middle East peace. But is it? Northern Ireland worked because there was dual mediation by the British and Irish governments with each government representing one side to the conflict. In both London and Dublin there was a bipartisan or across-the-spectrum political support for the peace process. In London the government changed from Conservative to Labour during the peace process and in Dublin it changed twice: from a Fianna Fail-Labour coalition in the early 1990s to a Fine Gael-led Rainbow coalition in the mid-1990s to a Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat coalition in 1997. But the peace process held together because it was not a partisan issue in either British or Irish politics.
The Middle East peace process is very much a partisan issue in American politics and has been since at least 2000 if not before. Benjamin Netanyahu, who is partly American raised and has many former American Jews as political advisors, forged an alliance between the Likud and the Republican Party when he was opposition leader in Israel in the early 1990s. Menahem Begin wanted to do this with Christian Zionists in the 1970s but most were not yet ready. By the early 1990s they were ready. These Christian Zionists supported George W. Bush for the presidency in 2000 and by 2008 dominated Republican politics.
Unlike Britain and Ireland, the United States does not have a parliamentary system but a presidential one. This gives the opposition more opportunities to cause mischief as long as they control one of the houses of Congress. Divided government has been the norm in America over the last 30 years. Republican control of Congress can prevent a Democratic president from promising economic and military aid to Israel in exchange for peace. This is what was behind the peace agreements of 1975 and 1979 and the aborted Israeli-Syrian peace process in 2000. Barak wanted $19 billion in aid in exchange for giving up the Golan. Republicans vowed to block that aid. Until J Street figures out how to solve the problem of Likud penetration of the Republican Party and divided government there is no American solution for the Middle East. I have seen no evidence that J Street is even seriously addressing this problem.
Thomas G. Mitchell is the author of Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution published by McFarland Press in 2013.