Historically, what is prevalent among American foreign policy makers is the view that both parties in the negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians, are equal; ergo, they are equally responsible and equally to blame. In itself this is a flawed reading of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, one must start with the fact that the majority of the Arab-Muslim world has always seen the Jewish state as an abomination.
Famous educator and philosopher John Dewey viewed social hope as an essential component of American democracy, where theology and law are secondary to the free will of people engaged in pragmatic politics. Over the years, many peace brokers have fallen into the trap of wishing to export this form of hope into the Arab mindset that, if adopted, would endear them to American values of Americana. An honest reading of history disproves any of these attempts.
A perfect case study is the 2000 Mitchell Report, the product of a committee headed by former US Senator George Mitchell, who was given the mandate to oversee Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Three years earlier, Mitchell had succeeded in reaching a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and he sought to duplicate that same success in the Middle East. Moreover, he identified substantial similarities between the two conflicts.
As Mitchell writes, "I’ve often been asked what lessons Northern Ireland holds for other conflicts, especially the Middle East. I’ll try to answer that question now. I begin with caution. Each human being is unique. Each human society is unique. It follows logically, then, that no two conflicts are the same. Much as we would like it, there is no magic formula which, once discovered, can be used to end all conflicts. But there are certain principles that I believe are universal in their reach. They arise out of my beliefs, and they were validated for me by my experience in Northern Ireland. I call them the Principles of Peace. First, I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. They’re created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail."
Mitchell’s conclusions mirror the Dewy mindset but go further to demand a peace which, despite his talk of uniqueness, lacks any understanding of the actual Middle Eastern environment.
Reaching a peace agreement freely, as a pragmatic repudiation of local culture and history, is an integral part of American democracy and negotiating style. Mitchell worked from the premise that freely reached agreements would facilitate compromise between warring parties, just as they do in America. His challenge, however, was to convince all the parties that the democratic ideals he proposed were above the details of the conflict would facilitate success. This did not occur.
Mitchell’s legacy to the Obama-Kerry team has been the foundation for discussing peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on Confidence Building Measures (CBM). Like many others, he believed the basis for creating peace required building trust, both in Ireland and Israel, and he omitted addressing responsibility or fault. Thus, one of Northern Ireland’s greatest successes lay not in the peace agreement, but in overcoming the rivalry between Catholic and Protestant victimization complexes. Unfortunately, a sense of victimhood is the core of Palestinian identity; Israel’s creation is the original sin.
There are important contrasts between Mitchell and Kerry-Obama, principally the belief that the only trust they need to gain is from the Palestinians. Unlike Mitchell, Obama and Kerry have made it quite clear that Israel is the "real" obstacle to peace. But US support for Palestinian statehood, despite the Palestinians' obvious and overwhelming endorsement of terrorism, has brought US policy towards the Palestinians into contradiction with other policies towards radical Islam. Going forward after this latest failure of negotiations is to tie its Palestinian policy, and its policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict, with wider US goals of regional stability and development.
Palestinian rejectionism of the simple concept of the Jewish state makes a farce of the evenhandedness Washington has thus far pursued. It also shows how ill-informed Washington is about Palestinian national identity, predicated on winning a zero sum struggle with Zionism, not a vision of a state of their own. With such a radical lack of empathy there can be little social hope.
Finally, it would behoove Washington to do a serious reality check of their friends and enemies before they begin to engage in another peace non-starter.
Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum and co-author of "Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief."