Independent scholar, Thomas Mitchell, Ph.D., contributes the following review of “Myths, Illusions and Peace” by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky (Viking 2009, $27.95):
It is rumored that George Mitchell has tired of wrangling with the Israelis, Palestinians and Syrians and will soon return to a much-deserved retirement with his wife and young son. The rumor mill has his replacement as either Martin Indyk, who was twice ambassador to Israel as well as assistant secretary of state for the region, or Dennis Ross, who served as Mitchell’s equivalent during the Clinton years and now works in the Obama administration.
In this book, co-authored with David Makovsky, who specializes in covering peace process issues at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ross writes mainly about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran. A third is devoted to Iran, which is Ross’s fiefdom in the Obama administration at present.
The book is structured in three parts (the peace process, Iran, U.S. regional interests), which the authors start by laying out in separate chapters the arguments of his two foils, the neo-conservatives and the realists―the latter primarily being John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt and Zbigniew Brzezinski. The two authors then make their policy recommendations for the Obama administration. Obama’s policy towards Iran since January 2009 seems to be following the trajectory laid out by the two: multilateral negotiations, sanctions first negotiated between Washington and its European allies and Moscow.
They begin by building up a straw man, based on quotes from Arab leaders and the Iraq Study Group, that negotiating peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict will result in an outbreak of peace throughout the region. They then quickly hangs his straw man in effigy while acknowledging that the lack of peace causes enough problems for the U.S. to make its solution an American interest. A chapter discusses this “linkage” from the Roosevelt administration in the late 1930s to the Carter administration 40 years later. This is interesting historical background but reveals nothing new.
Where Ross and Makovsky fail is in acknowledging that both the realists and the neocons are partly right and that this needs to be taken into account in developing American policy. The neocons are right in arguing that there is a considerable lack of interest in peace on the Arab side (which the authors acknowledge but portray mainly as passivity). The realists are right in arguing that only American pressure can lead to peace―but they want the pressure aimed only at Israel.
Ross and Makovsky never really tackle the two main obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace: the Israeli party system and the ongoing struggle for supremacy between Fatah and Hamas. This means that both ends of the Palestinian track are blocked. While Washington has little leverage over the Palestinian side, particularly over the Islamists, it does have considerable leverage over Israel. Instead of engaging in further iterations of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that are collapsing even at the opening ceremony, Washington could be engaged in working to remove these structural blockages.
It is typical that the authors have a chapter on democratization in the Middle East but never discuss Israel as a potential target of American efforts. Building a more stable and functional Israeli democracy where ruling coalitions do not collapse as soon as serious peace negotiations begin is even more of an American interest than democratizing the Arab world―and one much more likely to succeed. The immediate target should be a serious electoral reform by either replacing the proportional representation-list system with another type of PR franchise such as the mixed list and district-constituency system in Germany or by considerably raising the entry barrier to the Knesset under the present franchise system.
The leverage to be used in such an effort is Israel’s considerable fear of Tehran’s nuclear efforts. Washington could offer to bring Jerusalem’s nuclear infrastructure in from the cold as it did with India in exchange for Israeli electoral reform. Or it could do this in exchange for a Cuban missile crisis style declaration that a nuclear attack by Tehran on any American ally in the region would be considered as an attack on the United States.
The two have a chapter on Hamas and Hezbollah and argue quite cogently why the Northern Ireland precedent of negotiations with Sinn Fein does not point to unconditional negotiations with either terrorist organization. I think that it is quite likely that someday Israel may have to negotiate with elements of Hamas, after they have come to realize that they cannot destroy Israel and that Palestinian interests are best served by a negotiated peace leading to the creation of a Palestinian state.
This book is most valuable as a guide to conventional thinking in Washington on the Middle East. I’m either being cynical or realistic in expecting that after Ross and Obama fail, maybe some other wise man (or woman) can write a book explaining their failure and how his or her policy recommendations are superior.