When Yasir Arafat and Yitzchak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn 16 years ago, there was a sense among most mainstream Jewish leaders that the long Israel-Palestinian impasse could soon be broken and that the Oslo agreement might just open the door to a broader peace in the region.
In 2009, with the Obama administration launching a new peace push that will start with talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators and special envoy George Mitchell next week, a new consensus is crystallizing that says that the status quo is about the best that can be hoped for. Jewish leaders are far more skeptical — even pessimistic — about grand peace designs after the devastating failure of Camp David and Taba, the second intifada and the Hamas coup in Gaza.
“Having been there in 1993, I can say today’s atmosphere is the polar opposite,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “I hear very little optimism, either here or in Israel, about the likelihood of a successful peace process in the near future.”
Harris agreed that for many of his colleagues the current status quo looks like the best of available options.
“That’s not to diminish the yearning for peace,” he said. “But it does reflect trends in Israeli public opinion.”
While many Jewish leaders admit the current status quo isn’t sustainable over the long run, they see it as better than unrealistic expectations of breakthroughs and far better than pressure from a U.S. administration they perceive as naive and determined to wrest an agreement, even if conditions seem unfavorable.
“Rockets aren’t being fired from Gaza, there aren’t bus bombings and the Gaza war was mostly successful,” said a prominent Jewish activist who asked not to be named. “The current situation isn’t ideal, but at least Israelis aren’t dying. Maybe the status quo can’t last forever, but right now it doesn’t look too bad.”
This activist said he believes President Barack Obama’s peace push is well intentioned, but worries it will lead to unrealistic expectations among the Palestinians that could trigger new violence when they are not fulfilled.
But UCLA political scientist Steven Spiegel, who is also an analyst for the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum (IPF), said that relapse into the psychology of the status quo could prove a big mistake.
“It’s true that you don’t have bus bombings and rockets, but it’s a complete misreading of history to say that the problem has gone away,” he said.
Jewish peace groups say the status quo is unsustainable, and that the longer it drags on the more that international support for a two-state solution will erode.
“Jewish leaders here are reflecting the mood of Israelis,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street. “There is a mood of resignation, of quiet despair that there is really [no] way out of the conflict.”
That mood, he said requires something more from the Obama administration than an incrementalism that seems to echo past efforts, not blaze new diplomatic trails.
“If you continue the process the way it’s been done for the past 16 years, trying to get the two sides to sit down and talk, to take little steps in the direction of peace, you will not be able to solve this problem,” he said. “It will take something more assertive and more dramatic than business as usual.”
But this week’s New York summit suggested that peace activists eager for a dramatic U.S. initiative will be disappointed.
For weeks Tuesday’s three-way meeting, the first involving new leaders in Jerusalem and Washington, produced rumors of sweeping administration proposals and ratcheted-up pressure on Israel. There was also widespread speculation that Netanyahu and special U.S. envoy George Mitchell would agree to a temporary freeze on settlement building — speculation that proved false.
But more sober analysts said the trend has been clear for months, reinforced by the deliberate, patient style of Mitchell and the rise in the White House constellation of stars of Dennis Ross, a longtime peace process player who believes Obama’s predecessors failed at Mideast peacemaking because they did not lay the proper groundwork.
The result is a kind of accelerated incrementalism that was in evidence at Tuesday’s three-way meeting.
Obama said that “permanent-status negotiations must begin, and begin soon” on the toughest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. He also scolded both sides — the Israelis for not moving forward with a settlements freeze, the Palestinians for not ending anti-Israel incitement.
“There was general agreement, including on the part of the Palestinians, that the peace process has to be resumed as soon as possible with no preconditions,” Netanyahu told reporters on Tuesday.
But the New York summit also made it clear that the administration is committed to a more step-by-step approach than peace activists would like, and that no breakthroughs are imminent. “We’re now going to enter into an intensive, yet brief, period of discussion in an effort to re-launch negotiations,” Mitchell said in a briefing following the trilateral session. “Our aim is clear: to finally succeed in achieving our shared goals and to end the cycle of conflict that has done so much harm.”
That incrementalism is fine with pro-Israel leaders who fear any dramatic policy shift to upset the current status quo will lead to disappointment and possibly to new violence.
Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn, who follows Jewish politics closely, said it’s not so much an affinity for the status quo as a “healthy skepticism” about what can be accomplished under current conditions.”
That skepticism, he said, “is being reinforced by what they’re hearing from Israel, which has been down this road a sufficient number of times before,” he said. “So there’s no force leading the American Jewish leaders to advocate more active solutions, there’s no real voice for optimism.”
And it’s reinforced by the widespread view in Jewish leadership circles that the Palestinians and their Arab supporters believe that with the arrival of Obama, they can sit back and let Washington do the heavy lifting instead of living up to their commitments under past agreements.
“In past peace initiatives, there was a sense in the Jewish community that reciprocal steps were possible,” Kahn said. “We don’t see that now.”
Kahn pointed out that Obama’s outreach to the Arab world and his demand that countries like Saudi Arabia become more active peace partners have met with stony silence or outright rejection.
And there is the question of Hamas rule over Gaza, and the conviction that Abbas, no matter what his intentions, can’t deliver at the negotiating table, he said.
The Obama administration may be responding to the same factors with an accelerated incrementalism.
“That’s the direction the administration was moving, and the shift of Dennis Ross to the White House [from the State Department] accelerated the move,” Kahn said.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that “there is an appreciation of the president’s efforts to push the peace process forward” among American Jewish leaders. “At the same time, there’s a growing realization that this may not be the time. They can’t deal with Hamas; Abu Mazen and Fayed just aren’t capable. Since 1993, we’ve had a lot of experience.”
But UCLA’s Spiegel said it is wrongheaded to suggest that today’s relative quiet in the region can support a status-quo approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as anger continues to build in the region and support for a two-state solution erodes.
“The trouble with the Jewish leadership’s approach to the problem is that there’s no initiative, no attempt to look ahead to the next crisis. Supporting the current status quo because there aren’t bombings and rocket attacks is a big mistake.”