Trump Tries ‘Constructive Resignation’ in the Mideast
It may not work, but trying to give Palestinian Arabs what they want has failed for a century.
Douglas J. Feith
Jan. 29, 2020 6:56 pm ET
Palestinian protesters confront Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, Jan. 29. PHOTO: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
How to think about the Trump administration’s peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians? Critics warn that it will fail because it doesn’t promise enough to the Palestinians.
First, let’s recognize that peace may not be possible at all. Israel’s enemies say there can be peace only if Israel goes away, through armed struggle or the “return” of Palestinian refugees that will end its Jewish majority.
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If, however, we assume a peace deal is possible, then there are two paths to reach it. The first is to persuade the Palestinian side that a given set of peace terms is proper and just. The second is to persuade them that, in any event, they should resign themselves to the best deal available to them.
The first way aims at a mutual accommodation in which each side sees the outcome as satisfactory—that is, above its minimum standards. This is a goal that has eluded British, American and other would-be peacemakers for a hundred years, well before Israel became a state.
Since the post-World War I peace settlement, when David Lloyd George was Britain’s prime minister and Winston Churchill was colonial secretary, diplomats have tried to win Palestinian Arab acceptance of a national home for the Jews in Palestine. They did so by limiting the size of the home, promising economic benefits to the Arabs of Palestine, protecting Arab control over holy sites, and trying an imaginative cornucopia of other means. None of this ever worked. In generation after generation, the problem has been that Palestinian political leaders, including today’s leaders of the Palestinian Authority, object in principle to a predominantly Jewish state anywhere on what they consider to be their land.
The only other way that Israel and its neighbors can achieve peace is through a kind of resignation.
Even if Palestinian leaders retain their anti-Israel convictions, reality might drive home to them that Israel cannot be destroyed and that doing a peace deal is better than not doing one. History tells us they’re likely to continue to believe that Israel is illegitimate, its existence is an injustice, the land should belong exclusively to the Arabs, the Jews are not a nation and have no national rights, the Arabs should refuse to divide the land with the Jews, and so on. Palestinian leaders may never be persuaded that renouncing war against Israel is just or satisfactory. It is possible, however, that their political circumstances could compel them to see that a peace deal—including a recognized Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem—is the best option available to the Palestinians, however unsatisfactory they find it.
This could be called constructive resignation. President Trump seems to have adopted this approach. His Middle East policy team broke radically with the diplomacy of all their predecessors, British, American and other. They haven’t been trying to soften the attitudes of the Palestinian leaders toward Israel. They haven’t been wooing them with humanistic rhetoric about the joys of peace and coexistence. They haven’t been trying to win their cooperation by describing them to the world as peacemakers, statesmen and visionary leaders.
Rather, they have relentlessly criticized the Palestinian Authority. They condemned it for promoting anti-Israel hatred in its schools, in speeches by officials and in authority-run news media. They denounced the authority’s so-called pay-for-slay policy, by which it pays imprisoned terrorists and the families of dead terrorists large salaries proportional to the number of Israelis they injured or killed. They cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority so that American taxpayers aren’t subsidizing terrorism.
At the same time, U.S. officials have been systematically refuting the faith of Israel’s enemies that the Jewish state is rootless, vulnerable and doomed to eventual disappearance. In effect, they have been telling the Palestinians not to believe the standard anti-Zionist argument that the Israelis are like the Crusaders in the Holy Land in the Middle Ages or the French in Algeria in the 1950s.
Administration officials have been doing this by showing that the U.S.-Israel alliance is strong, with military and intelligence cooperation intensifying. By contradicting the argument that Jewish towns and villages in the West Bank are inherently illegal, for example, they oppose efforts to delegitimize Israel. By moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and stressing the Jews’ historical connection with King David’s capital, they highlight Israel’s rootedness. By encouraging Arab states to cooperate with Israel—and do so openly—they are helping end Israel’s regional isolation. Progress has been dramatic with Saudi Arabia, which responded to the new peace plan by urging Palestinians to talk with Israel “under the auspices of the United States.” Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates were notably represented Tuesday at the White House for the plan’s announcement.
All this activity tells the Palestinians that as time passes, Israel gets stronger, not weaker. The message is that Palestinian leaders should take a leaf from the book of the Jewish national cause, whose leaders cherished all kinds of expansive hopes and legal claims but continually compromised to serve their people’s interests. Zionist leaders repeatedly opted for the best deal possible. They didn’t insist on getting everything they thought they were entitled to. They didn’t say their rights to the land were inalienable so that compromise was an intolerable injustice tantamount to treason.
This is the first U.S. administration to try to make peace by encouraging constructive resignation on the part of the Palestinians. It may not work, but we know the alternative has failed for a century.
Mr. Feith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration.