Conventional wisdom is that American mediation is necessary for Arabs and Israelis to make peace.
History demonstrates the opposite. The few important breakthroughs have been made either without or despite our involvement.
In 1956, President Eisenhower's pressure forced Great Britain, France and Israel to end their Suez campaign. That action accelerated the decline of Great Britain, led France to distrust us, sowed the seeds of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, helped make the Soviet Union an important player in the Middle East and led to Egypt, the beneficiary of our intervention, joining the Soviet orbit.
In his memoir, Eisenhower's own vice president at the time, Richard Nixon, wrote "In retrospect I believe that our actions were a serious mistake." Eisenhower himself apparently recognized his intervention was a mistake. In a biography of Max Fischer, the wealthy industrialist and advisor to presidents from the 1950's until his death in 2005, Peter Golden quotes Eisenhower telling Fischer: "looking back at Suez, I regret what I did. I never should have pressured Israel to evacuate the Sinai."
The first real breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict came with Anwar Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977. Not only did this seminal event come without American assistance, it reportedly distressed then president Jimmy Carter, who saw it as jeopardizing his grandiose dreams of orchestrating a comprehensive settlement.
While Carter is often given credit for facilitating the resulting peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, his involvement in the negotiations probably delayed that agreement, as his presence generally encouraged Anwar Sadat to press for more and more Israeli concessions and resist any Egyptian concessions.
The Oslo breakthrough also came about without United States involvement. It resulted from Palestinian Arabs and Israelis meeting together secretly. Our subsequent American involvement was a key factor in the failure of the "Oslo Process."
I greeted news of the Oslo Process with cautious optimism. I was never under the misimpression that Yasser Arafat and the rest of the PLO were sincere in any desire for peace, but I hoped the combination of the enormous benefits and the change in behavior mandated by any agreements would lead to real changes in Palestinian attitudes.
Unfortunately, in America's eagerness to accelerate movement, we sidetracked those changes and benefits and helped doom an inherently difficult process.
One of the first actions required of the Palestinian Arabs, to be taken before the Oslo Process really began, was to be the changing of the Palestinian National Charter, deleting the provisions calling for the elimination of Israel.
President Clinton prevailed upon the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to participate in the famous ceremony on the White House lawn without waiting for that change in the PLO charter. That was a seminal mistake, setting the tone for Yasser Arafat to weasel out almost all the commitments he made.
To this date, despite a widely publicized charade in 1998, the PLO charter has never been amended. After its establishment, the Palestinian Authority ignored the conditions under which its "police force" was supposed to operate, continued to facilitate rather than work against terrorism and, most importantly, incited its people rather than preparing them for peace.
As Dennis Ross, one of America's key mediators, has recognized, the underestimation of the importance of the Palestinian Authority's continued incitement against Israel was a fundamental error. Under pressure from the United States, Israel overlooked violations by the Palestinian Authority. This ultimately doomed a process which otherwise might have led to peace.
In the final analysis, only the Arabs and Israelis can end their conflict. Peace will be achieved only when the Arabs, including the Palestinian Arabs, make it a priority. Despite our best intentions, American involvement generally results in Israel unilaterally making concessions which feed Arab intransigence, ultimately intensifying the conflict.
This leads to the best advice anyone can give President-elect Obama on ending the Arab-Israeli conflict: Don't even try.
Alan H. Stein, Ph.D. is associate professor of mathematics at the University of Connecticut and president of PRIMER-Connecticut (Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting, www.primerct.org). The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
The quotes regarding Suez are referenced at
Alan H. Stein