A little louder, please

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

17 thoughts on “A little louder, please”

  1. I'm no expert and my reading about the case was a long time ago, but much of what I read about the 2000 deal was that it wasn't a good deal for the Palestinians even w/o the issue of the right of return. The deal left the West bank riddled with settlements and all the roads to and from them controled by Isreal, if I recall correctly, leaving even less of a real state. Perhaps I'm not remembering correctly- but again, much of what I read at the time strongly suggested that the deal wasn't so great from the Palestinian perspective. Real control of the territory with no settlements (and no exchange of worthless desert for settlements) would be a real deal, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't what was offered.

  2. "notable not just for its reasoning but also its respectful tone"
    I'm all for a respectful tone. Have you been reading Redstate recently? Some of the people who post there are beginning to have some pretty frightening ideas. I want to try to persuade some of these people to modify their opinions (they're not going anywhere, after all).

  3. Matt–
    You are right that that was indeed the case with Barak's offer in JULY 2000. But it was not the case with the Clinton parameters of December, at least if you believe Clinton himself and Dennis Ross.
    More importantly, recall that the July 2000 Camp David talk were supposed to be the final status NEGOTIATIONS. No one would expect the Israelis to come in their with bottom-line offer. It was somewhat of a kabuki. The Palestinians were supposed to reject that offer, but make a counter-offer with concessions on the refugee issue. They didn't; Arafat just said no and refused to make a counter-offer. This is why Clinton got so furious at Arafat and accused him of making a mockery of the process, which of course he did.
    One could make an argument that it was foolish for Clinton and Barak to make further concessions without a counter-offer and after the violence started in October. Some argue that that convinced Arafat that he could get more with more violence.
    Put another way: I have yet to see any major Palestinian figure outside Sari Nusseibeh make it clear that the conflict can be resolved wholly on land and border issues, as Clemons suggests. I very much hope I am wrong and he is right.

  4. I'm sorry jonathan, but this post is really offensive, and what isn't is disingenuous.
    Matt is correct in recalling the terms of the proposal. What was offered did not resemble a state so much as a set of indian reservations: the proposed Palestinian region was divided by Israeli security roads connecting a patchwork of various (armed) settlements. The term 'Bantustan' was IMO rather carelessly tossed around, but I seem to recall that the total area amounted to something like 70% of the occupied territories. I find it incredible that you should be unaware of this.
    There's the disingenuity, now for the offensive part: you quote the "superb" Ed Kilgore saying, "…the "Right of Return" is little more than a bid by Palestinians for huge sacks of money".
    One of the tragic ironies of this conflict is that the right of return, the most intractable dispute between the parties, also forms the basis for the project of Zionism itself. (I say this without disparaging either party's right thereof.)
    Most Palestinians, and the Arab world in general, seem to have, however reluctantly, accepted the fact of Israel's existence as a Jewish state. Given that a full right of return would threaten this, no good faith negotiations can proceed with this as a precondition. This fact does not, however, erase the rights of a family of living as second class citizens in a refugee camp in Jordan. Hence, the concept of compensation arises. The offensive portion of your post is this: in quoting Kilgore's post, you portray the Palestinians' good-faith attempt at compromise (in this conflict,a precious commodity) as an attempt to prostitute their national heritage. I find that disingenuous, and, quite frankly, ugly.

