I wrote in 1985 that
Each newly elected president since 1953 has floated an Arab-Israel initiative early in his first term: the Johnson plan in 1953, the Dulles plan in 1955, the Johnson plan in 1962, the Rogers plan in 1969, the Carter plan in 1977, and the Reagan plan in 1982. Inspired as they were by American rather than Middle Eastern concerns, all failed completely.
Noting this pattern, Irving Kristol memorably took the Latin proverb, Quem Iuppiter vult perdere, dementat prius ("Whom Jupiter wishes to destroy, he first renders mad") and changed it to "Whom the gods would destroy they first tempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict."
I first quoted Kristol in March 1991, dismayed by George H.W. Bush's hubristic statement that "the time has come to put an end to Arab-Israeli conflict." And the quote was apt, for the "peace process" that the first President Bush launched after the Kuwait war led not to a resolution but to the spiraling downwards that finds that conflict in far worse condition today than when he spoke nearly fifteen years ago.
I am calling Kristol's aphorism back into service on reading today that Ariel Sharon announced something similar, if a bit more tentative:
I have resolved, as one who had the privilege of participating in all of Israel's wars, to make an effort - a true effort - to try to lead to security and peace. It is not easy, it is trying, but I have decided to attempt to resolve this problem once and for all, and that is what I intend to do.
Well, good luck to the prime minister, but I predict his efforts will likewise do more harm than good. (December 13, 2005)
Sep. 21, 2007 update: Two years have passed and, of course, nothing has changed. Here is Max Boot on the subject of U.S. secretaries of state being obsessed with the holy grail of Arab-Israeli peace:
Pretty much every Secretary of State since the Truman administration has devoted considerable energy to brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians. None succeeded. In fact, the most recent and ambitious attempt—the Oslo Peace Accords—backfired badly. But there seems to be something about the Secretary of State's job that forces its occupants to keep on undertaking this Sisyphean labor regardless of whether or not it makes sense.
And so now we have Condoleezza Rice regularly journeying to the Middle East to arrange another peace conference later this year. It is hard to know why she thinks the climate for a breakthrough is propitious now. Hamas, an organization devoted to Israel's destruction, has taken control of the Gaza Strip, making it what the Israeli government rightly calls a "hostile entity." Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (or what remains of it), is an ineffectual figurehead. Syrian President Bashar Assad is working full-time to destroy Lebanese democracy and possibly to acquire nuclear arms. He has shown no interest in negotiating peace. Instead he is working hand in glove with Iran to support Hamas and Hizballah.
Meanwhile, Israel is led by an unpopular prime minister whose toughness has been questioned and who, unlike his immediate predecessor, lacks the credibility to give away land such as the Golan Heights in a bid for "peace."
Amid such circumstances, it is hardly surprising to see this Washington Post headline recounting Rice's most recent trip to the Holy Land: "Rice Visit Yields No Commitments On Mideast Talks; Differences Over Agenda Remain Wide." The only mystery here is why the Secretary of State—an intelligent woman—insists on continuing to engage in such a hopeless endeavor.
Here are the first paragraphs of that lugubrious article, written by Scott Wilson:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that the U.S.-backed peace conference proposed for later this year must "advance the cause of a Palestinian state" but acknowledged that much work remains to be done before Israeli and Palestinian officials agree on an agenda to achieve that goal.
"The international meeting has to be serious, it has to be substantive," Rice said at a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the second and final day of her visit. Referring to the Bush administration, Rice said, "We have many things to do. We don't need a photo opportunity."
Rice spent two days with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to narrow the differences—some substantive, some technical—over an agenda for the international peace conference President Bush proposed earlier this year. She departed with neither a firm date for the meeting nor a commitment from the Palestinians to attend unless a detailed agenda, including a specific timetable for the creation of a Palestinian state, can be arranged by negotiating groups that have yet to meet.
