Don’t Blame USA

The Perils of Engagement

The U.S. can’t prevent the Palestinians and their Arab backers from making poor choices.

BY JEFF ROBBINS, Wall Street Journal,  November 21, 2007

In March 1999, a Democratic president of the United States was leading a military intervention in Kosovo. It was aimed at stopping the mass murder of a Muslim minority by Slobodan Milosevic, a bona fide war criminal. Our European allies ardently desired the U.S. to shoulder the burden of this effort–but wished to publicly distance themselves from it, in order to avoid the potential political fallout in their own countries that ineluctably follows an association with the U.S.

The European leaders were not simply imagining political risk where none existed: Tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the streets of European capitals in the spring of 1999, denouncing the U.S. for using military force to stop Milosevic from killing and persecuting Muslim Kosovars. At the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, where I was a U.S. delegate at the time, a middle-aged Greek woman accosted me angrily at a reception and smugly attributed U.S. efforts to stop Milosevic to an American desperation to “protect American markets.” I responded that I had not known that American exports to Kosovo were of a magnitude so critical to the American economy as to galvanize the U.S. military industrial complex into launching a major bombing campaign there.

It is increasingly de rigueur around the world and, for that matter, in certain segments of the Democratic Party, to place responsibility for all international crises on the U.S. government. Unsurprisingly, therefore, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, it has attained the level of high fashion to ascribe the persistent absence of peace to a lack of adequate U.S. “engagement” in resolving it.

If the Bush administration were truly “engaged,” the argument goes, the chances for Middle East peace would be greatly improved. Next week’s meeting in Annapolis, Md., between Israel and at least certain of its Arab interlocutors has the look and feel of more of the same. Yesterday the State Department sent out “formal invitations” to the event, but it remains unclear who will attend besides Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. If history is any guide, the meeting will yield unsatisfactory results, Israel will be blamed for failing to make the requisite concessions, and the Bush administration will be widely and sharply criticized for its “failure to engage.”

This analysis, simple and neat, and for so many so satisfying, would seem at odds with the historical record. The problem is that all too often, those who blame the U.S. for failing to deliver Mideast peace are some of the world’s most culpable enablers of Mideast violence–and those who are themselves actually responsible for erecting the fundamental roadblocks to a resolution of the conflict.

This is so obvious as to almost go without saying–except that the penchant for placing the blame on the U.S. is so widespread and so addictive that it goes largely unsaid. It was, of course, the Arab bloc, including the Palestinian leadership, that decided to reject the U.N.’s 1947 partition of Palestine into two states, Arab and Jewish, living side by side. Instead it invaded the nascent Jewish state rather than coexist with it, spawning the conflict that has so burdened the world for the last 60 years.

This was not a decision made by the U.S.

We are also not responsible for the Arab world’s choice not to create a Palestinian Arab state in East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank from 1948 to 1967, when it easily could have done so–before there were any Jewish settlements there to serve as the public object of Arab grievance.

It was not the U.S. whose leaders issued the largely unremembered “Three No’s” of the Arab conference in Khartoum in the summer of 1967–“no” to peace with Israel, to negotiation with Israel and to recognition of Israel–after the 1967 war backfired so badly on the Arab world. Nor can the U.S. government under President Clinton be criticized for failing to pursue Yasser Arafat with sufficient solicitude between 1993 and late 2000. The Clinton administration was, after all, the most ardent of suitors of the Palestinian leader–only to be forced to watch Arafat reject an independent Palestinian state in all of Gaza and virtually all of the West Bank.

It was the Palestinian leadership, not the U.S., that decided in the fall of 2000 that, rather than accept an independent Palestinian state, its wiser course was to launch a four-year bombing campaign against Israel’s civilian population. The result was not merely over 1,100 Israeli civilians killed, but several thousand Palestinians dead, as well as a shattered Palestinian economy and the decision by Israel to begin construction of a security barrier in July 2002.

President Clinton labeled this decision on the Palestinians’ part a “tragic mistake.” It is certainly inarguable that this particular decision, like others made by the Palestinian leadership over the past six decades, inflicted serious suffering on the Palestinian people. It has also resulted in suffering throughout the region, and instability beyond–but it was a course of action chosen and implemented by the Palestinians and publicly supported by Arab states, not by the U.S.

When Israel withdrew from all of Gaza in 2005, the Arab world had the opportunity for a fresh start there–to create a measure of hope for a population whose suffering long predated any Israeli presence. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, the Hamas-dominated Palestinian leadership opted to begin and then intensify an aggressive missile-launching campaign against Israeli civilian centers.

This choice in turn has led to Hamas’s international isolation, and conditions in Gaza have grown steadily worse for Palestinians there. For its part, the Arab world has in essence stood by and permitted this to occur, and has once again remained unwilling to place the actual welfare of Palestinians ahead of its desire to stir opposition to Israel.

However significant the role of the U.S. is in nurturing political settlements of international disputes, it simply cannot prevent the Palestinian leadership and its Arab backers from making extraordinarily poor choices or, in President Clinton’s parlance, “tragic mistakes.” There is a marked tendency on the part of most of the world to cite the Bush administration’s lack of “engagement” as the principal stumbling block to peace. It isn’t. As for the Arab world, there is an even more pronounced habit of fingering the U.S. as the party which has the means at its disposal to bring about a Middle Eastern settlement, or at least conditions favorable to a settlement. If the past is any indication, the U.S. does not ultimately possess those means. The Arab world does.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, whose treasuries overflow with petrodollars, are in a position to invest heavily in the Gaza Strip, create economic opportunities for its destitute population, and dilute the toxin-filled atmosphere there. They have not done so.

The Egyptians are in a position to act decisively to stop the flow of rockets, bombs and other arms from Egypt into Gaza, where they are used to attack Israeli civilians. They have not done so.

Europe and Russia, whose lucrative contracts with Iran provide them with such enviable revenues, have been in a position to pressure Tehran into stopping the funding of Hezbollah, which assaults Israel from Lebanon, and Hamas, which assaults Israel from Gaza. They have not done so.

Under the circumstances, one might imagine that those in a position to dramatically improve the situation in the Middle East–but who have chosen by their inaction to worsen it–might feel sheepish about placing the onus for the absence of Middle East peace on the U.S. The only thing in shorter supply than sheepishness when it comes to the Middle East, however, is helpfulness. As far as helpfulness is concerned, it is past time for those who complain most about the lack of American “engagement” to begin providing some.

Mr. Robbins was a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission during the Clinton administration. He is a partner at the law firm Mintz, Levin in Boston.

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Reprinted from Wall Street Journal

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