  5. foolishmortal–
    Your response puzzles me on several levels:
    1) "Disingenuous"–since we have never met, it seems a little strange for you to read my mind. This is my actual understanding of the Barak offer of July and the Clinton parameters of December. That is what Clinton said in his autobiography and Ross said in his memoirs. Maybe they are lying; I do not believe so. But it seems strange to call me disingenuous when I quote a source and you do not. Moreover, it elides my point that since these were supposed to be negotiating offers, the fact that they were inadequate doesn't really get the heart of the matter. Had I been Arafat, I would have rejected Barak's July offer–and that on the assumption, widely reported in the press (including the hardly pro-Israeli Le Monde), that the offer was for 90% of the West Bank. But that did not absolve him of making a counteroffer. They were negotiations, after all.
    2) "Offensiveness"; it seems to me that you misread Kilgore. He does NOT say that the Palestinians were just trying to get sacks of money: indeed, the entire point of his post is that were NOT trying to get huge sacks of money, that they meant what they said and said what they meant.
    3) You raise the issue of compensation and suggest that it must be a critical part of any overall settlement. I agree 100%. Quite literally, no price is too high. Clinton agreed, too, which was why he had to drag in Hastert and Lott to Camp David in July–to see what Congress would appropriate. They went homoe when it became clear that Arafat was simply not interested. It seems a little churlish to me that you would attack Jordan as part of this; Jordan, after all, did give refugees citizenship, which is more than any other Arab country has done. Other Arab countries routinely attack Amman for betraying the Palestinians, which seems strange to me in light of the Jordanian granting of citizenship.(As for whether it is second-class or not is best left to another time, although since there is not a single Arab democracy, I don't know what would be first-class citizenship.)
    4)"Most Palestinians, and the Arab world in general, seem to have, however reluctantly, accepted the fact of Israel's existence as a Jewish state. Given that a full right of return would threaten this, no good faith negotiations can proceed with this as a precondition." As much as you accuse me of disingenuousness, I hope with all my heart that you are right. The problem is that I don't see any evidence for it. Abu Mazen specifically declined to endorse Israel as a Jewish state, and so have all Arab governments even as part of the Saudi initiative of 2002. If you have evidence that this is in fact the case, I am interested in hearing it. Clemons suggests as much as well, but it's all in the "I heard this privately from people who can't say it in public" variety. That simply will not cut it. The key toward recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is, well, actually DOING it.
    5) Even after all of this, we don't even need to be hung up on the past. Read the People's Voice Accord: http://www.mifkad.org.il/en/ Do you agree with this? If so, then we are, as a former teacher of mine once said, in "heated agreement." If not, you have your right to your opinion, but you should not say that you agree with Israel's right to live as a Jewish state.

  6. foolishmortal–
    Your response puzzles me on several levels:
    1) "Disingenuous"–since we have never met, it seems a little strange for you to read my mind. This is my actual understanding of the Barak offer of July and the Clinton parameters of December. That is what Clinton said in his autobiography and Ross said in his memoirs. Maybe they are lying; I do not believe so. But it seems strange to call me disingenuous when I quote a source and you do not. Moreover, it elides my point that since these were supposed to be negotiating offers, the fact that they were inadequate doesn't really get the heart of the matter. Had I been Arafat, I would have rejected Barak's July offer–and that on the assumption, widely reported in the press (including the hardly pro-Israeli Le Monde), that the offer was for 90% of the West Bank. But that did not absolve him of making a counteroffer. They were negotiations, after all.
    2) "Offensiveness"; it seems to me that you misread Kilgore. He does NOT say that the Palestinians were just trying to get sacks of money: indeed, the entire point of his post is that were NOT trying to get huge sacks of money, that they meant what they said and said what they meant.
    3) You raise the issue of compensation and suggest that it must be a critical part of any overall settlement. I agree 100%. Quite literally, no price is too high. Clinton agreed, too, which was why he had to drag in Hastert and Lott to Camp David in July–to see what Congress would appropriate. They went homoe when it became clear that Arafat was simply not interested. It seems a little churlish to me that you would attack Jordan as part of this; Jordan, after all, did give refugees citizenship, which is more than any other Arab country has done. Other Arab countries routinely attack Amman for betraying the Palestinians, which seems strange to me in light of the Jordanian granting of citizenship.(As for whether it is second-class or not is best left to another time, although since there is not a single Arab democracy, I don't know what would be first-class citizenship.)
    4)"Most Palestinians, and the Arab world in general, seem to have, however reluctantly, accepted the fact of Israel's existence as a Jewish state. Given that a full right of return would threaten this, no good faith negotiations can proceed with this as a precondition." As much as you accuse me of disingenuousness, I hope with all my heart that you are right. The problem is that I don't see any evidence for it. Abu Mazen specifically declined to endorse Israel as a Jewish state, and so have all Arab governments even as part of the Saudi initiative of 2002. If you have evidence that this is in fact the case, I am interested in hearing it. Clemons suggests as much as well, but it's all in the "I heard this privately from people who can't say it in public" variety. That simply will not cut it. The key toward recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is, well, actually DOING it.
    5) Even after all of this, we don't even need to be hung up on the past. Read the People's Voice Accord: http://www.mifkad.org.il/en/ Do you agree with this? If so, then we are, as a former teacher of mine once said, in "heated agreement." If not, you have your right to your opinion, but you should not say that you agree with Israel's right to live as a Jewish state.

  7. Jonathan, I basically agree with you (I think) on the big issues here, but isn't the Ayalon-Nusseibeh initiative just the modern equivalent of those "disarmament" movements of the 1980's, in which some official Soviet "peace activist" teamed up with a Western counterpart to exert public pressure on both sides get rid of their nukes–even though only one side was at all vulnerable to the pressure?

