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What History Has Taught Us

by Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum

An Israeli political scientist weighs in with some advice regarding what the U. S. might avoid in mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict in future. –Ed.

The stir produced by President Barak Obama’s statement that any future peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually-agreed land swaps, should lead us to consider the perils entailed in stating in advance peace terms before negotiations have even started.

History has taught us that every attempt by any U.S. administration that tried either to put forward its own peace plan or present specific terms aimed at bringing about an agreement between the Arabs and the Israelis has failed.

From the Alpha Plan in the mid-1950s, through the Rogers Plan in 1969, to the Reagan Plan of 1983, to the Clinton parameters in 2000 – none have succeeded in producing peace.

The Alpha Plan devised by the United States and Britain at the end of 1954 specifically called on Israel to make territorial concessions in the Negev. Further, it asked Israel to agree to a land corridor in the Negev connecting Jordan with Egypt and to accept some Arab refugees into its sovereign territory.

Although willing to make peace with its Arab neighbors, Israel rejected the terms of the Alpha Plan. Egypt, for its part, was not ready to negotiate with Israel, let alone recognize it.

In 1969, the U. S. Secretary of State, William Rogers advanced a peace plan which called for Israel to withdraw to the lines prevailing prior to the Six Day War of June 1967, with minor territorial modifications.

Israel stated that it would be willing to negotiate with its Arab neighbors and make peace with them, but that the terms put forward in advance by the Rogers Plan, as it came to be known, were unacceptable.

For their part, the Arab countries made clear that the Rogers Plan was unacceptable. In Khartoum, Sudan, The Arab League had already declared in September 1967 its categorical collective stance by enunciating its three NOs: 1) No to negotiations with Israel; 2) No to recognizing Israel; and 3) No to making peace with Israel.

The Reagan Plan of 1983 came in the wake of the first Lebanon War. It called on Israel to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian autonomous entity to be linked to Jordan. President Ronald Reagan had discussed the terms of the plan in advanced with some of the U. S. Arab friends, but not with Israel, which was informed of them only hours before they were made public.

Feeling betrayed by the manner by which Israel was treated in this regard, Menahem Begin, Israel’s prime minister, said to the then U.S. ambassador, Samuel Lewis, that Israel was not a banana republic and would not accept to being treated as such.

The leadership of the Palestinians, who thought it fell short of their minimum demands, also rejected the Reagan Plan.

The Clinton Parameters, drawn up by President Bill Clinton in the wake of the failed Camp David Summit in the year 2000, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian State on most of the West Bank and Gaza, leaving under Israeli sovereignty the main blocks of existing Israeli settlements, has failed, so far, to lead to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

It should be recalled that even European efforts at delineating a framework for peace failed, the most prominent being the Venice Declaration of 1980, which called, among other things, on Israel to accept the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and an end to what it called as “the territorial occupation that it has maintained since the conflict of 1967.”

Lord Carrington, who served then as British Foreign Secretary, wanted to play an active role mediating between Israel and its Arab neighbors, but the terms already advanced by the Venice Declaration, as well as the perception in Israel that he was manifestly pro-Arab, limited considerably his diplomatic freedom of maneuver.

A distinction ought to be drawn between advancing a peace plan or presenting concrete terms to settle the conflict and playing the role of mediator.

The U. S. has successfully played the role of mediator in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s Shuttle Diplomacy brought about three interim agreements, two between Israel and Egypt and one between Israel and Syria. Kissinger, indeed the U. S. president, did not attempt to delineate the terms of an accord to the sides concerned, but rather to mediate between them to attain it.

The same applies to President Jimmy Carter, who in September of 1978, at the Camp David Summit, played the role of mediator between Egypt and Israel. The Camp David framework agreement for peace, which laid the basis for the Egypt-Israel peace agreement, was a corollary of that diplomatic effort. Again, Carter did not present a blueprint for peace or specific terms for an agreement, but helped bring it about by actively mediating between the Egyptians and Israelis.

President Obama should decide: Does he wish the United States to mediate between the Israelis and Palestinians? If so, he would do well to refrain from stating terms in advance which may force one or both of the parties concerned to take a defensive position.

Further, if he wishes the U. S. to be a mediator he should be careful to maintain both sides fully informed of his intentions; otherwise, he may risk a negative response before the negotiations have even started.

To be effective as a mediator, the president should eschew, as far as possible, public pronouncements as these might limit his freedom of diplomatic maneuver. Also, public announcements by the president should be kept to a minimum so as to avoid a dilution of his authority.

A mediator does not announce in advance what an agreement ought to look like, except perhaps in very general terms, and only if it is strictly necessary.

A mediator should delineate the framework for negotiations and not define their outcome in advance.End.

Yoav J. Tenembaum
Yoav J. Tenembaum

Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum lectures at the Diplomacy Programme, University of Tel Aviv. He holds a doctorate in modern history from the University of Oxford, a master’s degree in international relations from Cambridge University and an undergraduate degree in modern history from the University of Tel Aviv. His writings have been published in the United States, Argentina, Spain and Israel. He was born in Argentina and has lived in the United States and Britain as well as Israel. He is vice-president of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.


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