Winston Churchill famously said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” That seems true enough — except when jaw-jaw is another way of making war-war. As the U.S. starts yet another round of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, we had best remember the risks associated with past failed negotiations.
Let’s start with the Camp David Summit. Trying to seal a peace agreement before he left office, President Bill Clinton reconvened negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in late 2000. Both sides did sign the “Clinton parameters,” but with so many reservations it was clear they still couldn’t agree on essential points.
It all collapsed, unleashing a second intifada — a wave of violence that killed about 3,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis between 2000 and 2005.
The intifada was a terrible human tragedy, but it was made worse by a failure of imagination on the part of U.S. negotiators. Thinking no harm could possibly come from “giving peace a chance,” they failed to foresee how dashed expectations and rank cynicism on the part of the players could spark a war.
One lesson from that failure should be remembered as Secretary of State John F. Kerry embarks on new peace talks. Before the Camp David meetings, Arafat had come under criticism for negotiating with the Israelis. There was dissatisfaction that his leadership not only failed to advance the Palestinian cause but was riddled with rampant corruption. He may have launched the intifada to blunt that criticism. What better way to consolidate control than a war that rallies all elements, including radical ones, behind him?
Current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is even weaker than Arafat was. He has no authority over Hamas-controlled Gaza. He’s unpopular even in areas under his direct control, having postponed elections for years; his own legal mandate expired in January 2009. He not only lacks the power to deliver a peace deal but will likely be exposed as a greater weakling once he fails to stop the Israeli settlements (which surely will continue). It is an opportunity for a more radical and charismatic leader either to take over leadership of the Palestinian Authority or to spark violence in Gaza as a way to sabotage the talks.
Either way, matters could get far worse.
Sometimes wishful thinking about “peace” is not enough. The point is not to avoid talks; it’s to be realistic about how each side will use them to advance what are essentially war aims.
The Israelis and Palestinians are so far apart on key issues like settlements and the status of Jerusalem that artificial attempts to force the issues are bound to fail and could possibly even backfire.
Both sides may be willing to placate Mr. Kerry, who’s been so insistent; but they won’t sacrifice their core interests for very long just to please an American secretary of state.
The main risk of talks is the hyperdisappointment that could follow failure. Expectations may be raised that this time is somehow different. What if it isn’t? When the talks collapse, old simmering issues could explode in a blaze of disappointment.
Mr. Kerry undoubtedly is serious. He’s spent countless hours cajoling the players to come to the negotiating table.
His vision of holding out the economic benefits of peace is laudable. Peace not only would end the tragic loss of life, but it could spark an economic renaissance for both the Israelis and Palestinians.
But hopefully Mr. Kerry won’t forget the risks associated with this high-wire act. Good intentions are often not enough. They decorate pathways that lead to a very bad place indeed.
Peace is worth taking risks. But there are significant dangers in a “peace” that’s not the real thing. If “jaw-jaw” is simply another form of “war-war,” we could end up with more war and a lot less jaw.
Thus are the perils of peace.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.