  8. Sorry to butt in, but some inaccuracies and misunderstanding popped into the heated exchange. First, for the life of me I fail to understand my people resort to personal insults; in high school we learned to keep a debate to opinions and facts.
    The 2000 proposal offered the Palestinian about 95% of the west bank pre-67. The other 5% were supposed to be compensated for by pre-67 Israeli land. That was, as stated correctly, the first and not last offer. Arafat did play for two reasons. First, he was preparing for violence since Oslo and believed, after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, that he can push Israel around. The second reason was even worse; Arafat never prepared his population for peace and couldn't spring it on them out of the blue. The Palestinian were way behind his Western consumption pronouncements.
    The refugees problem is the crux of the problem. It is both the myth and the ethos of the Palestinian people. Any peace must include them in a serious and decent way while still maintaining a Jewish Israel. This is the tallest order I am familiar with.

  9. As several of us have pointed out, the "95% of the west bank" offer was essentially meaningless since it involved conditions (lots of settlements and military control of all the roads to the settlements) that made it rediculous even as a starting offer. Many people here are attempting to mind-read what people "really" thought. Of course we can't know that. But, when your barganing partner starts off with an offer he knows you cannot possibly accept, one that's insulting and rediculous, perhaps it's not unreasonable to think he's not in fact barganing in good faith but playing a game. I must admit that's how it seemed to me at the time.

  10. Matt, if Ehud Barak's initial offer of 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza was "insulting and ridiculous" because of the additional conditions it contained, then what should we make of Arafat's complete *lack* of even an initial offer, and his steadfast adherence to a maximalist position that included the "right of return"? Wouldn't it have been completely reasonable for Barak to conclude that Arafat was "not in fact barganing in good faith but playing a game"?
    However, rather than simply refuse to negotiate in the face of this "insulting and ridiculous" intransigence, Barak decided to make an extremely generous offer that contained many major concessions. And as we know now, Arafat was in fact *not* bargaining in good faith, but rather playing a game–he never backed even an inch off his maximalist position, and shortly after Camp David he returned to terrorism (or, rather, escalated his use of it–he'd never actually abandoned it in the first place).
    The results have been extremely unpleasant for Israel and utterly disastrous for the Palestinians. Perhaps Arafat–and you–shouldn't have been so easily insulted.

  11. Mr. Simon's (and Zasloff's) comments are wonderfully indicative of why there is so little hope of any reasonable settlement of the issues in the ME.
    Let me see if I have this straight.
    Arafat and the Palestinian's adherence to the "right of return" to their lands is the "maximalist position", while the very heart and soul of the state of Israel is that selfsame "right of return"?
    The hypocrisy inherent in that position, while stunning,is sadly not suprising in light of the many other intellectually dishonest premises advanced through the MSM in the U.S. and internalized by much of the population.
    Thus:
    1) any act of aggression by Israel, no matter how egregious, is always retalitory, and any act of aggression by Hamas, Hezbollah, or any other group or nation is by definition terroristic.
    2) the killing of Israeli soldiers, very possibly within the borders of a another sovereign nation, is an act of war (and neccessitates the wholesale killing of hundreds of civilians and the massive destruction of that country's infrastructure)…while repeated incursions of another nation's territory and the extrajudicial assassinations of its citizens by Israel is deemed legitimate.
    3) the "kidnapping" of two Israeli soldiers, again very possibly within the borders of a another sovereign nation, is an act of war….while the arrest and inprisonment of thousands of non-Israelis is deemed legitimate.
    4) Hamas and Hezbollah fighters "hide" behind civilian populations as they indiscriminately rocket Israel…while the IDF, with infinitely superior weaponry, seems to have somehow killed civilians at a 10-1 ratio.(lets forget the fact that many of the IDF's camps, weapons factories and military installations are located near or inside civilian communities).
    etc., etc., ad nauseum.

  12. I suppose noone's noticing this thread anymore, but having started a shitstorm I feel obliged to finish it.
    I'd like to thank Jon and various commenters for commenting on the merits (or lack thereof) of my argument.Far too often this type of thing degenrates into accusations of pro or anti semitism.
    First, the ad hominem/disingenuity: No, I don't know you Jonathan, and I don't presume to. My objections attempt to address your argument rather than your person. I do assume you know the terms of the proposal of 2000, and credit you with enough intelligece that you might understand why it was untenable. That Arafat rejected it should have not been a surprise to anyone.
    Second, my misreading of Kilgore: you are correct: I have misread him. Upon a second reading I am no less disgusted. He appears to be presenting exactly two means of interpreting the "right of return":either a strict version involving the demographic destruction of israel (not to be contemplated) or the displaced citizen looking for a handout. This caricature of the Palestinian's position can do no good,

