Steve Clemons’ excellent blog, The Washington Note, is a must-read for anyone interested in US foreign policy. I don’t always agree with Clemons, but I do always learn from him.
Which is why a cryptic statement from him the other day was a little disappointing.
In a well-reasoned takedown of prominent neoconservative Jeffrey Gedmin (notable not just for its reasoning but also its respectful tone), Clemons argues that the United States must redress Arab grievances if it wishes to make headway in the Middle East. And of course one of those grievances is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Then Clemons writes these somewhat obscure lines:
We have few tests of how significant resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem would be because we have never delivered, no matter how close resolution may have seemed in the past. We have not delivered — and we must. A majority of Israelis desire a negotiated, final status negotiation with the Palestinians, and Palestinians desire the same — according to numerous, credible polls.
In addition, the leadership of nearly all Arab Muslim “states” in the region have told America privately that peace with Israel is achievable if the land and border disputes are solved.
There are two problematic assumptions here. First, Clemons seems to suggest that the United States could “deliver” an Israeli-Palestinian resolution. What precisely does Clemons think that the United States should do in order to effect this delivery? A Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as its capital? Nice try, but the Palestinians rejected that in 2000; Bill Clinton made it explicit in December of that year, and Arafat rejected it–both then and the following month at Taba.
Perhaps Clemons believes that the United States should bring even more pressure on Israel to grant deeper concessions–the “right of return”. If so, he should say so. This would destroy Israel demographically and lead to its becoming an Arab state. Is that what it means “to deliver”?
This brings us to the second point. Clemons hints that other Arabs have said that we could get a resolution of the conflict solely on the resolution of the “land and border disputes.” This seems to hint that the Palestinians are prepared to give up their demand for the right of return. But where does Clemons get this information?
Allow me some skepticism about “private” assurances of negotiating positions. If some Arab foreign minister says his country will support the December 2000 Clinton parameters, he should say so loudly. Private assurances are junk in the Middle East. The United States got the same assurances from Arab states in the 1990’s, and when it came time to deliver, these states disappeared.
Ed Kilgore explained this all in a superb post five weeks ago:
The central [issue] isn’t even so much where a Palestinian capital will be established, and how much territory it will possess: it’s the so-called “Right of Return” of displaced Palestinians and their successors, which is fundamentally incompatible with the existence of a Jewish State.
Keep in mind that the refusal to compromise on the “Right of Return” was the primary argument Yasir Arafat advanced for his fateful rejection in 2000 of a territorial settlement far more generous than any Israeli government will ever again offer. It remains a fundamental tenet of the Fatah Movement’s “peace” platform. In that light, all the rhetorical differences between Fatah and Hamas on recognizing Israel may not much matter in the end.
There seems to be an unspoken assumption among American policymakers that all the talk about the “Right of Return” is little more than a bid by Palestinians for huge sacks of money–presumably offered up by the U.S. and European countries–to permanently settle refugees and offer some sort of compensation to the families of former landowners who left or were expelled from Israel during the 1947-48 war. I hope there is some truth to that, but sometimes you have to believe that people mean what they say and say what they mean.
Clemons is a prime example of the “American policymakers” Kilgore discusses. He appears to genuinely believe that this all can settled on “land and border issues.” I hope he’s right. But if he is going to persuade others about this, then he should provide more evidence for it than just some private conversations. Otherwise, his pleas for America “delivering” answers to Arab grievances will fall on deaf ears.