In ritualistic fashion, Marco Rubio’s visit to Israel included a defense of Israeli policy toward the peace process. Explaining how things work, he proclaimed that “The greatest advancements in this process have always been made when Israel felt secure. There is a direct relationship between Israel’s security and the ability to make concessions and move forward.”
Such a reading is both too politically convenient and historically superficial. It cuts to the heart of what has long been a tendency among the right to explain away the lack of a progress on the peace front: there is no Palestinian partner for peace. They cannot be trusted, and therefore it’s not fair to expect Israel to make concessions that require opening itself up to physical attack under such conditions. There is something to this claim. But a deeper look at the three main treaties Israel has signed suggests other factors mattered more, under specific conditions.
Let’s assume that the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the 1993 Oslo Accords, and the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty represent the “greatest advancements” in the Arab-Israeli process in that they led to specific “peace” outcomes. Certainly there are a number of other efforts and pacts, but they tend to either be spin-offs of these three or small, qualified successes (Oslo II, Hebron, Wye).
1979 was the result of confluence of events, not least of which was the coming to power of an Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, who was actively to looking to take Egypt out of the Soviet Camp and into the American one. His decision to go to war in 1973 was to strengthen his domestic position, and to grab superpower attention. But even by then he was already searching for ways to engage diplomatically with Israel.
For his part, Prime Minister Menachem Begin firmly believed that Israel was a “nation that dwells alone.” To say that he ever felt Israel was secure would be a misreading of his fundamental philosophies about the Jewish people’s existence in the world. The peace treaty was also a chance to distract from his interest in working to entrench Israel sovereignty over the West Bank. Finally, it was a grand opportunity to remove from the conflict Israel’s greatest enemy and the strongest Arab power—in other words, an effort to make Israel more secure rather the other way around.
Rubio’s case is stronger with the Oslo Accords. At the time, Israel was in the strongest position it had ever been. The PLO was in fast decline, as the intifada lost international attention; its most important backer, the Soviet Union, had already imploded, while its financial patrons were still punishing it for support of Saddam in 1991; the Madrid process has already led to tacit acceptance of Israel in the region; and Israel had established diplomatic ties with the major powers of the world, including Russia, China and India.
But if this were the sole driver of Israeli decisions on the peace process, why didn’t Jerusalem agree to Oslo under the Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir? It took Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin’s victory in the 1992 election for this “feeling of security” to actually translate into an agreement. The reason is because it depends partly on the individual leader. Shamir shared Begin’s inherent mistrust of the world. He viewed the PLO as an unrepentant terrorist organization committed to Israel destruction, and his ultimate objective was to retain and enhance Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank; any agreement with the Palestinians would undermine that.
Rabin felt the opposite. He believed Israel really was that secure, that a leap of faith of sorts was needed to end (most of) the occupation, that the Land of Israel wasn’t worth the price of Jewish lives, that the PLO was better than Hamas, and that Iran was Israel’s major strategic threat. He was willing, under pressure from Shimon Peres and others, to take a chance on the Oslo process because he thought a treaty with the PLO would strengthen Israel’s position.
The 1994 treaty with Jordan is perhaps the easiest to explain: Israel and Jordan had a long, somewhat secret working relationship stretching back to before 1948. Israel didn’t feel secure without a Jordanian buffer against their mutual rivals and enemies, while Jordan saw that cooperation with Israel was necessary. The treaty was long in the making.
Peace processes are more complicated that Rubio, and others, realize. Acknowledging this might help tame some of the rhetoric we hear that the peace process cannot move forward until the Palestinians get their own house completely in order. That’s important, but it’s not necessary for progress to be made. And there’s something to be said for progress—confidence-building measures, easing of incitement and delegitimization, security cooperation, and more—even without major treaties.
Ignoring all this in favor of rhetoric designed to score political points does nothing to help the genuine search for peace, and to stop the suffering of millions of Israelis and Palestinians. Worse, it prolongs it.