In the October 7, 2004 issue of The New York Review of Books, Rob Malley, who was part of the U.S. team at Camp David, reviewed Dennis Ross’s book on the peace process (The Missing Peace) and came to a conclusion very different from Ross. For reasons that will not be evident at first, it is a conclusion worth studying.

In his book, Ross blamed the collapse of the Oslo peace process on Yasir Arafat, as well as the failure of the U.S. to insist, as part of the process, that Arafat prepare his people for peace.

Malley asserts that Ross has a ‘one-dimensional take’ on Arafat that lacks ‘nuance.’ Malley prefers the ‘nuanced analyses’ of Martin Indyk and Aaron Miller, which blame the collapse on ‘numerous factors.’

Malley argues there was a ‘defect at Oslo’s core’ – reliance on a step-by-step process that did not define at the outset ‘the shape of a permanent peace.’ He proposes a 180-degree turn:

[T]he process ought to be turned on its head, with the U.S. seeking to describe the endgame at the outset and with the parties agreeing on the means of getting there afterward…

I believe the U.S. ought to push the parties toward ending their conflict, rather than wait until they are somehow ready to do so…[The U.S. should] spell out the components of an acceptable deal, rather than press for incremental steps.

Just spell it out. Push the parties to accept it, whether they̓re ready or not. Forget about incremental steps. Boy, how nuanced can you get?

This non-nuanced desire for an imposed Middle East peace, arising from a supposedly more nuanced analysis, is worth analyzing. It is the result of two interrelated factors that, once understood, shed light on a better path to peace.

The first factor is simple frustration – which often occurs when the world does not respond to one’s reasonable expectations of it. Given the seemingly obvious peace solution – two states for two peoples – and the apparent inability of the parties to consummate an agreement themselves, frustrated participants in the ‘process’ conclude we should simply apply enough pressure to get the parties to reach the right result.

But, in the real world, ‘pushing the parties’ inevitably turns into pushing only one of them – Israel – because the United States has virtually no leverage over the Palestinians. And once the United States ‘spells out’ the deal, and ‘pushes’ Israel to accept it (no more ‘incremental steps’), what if Arafat (or his designee) simply refuses to accept it, on grounds it is not good enough?

Perhaps Arafat could be given an ultimatum – but even Malley recognizes that Arafat ‘sees in every ultimatum a last demand before the next concession.’

Arafat can hardly be blamed for that view. How could anyone have a different one, looking at the extraordinary concessions made by Ehud Barak at Camp David (a state in all of Gaza and more than 90 percent of the West Bank, with a capital in Jerusalem, in exchange for ‘peace’), which were followed by a Palestinian walkout and a new war, which then led to the Clinton Parameters of December 23, 2000 (with new concessons for the Palestinians), which were conveyed to Arafat as his last chance and then personally rejected by Arafat, in the Oval Office, in his January 2, 2001 meeting with Clinton – which was then followed by Israel’s willingness, just three weeks later, to send a team to Taba, Egypt for still another round of negotiations, in the midst of Arafat’s war, with still more Israeli concessions.

Arafat’s refusals led, each time, to new movements in his direction.

How would Arafat (or anyone else) know which ultimatum would be the last ultimatum, which ‘last offer’ the last offer? Each offer was an interim position before the next interim position. Not only was there no penalty for rejection, there was a reward – new negotiations with improved offers.

The other factor behind the desire for the U.S. to step in, spell out, and push over the parties is the mistaken belief they were in fact close to an agreement at Taba – one that could be consummated with sufficient pressure from an ‘involved’ U.S. president, with a ‘full-time’ Middle East envoy, and a spelled-out ‘final proposal.’

No one has taken this position more often than John Kerry during his presidential campaign. If there is one foreign policy moment seared in his memory, it is how close to peace the Israelis and Palestinians allegedly came in January 2001 at Taba:

1. In his presentation to the Council on Foreign Relations on December 3, 2003, Kerry said it was “astonishing” we were not “picking up somewhere near where we left off at Taba, where most of the difficult issues were resolved, in many ways.”

2. On January 3, 2004 in Iowa, Kerry said it was “clear to those who thought hard about it, that what happened in Taba, which is where they negotiated in the last months of the Clinton administration, is a close framework of what some kind of vision of peace is gonna look like.”

3. On April 23, 2004, in remarks to the Joint Conference of the Newspaper Association of America and American Society of Newspaper Editors, Kerry said if “you go back to Taba, President Clinton in fact arrived at an agreement on right of return as well as the annexation of a number of settlements.”

None of that happened. Indeed, it would not seem possible to pack more errors into a single sentence than Kerry did in his repeated descriptions of Taba.

There is a great deal of public information regarding what happened at Taba: an extensive summary of the outcome of the Taba negotiations prepared by Ambassador Miguel Moratinos, the EU representative to the Taba talks; the lengthy post-Taba interview in Haaretz with Shlomo Ben-Ami (the Israeli foreign minister who headed the Taba delegation); David Makovsky’s long article in the Spring 2003 issue of The National Interest; the treatment of Taba by Dennis Ross in The Missing Peace, and the account of Oslo architect Yossi Beilin in his recent book, The Path to Geneva.

Based on what we know from these sources, we can say this about Kerry’s description of Taba: it is demonstrably wrong. In fact, he scored a trifecta of erroneous assertions:

1. Clinton was neither at, nor involved in, Taba. Far from arriving at an agreement at Taba, neither Clinton nor anyone else from his administration was even there. Taba occurred after Clinton left office – and nearly a month after Arafat had definitively rejected the Clinton Parameters for peace (a rejection described in excruciating detail in Ross’s book).

Taba commenced on January 21, 2001 – the day after the Clinton Administration ended, and that timing was not coincidental.

In his report on Taba, David Makovsky noted the Palestinians wanted Taba to begin after Clinton left office, because they thought they ‘were about to reap a political windfall.’ Clinton was gone, replaced by the son of a prior president who had been notably unsympathetic to Israel. American Jews had just given 80 percent of their votes to the losing candidate, and their party was now out of power. Moeover, the new president had well-publicized connections to the oil and gas industry.

The Palestinians expected they would be dealing with a much more sympathetic U.S. administration. They anticipated the next ‘last offer’ would be even better than the ones before.

2. No agreement on ‘right of return’ was reached at Taba. The parties did not resolve the ‘right of return’ at Taba. On the contrary, it is clear from the detailed summary of the Taba negotiations by the EU ambassador that, while informal discussions were held, the Palestinians effectively demanded a formal recognition by Israel of the ‘right’ of return before any ‘limitations’ on that right could be negotiated.

But if a ‘right of return’ were recognized – with no assurance that any limitations could then be successfully negotiated, or (if negotiated) accepted by the Palestinian public, or (if accepted), respected by later generations (who might later question whether the ‘limitations’ on the ‘right’ were just) – Israel would have conceded a principle that went to the heart of its legitimacy as a state. Even Barak’s negotiators balked at that, and no formal negotiation on this issue occurred at Taba – much less an agreement.

In his book, Yossi Beilin, who headed the Israeli subgroup that discussed refugees and the ‘right of return,’ asserts the parties ‘almost’ agreed on ‘principles’ for resolving the problem (leaving important aspects for later resolution). But Beilin could not persuade Abu Ala (currently the Palestinian prime minister) to publicly acknowledge the ‘progress.’

3. No agreement on annexation of settlements was reached at Taba. Barak had announced that any deal at Taba had to leave 80 percent of the settlers in settlement blocs within new borders. Not only was this condition not met, but the parties could not even agree on what Clinton had previously proposed.

The EU ambassador’s summary of the outcome of the negotiations described the standoff as follows: “The Israeli side stated that the Clinton proposals [from December 2000] provide for annexation of settlement blocs. The Palestinian side did not agree that the parameters included blocs, and did not accept [the proposed] annex blocs.”

