It is not often that a top-ranking official shares with his readers the strategic assumptions of his time in office with such candor. More than a decade after his service, General James Jones presents the Obama Middle Eastern paradigm that he enthusiastically served. This is particularly helpful for the understanding of the Obama administration’s policies in the region in his time, because Jones is not trying, with the benefit of hindsight, to present them in an apologetic light that will explain why these policies have failed to promote Israeli–Palestinian peace.
Expectedly, Jones still believes a two-state solution can be presently concluded between Israel and the Palestinians, in spite of the successive failures to do so in recent decades. His practical approach dramatically underestimates the elusive, yet critical, significance of the cultural impact of the Palestinian national ethos, that precludes the acceptance of a Jewish state in Palestine alongside the Arab one. Like so many other political leaders, scholars, and observers of all nations, including Israeli peace enthusiasts, he dismisses or is completely unaware of the critical distinction in Arab political culture between transitional acquiescence with an extremely undesirable reality, on the one hand, and the prohibitive reluctance to concede the permanency of this reality, on the other. This reluctance rises to the level of an insurmountable impediment when it comes to the Palestinians conceding the legitimacy of a Jewish state.
>> JST debate: Read James Jones’s essay
Consequently, the failure to agree on a two-state historic compromise is a structural one, under the circumstances prevailing in the last century and for the foreseeable future. The Palestinian national movement is addicted to the Arab perception of historic justice that rejects any non-Arab sovereignty in the Middle East in general, and cannot abide by a Jewish State in “Arab Palestine” in particular. It is obsessed with the fantasy of turning the historic clock backward to the pre-Nakba era, by means of the right of return, transforming Israel into an Arab state by gradually injecting millions of third and fourth generation descendants of the 1948 Palestinian refugees into the Jewish state.
Were this obsession predominantly an ideological commitment, as it is in most Arab states, it would not preclude a historic compromise with Israel. It is, however, profoundly different when it comes to the Palestinians. President Mahmud Abbas and his late chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, made it their practice to openly and officially insist on this as a critical issue of the negotiations, to the point where it repeatedly precluded an agreed settlement. They made clear that whatever the Palestinians get from Israel, territorially or on other issues, even 100% of their present demands, would not terminate the conflict and constitute an “end of claims.” They specifically say that the right of return into Israel will forever stand in principle for every descendent of every 1948 Palestinian refugee, and that the Palestinians reject Israel as a Jewish state because it compromises this “right.”1 Prime Minister Olmert’s (ill-advised) offer of a symbolic gesture of taking in a limited number of Palestinians did not satisfy this categorical condition. It is against this rock, apparently, that Secretary of State John Kerry’s fond hopes foundered in the spring of 2014.
A host of other gaps on important issues, such as the extent of Palestinian sovereignty, border and security considerations, and Jerusalem, impede a permanent settlement. On the Israeli side, not only ideological commitment to Judea and Samaria (the Biblical names for the southern and northern regions commonly known as the West Bank) and territorial appetite in some quarters, but also the absence of determined leadership stand in the way. The Palestinian insistence on undermining the very existence of the Jewish state is, however, in a category of its own, a priori precluding even a serious discussion concerning historic compromise, let alone a two-state solution.
The belief in the current practicability of the two-state solution can legitimately be described as understandable, if unrealistic. Less so, Jones’s 2021 assessment concerning the significance of the Palestinian issue in Middle Eastern affairs and the impact of a prospected Palestinian–Israeli peace on the future of the region. Given present realities, it is surprising to the point of incomprehensibility. He writes:
Therein is the hope for the Middle East, where the long-raging Israeli–Palestinian conflict remains the region’s keystone issue, one that, if resolved, would unlock solutions to other challenges impeding what could be and should be a bright and prosperous future for the people of the Middle East.
This was indeed a very common misperception of the Middle East when Jones served the Obama administration at the end of the first decade of the century. It is, however, extremely problematic to responsibly persist with it after the dramatic and sobering experience of the Arab Spring and even more difficult after the conclusion of the Abraham Accords.
The cataclysmic upheaval of the Arab Spring devastated not only important Arab countries but also profoundly frightened the regimes that were not directly affected and has sown unprecedented despair in wide circles throughout the Middle East concerning the future. When Arab states are having existential anxieties, the Palestinian issue is not even on their priority list, let alone at its top. There is no radical Arab regional power to force them—under the pressure of their own constituents and elites—to take meaningful action for the Palestinian cause, often not even enough to pretend to do so.
