Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Long Dance: Searching for Arab-Israeli Peace: A Veteran American Negotiator Derives Seven Rules of the Road from His Decades of Experience in Arab-Israeli Peace Talks

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Long Dance: Searching for Arab-Israeli Peace: A Veteran American Negotiator Derives Seven Rules of the Road from His Decades of Experience in Arab-Israeli Peace Talks

Article excerpt

"THE ONLY LESSON OF HISTORY," THE BRITISH historian A. J. P. Taylor once observed, "is that there are no lessons." Maybe Taylor was right. But even with all the hazards of making historical analogies, there has to be some value in looking to the past to avoid mistakes in the future. Certainly this is true in American foreign policy, in which, despite enormous continuity, historical memory is often willfully or casually washed away or hijacked in the service of preexisting agendas, especially with the arrival of a new administration. I well remember the sardonic quip of a senior Bush administration official a few years ago at the beginning of George W. Bush's second term: "We aren't going to make the same old mistakes on the peace process; we're perfectly capable of making new ones on our own."

Nowhere is the presence of the past greater than in America's elusive search for Arab-Israeli peace. Having studied or worked on Arab- Israeli negotiations for the better part of 30 years, I know a thing or two about failure. We certainly can't be prisoners of the past, but we can't ignore it either. Our friends and enemies certainly don't. William Faulkner was right when he wrote that the past is never really over, it's not even past. He would have felt right at home during the many negotiating sessions when Arabs and Israelis trotted out their familiar dueling narratives. "All the 1948 refugees were ethnically cleansed by Israel," a Palestinian negotiator asserted on one such occasion. "No, they weren't," his Israeli counterpart replied. "They left of their own accord, or at the urging of the Arab states." For an American negotiator steeped in a let's-split-the-difference mindset, this historical tick-tock can get pretty tedious, particularly at three in the morning.

I went to work at the U.S. State Department in the late 1970s as a Middle East historian and intelligence analyst. In 1988, I joined a small group of Middle East advisers and negotiators who provided counsel to Republican and Democratic presidents and secretaries of state, until I left the government in 2003. From that experience, I've derived several rules that may be useful as the bumpy road of negotiations toward Arab-Israeli peace that resumed in Annapolis in November stretches out before us.


It's sometimes hard for big, strong, optimistic America to admit that it's not powerful enough to fix the world's problems. I keenly remember how much in control we American negotiators would feel as the secretary of state's plane touched down on this or that Arab or Israeli tarmac, and a motorcade whisked us off to a fine hotel where at least two floors had been swept clean of electronic bugs and foreign nationals and equipped with all the modern amenities of a working State Department. But it's precisely when you begin to believe that you're in charge and can fix things that you need to be most careful. Too many times during my career I succumbed to what I'll call the fallacy of the negotiator's mindset: the seductive belief that all problems can be resolved through negotiations and that America can drive the diplomacy. In fact, we were frequently reminded that we were on the locals' timetables, subject to their agendas and at the mercy of their politics and preferences.


The first principle in finding a way to peace between Arabs and Israelis is that, because theirs is an existential conflict in which the stakes are physical and political survival, the core decisions belong to the parties, not to us. The biggest issues that divide Israel and the Palestinians--the future of Jerusalem, whether Palestinian refugees will return to Israel or a Palestinian state, and the precise borders of such a state--aren't called "final status" issues for nothing. And the stakes for the locals, as the assassinations of Anwar el-Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin attest, can be very final indeed.

What this means in practical terms is that Arabs and Israelis rarely act in response to the entreaties and pressures of distant powers. …

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