Starting the New Year with Failed Old Diplomacy

Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- The good news about the Jordanian-hosted Palestinian-Israeli-Quartet meeting in Amman, Jordan, to explore possibilities for resuming Palestinian-Israeli direct negotiations is that former U.S. Mideast specialist Dennis Ross is not there to guarantee failure with the pro-Israel tilt of the U.S. delegation. The bad news is that the meeting is likely to fail because the Dennis Ross approach to guaranteeing diplomatic failure with the pro-Israel tilt of the U.S. delegation still prevails.
The Dennis Ross approach to Arab-Israeli diplomacy has essentially rested on the premise that everybody must make Israel comfortable and design negotiations on the basis of Israeli security concerns, in order for any progress to be made. This is precisely why no measurable progress has ever been made when Dennis Ross spearheaded or influenced American diplomacy on this issue. The noble mission of achieving justice and peace for Israelis and Palestinians, and other concerned Arabs, remains hostage to the American political imperative of pleasing Israel first. (A derivative of this is the Dennis Ross approach to diplomacy with Iran, which, equally Israeli-centric, has also been a consistent failure.)
Dennis Ross – now back at his former base at the pro-Israel group the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – was always an operational symptom and symbol of this reality, rather than its driving force. The deep official American tilt towards Israel is profoundly structural and political, and not the work of a few individuals. It has been building up for half a century, and now relies primarily on near stranglehold control of American members of Congress by pro-Israeli fanatics. This is most evident in the atmosphere surrounding the American presidential election season that kicked off formally with the Iowa Republican caucuses Tuesday, where candidates climb over each other to show total exuberance for whatever Israel wants – to the point where some more level-headed American Jews have complained about this for the possible backlash it might bring against American Jews and Israel.
The implications of this for conditions in the Middle East are profound, and mostly negative. The continued attempts to re-start negotiations, define parameters, develop confidence-building measures, establish deadlines and targets, and pursue a host of other dead-ends have all failed over the past 20 years because they lacked the intellectual honesty and diplomatic even-handedness that is required for success in such situations. This is aggravated by the trend over the past decade in Israel, which has seen a combination of rightwing messianic and super-nationalist militaristic groups dominate the current coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli politics in general. Their position that peace talks can continue while Zionism pursues its steady colonization of Palestinian lands is preposterous in its own right, and a diplomatic dead weight that is apparently supported, or merely accepted, by the United States.
The Quartet of the United States, Russia, the UN and the European Union, which is supposed to shepherd the negotiations to success, adds another layer of incompetence, crowned by Ross-like bias and a penchant for rhetoric, statements and meetings over action. So the gathering in Amman this week is hampered by so many layers of constraint that it has no chance of going anywhere, mainly because the actors continue to approach Arab-Israeli peace-making through the made-in-Washington Dennis Ross school of Israel-first strategy.
An interesting twist to this week’s meeting is the apparently low-key American role in it. This is consistent with the general retreat of the United States from Middle Eastern engagements, where its heavy-handedness has usually left behind a legacy of either massive destruction or political failure -- or both. A low-key role by Washington could be a positive development, if it removes the structural pro-Israel bias from the diplomatic architecture of the day, and allows negotiators to move ahead based on a more clear commitment to the equal rights of both sides and the underlying glue of international law.
Conditions on the Arab side are not much more impressive than the Israeli, American and Quartet perspectives, given the lack of unity among Palestinians and the general diplomatic lassitude of the Arab world as a whole. So breakthroughs for a negotiated peace are not on the horizon. One thing is sure, however. The persistence of the Palestinian-Israeli and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts, with the current political attitudes of the United States, EU and the leading Arab powers, can only portent more conflict ahead. It is right that concerned parties should try to re-start diplomatic negotiations, as they have done in Amman this week, but this is an exercise in futility if it occurs on the foundation of the cumulative failures of the recent past. Sadly, this seems to be the case.
The new year is full of hope for many Arabs who taste freedom and democracy, but it has not yet ushered in a new, more honest and fair, approach to Arab-Israeli diplomacy. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global