  13. People get very emotional where principle meets practice. If we assume the actors are rational, the question in the end is what do they see their interests as? Deciding that the interests are purely "moral" ("hypocrisy" etc.) is to say that they're not compromisable — if you're not a Berliner, I mean, which is to say, if you take the view that the good is absolute, and can't have any internal conflict (admittedly a rather religious view).
    So in other words, of course the Israelis believe Jews should have the "right of return" and Arabs shouldn't. And Palestinians think exactly the opposite. So what? It's part of what the conflict is about. Either you prefer the conflict have a negotiated settlement, or you don't. No right of return for Arabs, or at least, no exercise of that right, is an Israeli bottom line. They can't agree to a settlement that includes it, because it negates their fundamental interest. So no settlement is preferable.
    All Jonathan is saying is that if the Palestinians believe that the right of return, or its exercise, is a bottom line, and they can't agree to a settlement that doesn't include it, then there will be no settlement.

  14. The reason why the Palestinian assertion of a "right of return" is uncompromisingly maximalist is that in every formulation I've ever seen, it applies not just to a future Palestinian state co-existing alongside Israel, but also to the territory of Israel itself. In effect, since those who control immigration into a piece of territory effectively have sovereignty over it, and vice versa, the Palestinians' assertion of a "right of return" *to the territory of the state of Israel* is an assertion of *their* sovereignty over the territory of the state of Israel–that is, over the entirety of British-Mandate Palestine. It thus amounts to a demand for the complete elimination of the state of Israel as a sovereign entity.
    In contrast, the Israeli "Law of Return" applies only to the sovereign territory of the state of Israel, and therefore would not apply to the territory of a future Palestinian state co-existing alongside Israel. It thus leaves open the possibility of a future compromise in which Palestinians exercise sovereignty over their own state, co-existing alongside Israel.
    Now, there are Israelis–thankfully, a small minority–who believe that Jews have an inalienable "right of return", not just to the state of Israel, but rather to the entirety of Biblical Israel. Hence they refuse to countenance any kind of Palestinian sovereignty, now or in the future, over any of pre-1947 Palestine (and, for all I know, parts of Jordan and Lebanon as well). *Their* position is clearly a maximalist, uncompromising one, analagous to the Palestinian claim of a "right of return" to all of Israel's territory.
    Conversely, there are Palestinians–sadly, a tiny minority–who are willing to restrict a future "right of return" to the territory of a future sovereign Palestinian state co-existing alongside Israel. *Their* position is analagous to that of a solid majority of Israelis, and is a perfectly reasonable compromise position. Had they, and not the maximalists, ever held sway among the Palestinians, there would no doubt have been a peaceful settlement of the conflict by now.

  15. Dan Simon, that is because the Palestinian "right of return" and the Jewish (not Israeli) "right of return" are two different things lumped under the same heading.
    The Palestinian 'right of return" says that "I, or my parents or grandparents, lived at this place at this time,we were chased away/fled, and we want to be able to return to that place."
    The Jewish "right of return" says "two thousand years ago, some people to whom I may or may not be related were driven our of their home by the Romans, therefore anyone who belongs to my religion should be allowed to live there."
    The Jewish right is symbolic, the Palestinian one specific. The Palestinians are not claiming all Muslims should have the right of return, nor, say, someone who left Palestine for Syria at the time of the Crusader Kingdoms

  16. MikeN, so late in the day, maybe you won't see this. See my post above. If you believe that a "Palestinian right of return" or, at least, its exercise, is and should be an inherent part of the Palestinian bottom line, on the grounds that it's "specific," or any other grounds, you are in effect saying that you don't believe a negotiated settlement is possible. Because this cuts against the Israeli bottom line — no negotiated settlement is preferable to their interests.
    You may of course be right that no negotiated settlement is possible. But that's probably not a good outcome for anybody in the region.

  17. MikeN, I understand *why* maximalist Palestinians feel entitled to sovereignty over all of British mandate Palestine, including the current state of Israel. For that matter, I also understand why maximalist Israelis feel entitled to sovereignty over the entirety of the same stretch of land.
    My point is simply that both groups completely ignore the real demographic fact that the territory in question contains a great many people of both groups, both seeking sovereignty over at least some of it. Under those circumstances, handing sovereignty over the entire thing to one side, to satisfy their (and *only* their) particular historical grievance, is uncompromisingly maximalist and completely unfair.

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