Washington’s peace process industry faces tough times
Washington’s Middle East peace process industry is in a state of panic. For if the Trump administration, in collusion with Israel’s right-wing government, succeeds in destroying any prospect for a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians, what will it do?
Dozens of Middle East scholars and former government officials ensconced in the city’s think-tank bastions — the Brookings Institution, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the US Institute of Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among others — have for decades sustained themselves by appearing as experts on cable news shows. On them they offered their profound analytical insights that the rest of us never would have thought of, such as “this is going to be politically difficult for Prime Minister Netanyahu,” or “this is going to be politically difficult for President Abbas” or “this is going to be politically difficult for the White House.”
Who’d have thought?
Reaching a comprehensive peace in the Middle East would be an economic boon to Israelis and Palestinians but could very well lead to bread lines of unemployed peace process experts in Washington. Equally concerning to the peace process industry, however, is a complete end to hopes for peace, for then there would be nothing for them to talk about, no reports to be written and nothing for foundations to fund.
The peace process industry thrives when peace is theoretically possible but not at all close to being achieved. It needs the process but not the peace.
The remarkable thing about the peace process industry is how completely and thoroughly useless it has been to the achievement of the purported goal of Middle East peace. Entire North American forests have been decimated to produce documents: peace plans, analyses, assessments, op-eds, memoirs, guidelines, talking points, briefing points, blah, blah, blah. The authors of these documents, most of which quickly end up in recycling bins, jockey constantly for insider positions in the government, where they produce the same product only this time stamped “CLASSIFIED.”
And to what end?
As peace process experts furiously wrote reports and convened conferences, Israel’s increasingly ethno-nationalist governments proceeded relentlessly towards the dual goals of absorbing the West Bank — or at least the useful parts of the West Bank — while relegating Palestinian national aspirations to the dustbin of history.
Albert Einstein is famously credited with having defined “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” For all these many years, Washington’s swarm of talking heads — analysing and debating, debating and analysing, trying to score points in the hopes of landing a government job — have had no discernible effect on the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.
After al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in September 2001, the peace process industry had to compete with the terrorism industry over which group was addressing the Middle East’s most urgent problem. Some peace process experts migrated to the terrorism camp, where more funding was available.
Before I am labelled a think-tank hater, I should point out that there was one think-tank initiative produced in 1975 that pretty much got it right. The 23-page report of the Middle East Studies Group of the Brookings Institution recommended “a comprehensive settlement” of the Arab-Israeli conflict based upon “a negotiated and agreed trade-off between the Israeli requirements for peace and security and the Arab requirements for evacuation of the territories occupied in 1967 and Palestinian self-determination.” It called for sharing Jerusalem and resettling Palestinian refugees in “the new Palestinian entity.”
The Brookings report recommended negotiating an “integrated package” that should include a phased withdrawal by Israel in “agreed stages” to its June 5, 1967, lines “with only such modifications as are mutually accepted.” The Arab parties would be required “not only to end such hostile actions against Israel as armed incursions, blockades, boycotts and propaganda attacks but also to give evidence of progress towards the development of normal international and regional political and economic relations.”
The Saudi Peace Initiative is essentially a repackaging of what the Brookings group proposed but more significant because it was proposed by an Arab government and approved by the Arab League.
Despite the massive output, not a single word by a single think-tank scholar during the ensuing 42 years has in any way improved on the Brookings proposal (or the subsequent Saudi version) nor moved us any closer to achieving it. On the contrary, Israeli actions and US complicity in them over the years have rendered the Brookings report a quaint relic of what-could-have-been.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will undoubtedly flare up again and when it does the mad scramble by television news producers to book talking heads for their shows and editorial page editors to fill op-ed pages will give a brief boost to the peace process industry. In the meantime, there’s really nothing to say.
The peace process industry thrives when peace is theoretically possible but not at all close to being achieved.