The Palestinian cause was never really “the region’s keystone issue,” as Jones puts it. It used to be an important litmus test in the heyday of pan-Arabism, requiring at least a tangible proof of political solidarity, particularly from “reactionary” pro-Western Arab regimes. This commitment gradually weakened towards the end of the 20th century, lost most of its vigor by the beginning of the 21st, and all but faded away after the Arab Spring. While this solidarity is still alive in some sectors of the Arab public opinion and among certain elites, its prohibitive effect on decision making is often reduced to a little more than disingenuous pro-Palestinian lip service, that only gullible Western diplomats take seriously as a major regional factor.
Presenting this as one of “the region’s keystone issues” is hardly compatible with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s top-level visits to Saudi Arabia and Oman, unprecedented depth of normalization with the UAE and peace with Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, at a time when the Palestinians severed their relations with Israel and even boycotted the US. It is also discordant with the feeble Arab and Muslim response to America’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. In May 2021, a massive Israeli attack on the Palestinians in Gaza resulted in improvement, not breakdown, of Israel’s relations with some Arab states, notably Egypt.
Furthermore, the “Arab-Israeli conflict,” in the sense that “the Arabs” are actively engaged in violent or political confrontation with Israel, is no longer there. The 1979 the Israeli–Egyptian separate peace treaty was (to use Churchill’s famous phrases) “the end of the beginning” in the passing of this pattern; in recent years we are witnessing its “beginning of the end,” pending its demise. It is being replaced, to a considerable extent, by an Israeli–Arab coalition, against the menaces of the Iranian revolution, Erdoǧan’s Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Palestinians are no more than a nuisance.
Even more puzzling than the “keystone” theory, not to say mystifying, is Jones’s assertion that a two-state solution, or an end to the Israeli–Palestinian cycle of violence, will have major regional effects. He expects it to remove a significant impediment “to solving so many other grave challenges to regional peace and security—job creation; development; and food, energy, and water sufficiency; and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to name a few.”
At this point, anything that could happen between Israel and the Palestinians, from all-out war to eternal heavenly peace, will have negligible, if any, regional impact. In the real world, it is totally inconsequential and irrelevant to the major problems of the Middle East. To mention but a few: How can it contribute to the economic survivability of Egypt and other non-oil-producing Arab states? How can it help contain the barbaric radicalism of the Iranian revolution or of the Assad regime, or affect their quest for weapons of mass destruction? Why would it have the slightest impact on the civil wars in Syria and Yemen? Can it alleviate the water crisis in Syria and Jordan? Will it relieve the Nile dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt? How can it address Erdoǧan’s counterrevolution in Turkey or his aggressive policies in the Eastern Mediterranean? Can it help contain the Muslin Brotherhood?
Jones starts his article with an uplifting statement designed to convince “ye of little faith” of the practicability of his peace vision, in spite of the difficult circumstances: “The past two centuries have been witness to many seemingly intractable global problems for which solutions seemed out of reach. Yet, time and again, history proved that ‘impossible’ problems were not so insoluble after all.” It is essentially Jones’s version of Obama’s “Yes we can.” With such flawed assumptions about the realities of the region, no wonder they couldn’t.
1 In an interview to the Jordanian daily Addustour (June 25, 2009) Erekat explained the rejection of Prime Minister Olmert’s 2008 proposal: “In Camp David they have reached 90%, and today they have reached 100%. If so, why should we hurry after all the wrongs that were inflicted on us?” Erekat also insisted that “the Palestinian decision maker has no right to determine the fate of the refugees, and only the refugee can himself determine his fate…the refugee has the choice to return to the territory of Israel…Not return or compensation, but return and compensation…My estimate is that we are talking about 140 billion dollars.” In a speech to Palestinians from East Jerusalem (January 11, 2014), President Mahmoud Abbas was very clear: “Let me put it simply: The right of return is a personal decision. What does this mean? That neither the PA, nor the state, nor the PLO, nor Abu Mazen [Abbas], nor any Palestinian or Arab leader, has the right to deprive someone of his right to return…The choice is yours. You want to return? You will return. You don’t? You’re free to remain; there is compensation and other details…The right of return is a personal right. Even a father cannot forgo his children’s right.” Abbas frequently repeated this position. In an interview to an Egyptian paper Akhbar el-Yom (November 30, 2014) he explained that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is impossible because Israel “will not allow return of refugees. There are six million refugees wishing to return, incidentally, I am one of them.” Writing for The Cairo Review of Global Affairs in November 2017, Abbas insisted that in order to reach end of claims with the Palestinians, “there must be a just solution for the seven million Palestinian refugees, based on the choice of every refugee.”