June 5, 2009 update: Of course, the most hubristic of American presidents, Barack Obama, has set his sights on "solving" the Arab-Israeli conflict. Jennifer Loven reports for the Associated Press:
"The moment is now for us to act," Obama declared at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. ... Obama revealed in a round-table discussion with Mideast journalists how much he fears letting efforts flag. "When things stall, everybody knows it," he said in a Thursday interview in Egypt that was released Friday by the White House. "I want to have a sense of movement and progress. ... I'm confident that if we stick with it, having started early, that we can make some serious progress this year."
Comment: Not only is the idea of "some serious progress this year" untenable, but Obama is going about it precisely the wrong way – by pressuring and alienating Israel, America's only strategic ally in the region.
July 16, 2009 update: Obama's June hubris was no one-time aspiration. According to Barak Ravid of Ha'aretz, he is soon expected to announce a new plan to renew Arab-Israeli "peace process" that will include a binding timetable for negotiations so as to reach a final resolution of the conflict. According to "a senior Western diplomat closely involved in current contacts involving the U.S., Israel, the PA and moderate Arab states," Obama is sees bringing talks to a conclusion "on time" as a method to force progress.
Jan. 21, 2010 update: After a year of abject failure to make progress toward Arab-Israeli reconciliation, Obama has at least for the moment learned a lesson. From an interview with Joe Klein of Time magazine on January 15, "Q&A: Obama on His First Year in Office," and made available today:
Obama: the Middle East peace process has not moved forward. And I think it's fair to say that for all our efforts at early engagement, it is not where I want it to be.
Klein: Why is that? ...
Obama: I'll be honest with you. A) This is just really hard. Even for a guy like George Mitchell, who helped bring about the peace in Northern Ireland. This is as intractable a problem as you get. B) Both sides — the Israelis and the Palestinians — have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation.
I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that. ...I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn't produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.
May 21, 2011 update: Obama is back to his hubris, announcing today at AIPAC with regard to Arab-Israeli diplomacy, "we can't afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades to achieve peace. The world is moving too fast."
Sep. 9, 2011 update: The world may be moving too fast but Obama's diplomatic ambitions have ground to a halt, as symbolized by his distance from the PLO leader, Mahmoud Abbas. Mark Landler writes in the New York Times,
Among the very first foreign leaders President Obama called after entering the Oval Office on Jan. 21, 2009, was the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. The last time the two men spoke was in February, when Mr. Obama failed, in an awkward, 55-minute phone conversation, to persuade Mr. Abbas not to go to the United Nations to condemn Israel for building Jewish settlements. The 25 months between those calls demonstrate how Mr. Obama's relationship with Mr. Abbas has withered — and along with it, Mr. Obama's hopes to make Middle East peacemaking one of his signature achievements.
Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State, 2005-09.
Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State, 2005-09.
She recounts her conversation with George W. Bush about becoming secretary of state:
before accepting the appointment, she needed to talk with him "as directly as we ever had." She wanted him to confirm her primacy in foreign policy, and she raised "the one substantive issue that was on my mind." "Mr. President," she said, "we need to get an agreement and establish a Palestinian state." Bush told her, "We'll get it done."
He concludes that this insistence "we need to get an agreement and establish a Palestinian state" in fact "led to a tenure as secretary of state most remarkable for its pointlessness."
Mar. 1, 2012 update: Foreign Policy magazine has helpfully collected optimistic statements by eight consecutive U.S. presidents about finishing off the Arab-Israeli conflict.
From the March/April issue of "Foreign Policy."
July 15, 2012 update: Obama discusses what he would do in a possible second term, as reported in Politico:
Obama's agenda for a second term includes bringing peace to the Middle East. "I have not been able to move the peace process forward in the Middle East the way I wanted," he said in an interview with WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C. "It's something we focused on very early. But the truth of the matter is, that the parties, they've got to want it as well."
