Why the Peace Process Failed
It’s unclear when it died, but it’s most definitely dead. The Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" was born with a fatal flaw, and its defects have been on full display in recent weeks as Israel conducted yet another war on Gaza, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) sought—and won—upgraded status at the United Nations last week against the will of the United States and Israel.
The most significant problem with the peace process was foundational. The process, a series of diplomatic exchanges and negotiations supposedly aimed at lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace, was based on a land-for-peace formula brokered by American mediation. It was, essentially, modeled after the peace process which resulted in the now-33-year-old peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. One might argue that the relative success of that peace process boded well for the formula's application to Israelis and Palestinians. The problem is that such an argument assumes the differences between the parties involved are irrelevant to the outcome. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Israel that fought with Egypt, much like the Israel of today, was a strong state with significant military power, occupying Arab territory, and enjoyed the backing of a super power in the United States. Egypt too was a strong state with a significant military and enjoyed the backing of the Soviet Union for years. Both parties retained the capacity to alter realities on the ground to leverage their bargaining positions before negotiating. This, of course, meant war—and the peace treaty of 1979 could not have happened if not for the war of 1973.
But here is the big difference. The Palestinians are not a powerful state; they don’t even have a state. The Israelis continue to be a regional superpower with a qualitative military edge guaranteed by the world’s greatest superpower. They also retain the world’s largest per capita nuclear arsenal. Thus, there is a complete imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel is the only party between the river and the sea which is able, through the use of unchecked force, to alter the physical landscape by building and expanding settlements.
Surely it is easy for the Israelis to invite the Palestinians to the negotiating table—just as it is easy for a 300 lb.wrestler to invite an average man to the arm-wrestling table. It is easier still with a 500 lb. partner, like the United States, solidly in their corner. The question isn’t, “Why aren’t the Palestinians at the negotiating table?” It is, “Why on earth, under such conditions, would they ever be there?”
The only thing that could have created incentives for Palestinian participation in a peace process is even-handed American mediation that would enforce Israeli obligations under international law because the Palestinians do not have the planes, tanks and troops to do this on their own.
Instead, unmitigated American support for Israel allowed the peace process to turn into a cover for unending Israeli colonialism. Since the Madrid Peace conference in 1991, the number of Israeli settlers living illegally beyond the Green Line tripled.
Politically, Palestinians today support Hamas and Fatah but the largest single grouping in public opinion polls is support for neither party. The vast majority, however, are united in rejection of a fundamentally flawed peace process that allows unmitigated colonization.
The differences that remain are strategic. Which way is best to create leverage? Hamas, and other groups, continue to believe in armed struggle. Results like last week’s are likely to boost this approach. Fatah favors seeking recognition in international forums, like the United Nations, in an effort to redress grievances in international courts. Palestinian civil society has called for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
All of these methods, while varied, are based on one common realization: the United States has failed to impose costs on Israel for its unending occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory. Thus Palestinians must do so in whatever ways possible.
If the goal of the process was peace, it failed miserably. If the goal instead was to protect Israel’s colonial ambitions, it was a stunning success. But now that the peace process is dead, no one should mourn it. This flawed paradigm only guaranteed the status quo.
The vote last week at the United Nations should be seen as an international referendum of the United States' handling of its role as mediator. Palestinians went to the U.N. because the U.S. offered no alternatives to them but a peace process in which Israel continued colonial expansion unrestrained. After the vote, the U.S. said Palestinians should return to negotiations while Israel announced more settlement expansion.
Their actions could not have sent a clearer message to Palestinians: a return to such U.S.-mediated negotiations is a waste of time.