Taba was not a Clinton negotiation where most of the issues were resolved. It was a last-gasp attempt – conducted under fire, in the midst of a war commenced by Arafat after he rejected a proffered state – to reach a ‘peace agreement’ before the Israeli election scheduled for February 2001, which Ariel Sharon was predicted to win absent a last-minute peace.

If elected president, would Kerry – as someone who has ‘thought hard about’ Taba, who is ‘astonished’ we are not picking up where we left off there, who thinks an agreement was reached there on most of the difficult issues (including the right of return and the settlements), who believes Taba is a ‘close framework’ of what peace will look like, and who formally proposed at the Council on Foreign Relations appointing Jimmy Carter ‘in the first days’ of a Kerry Administration as a full-time envoy to reach that result – forgo the road map (with its insistence on steps) and urge Israel to negotiate indirectly with Arafat (through his prime minister) on the basis of Taba?

There are several reasons to think so. At the June NATO summit, French President Jacques Chirac reportedly said that Arafat was “probably the only person who could impose compromise on the Palestinian people.” Bill Clinton reportedly told the Guardian on June 20, 2004 that America and Israel might have no choice but to work with Arafat if they want Middle East peace. On August 11, 2004, the Council on Foreign Relations interviewed Khalil Shikaki, a prominent Palestinian political expert, who opined that if Kerry won the election, “the problem of Bush and his obsession with Arafat will change.” On August 16, 2004, Lt. Col. Jonathan D. Halevi reported that, according to unnamed diplomatic officials, the Quartet is thinking of reintroducing Arafat ino the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations after the U.S. election.

Given the above, and given advice from people like Rob Malley and Martin Indyk that blaming Arafat alone for the Oslo failures was not a ‘nuanced’ approach, and given suggestions that a spelled-out proposal with sufficient U.S. pressure could lead to peace (but only by dealing directly or indirectly with the one person who could bind the Palestinians), what would you – if you were John Kerry – do?

We should have learned from the past that the problem in the Middle East is not the absence of proposals. Nor is it the absence of presidential involvement (no one could have been more involved than Clinton), nor of high-level envoys (we have already had George Mitchell, George Tenet and others). The problem is that peace is not created by an ?agreement,? but rather by parties that want to live in peace.

Saul Singer has succinctly described the problem with an ‘agreement’ as the solution to Middle East peace:

[R]eal peace between Israel and the Arab world…will depend on the transformation of the Arab world rather than on agreements with it in its current dictatorial state …

The problem with the Geneva Accord, like Oslo and the other agreements that came before it, is that they signal that agreements can lead to peace and transformation is not necessary.

Each time this happens, transformation is undermined, real peace is delayed and more war is invited.

This is why the real road to peace is the approach George W. Bush laid out last month in his speech to the United Nations – an approach that reflects the above insight of Saul Singer. At the UN, Bush said that:

[C]ommitment to democratic reform is essential to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Peace will not be achieved by Palestinian rulers who intimidate opposition, tolerate corruption, and maintain ties to terrorist groups….Those who would lead a new Palestinian state should…create the reformed institutions of a stable democracy.

The insistence on a practicing democracy and its reformed institutions as a condition of a Palestinian state, first articulated by George W. Bush in his landmark June 24, 2002 speech, may not be a nuanced analysis, but it is a profound one.

It will take a little longer than simply spelling out a deal and pushing it on Israel. But it need not take as long as the unsuccessful seven-year Oslo process did. And it has the benefit that, at the end, there will be peace – not just a ‘peace agreement’ with a new, unreformed terrorist state.

Rick Richman edits ‘Jewish Current Issues’ at He is the author of ‘Kerry, Carter and Israel,’ a front-page essay that appeared in the May 5, 2004 issue of The Jewish Press.


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Rick Richman, whose work has appeared in The New York Sun, The Tower Magazine, and The Jewish Press, among other publications, is a prolific writer who appears regularly in Commentary magazine and its group Contentions blog, where this originally appeared. He also maintains the Jewish Current Issues blog (