Feb. 23, 2013 update: That second term has begun and Obama has got himself a secretary of state in John Kerry who is intensely focused on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Excerpts from an article by Paul Richter, "Kerry's divergence from Obama on foreign crises raises questions," in today's Los Angeles Times:
Kerry has made it clear he wants to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a long and sporadic process whose latest collapse occurred during Obama's first term. He is well aware that failed attempts tarnished the reputations of elder statesmen and presidents for decades, including Obama.
He is not deterred. "We need to try to find a way forward," Kerry said at his Senate confirmation hearing last month. He said the window to create an independent Palestinian state and to ensure Israeli security soon "could shut on everybody, and that would be disastrous." ...
Kerry is fired by a desire for a diplomatic success in the Middle East that could secure his legacy. ... Kerry's commitment is clear. He made his first official phone calls as secretary to Israeli and Palestinian leaders. His predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, made her first trip to East Asia. Some of Kerry's advisors envision him at some point beginning frantic Henry Kissinger-style shuttle diplomacy between Middle East capitals to nail down a deal.
(1) Kerry will face the hard reality that Fatah has rejected negotiations with Israel unless the latter not only stops building in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem but also releases Palestinian prisoners.
(2) Here we go again, with another U.S. secretary of state – still in his first month in the job – said to be intent on burnishing his legacy with an Arab-Israeli accord. In a sense, this is not surprising: if you had just become secretary of state, you too would probably see this arena as your best vehicle to attain star status. But in another sense – well, just read this blog, if nothing else, for a dose of reality.
Obama's new secretary of state at work: The Kerrys and the Assads dining in a Damascus restaurant in 2009.
Apr. 11, 2013 update: Abraham Ben-Zvi asks "What makes John Kerry tick?" in Israel Hayom and offers these comments on the U.S. secretary of state's obsession with the Arab-Israeli conflict: it seems that he is
approaching the Israeli-Palestinian issue with a level of determination and commitment that doesn't necessarily reflect the current priorities of the president. Obama, who emerged battered from his excessive involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian issue during the start of his first term, doesn't appear to be particularly keen to invest precious resources in this matter.
Even as Kerry's table is filling up with urgent and troubling diplomatic issues (the North Korean threat is just one), the secretary of state continues to stick to his belief that vigorous shuttle diplomacy can lead to a breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. A new American outline is emerging (with the involvement of Saudi Arabia and Jordan) that will bridge some of the remaining differences between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. ...
Kerry's burning desire to succeed where many of his predecessors have failed and thus produce a signature moment for the Obama administration is something that has stood out from the moment he took over at the State Department.
Dec. 13, 2013 update: John Kerry remains unfazed by the problems his forced diplomacy is encountering more than half way through its nine months. He told the press today that
Our goal remains as it always has been – for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a final status agreement – not an interim agreement, a final status agreement. And both parties remain committed to fulfilling their obligations to stay at the table and negotiate hard during the nine-month period that we set for that. The core principles, the core framework, if you want to call it that, which we are discussing with respect to this, centers on the critical issues – borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition, and an end to conflict and to all claims. The United States is committed to remaining the principal facilitator in this process.
Nov. 23, 2016 update: Right on cue, President-elect Donald Trump has announced his ambition to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict:
I would love to be able to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians. I would love that, that would be such a great achievement because nobody's been able to do it.
(1) Trump seems to see this challenge as befitting him because "nobody's been able to do it" – like climbing a mountain that's never been climbed before, something for artistry's and sport's own sake, not for its human significance.
(2) Things could get dicey for Israel. As the self-styled master of the "art of the deal," Trump brings more confidence and ego, and so has more to lose to Arab-Israeli diplomacy than other presidents.
(3) My prediction: After a modicum of preparation, Trump will summon the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, jaw-jaw them, fail dismally, and finally turn in anger against the Israelis.
Apr. 6, 2017 update: Donald Trump has confirmed his ambitions: "I'm working very, very hard on trying to finally create peace between the Palestinians and Israel, and I think we'll be successful."