Peace Without the Process
Not all conflicts get settled. Some just fade away.
Argentina has never relinquished its claim to the Falkland Islands.
The border dispute that caused the India-China war of 1962 continues to be disputed.
Morocco has retained the western Sahara territory despite any number of international condemnations.
Even the mighty United States lived with stalemate in Cold War Europe for 45 years—and continues to live with stalemate in the Korean peninsula.
It is the act of peacemaking around a conference table that is unusual: old enemies negotiating their differences, signing a treaty, exchanging ambassadors. How often does that happen? And how long do such treaties last?
If anything, formally negotiated peaces are rarer than decisive military victories—which themselves are rare enough. What’s much more common is peace through the fizzling out of war.
And indeed, to a great extent, war has fizzled out in the Middle East. Israel and Syria fought three wars in the 25 years between 1948 and 1973. The 37 years since 1973 have not exactly been harmonious between the two neighbours: They fought a major air battle in 1982, Syria continues to sponsor and harbour anti-Israel terrorists, and Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. But there have been no more wars between the two.
It is the local conflict with the Palestinians that continues to flare. Negotiations lead to eruptions of violence which lead to more negotiations. It’s aptly joked that we have a peace process that is all process, no peace.
Maybe instead of some grand bargain, we should be looking for some way to quarantine the quarrel—some way to de-escalate the issue’s power to do harm.
Think of the Israeli security fence as a model. It did not bring peace. It did not settle some hypothetical future border. It just drew a line between Israelis and Palestinians, blocking the reach of terrorist groups across the line. A reduction in terror is not “peace,” but it delivers the same results.
The West Bank governs itself. It’s not a country exactly, but then neither is Kosovo or Nagorno-Karabakh. The international community does not invest much energy worrying about the precise status of either of these autonomous self-governing regions. Why not allow the Palestinian Authority to stumble along in the same way?
As the Palestinian leaders themselves keep signalling, they face a desperate dilemma.
No Palestinian leader (the Palestinians believe) can possibly survive signing a treaty that does not deliver (1) a big slice of Jerusalem; (2) the uprooting of Israeli settlements in the West Bank; and (3) and some big acknowledgment of a so-called Palestinian right of return to Israel proper.
On the other hand, no Israeli politician will yield those things. The Palestinians do not have the strength to force the concession, and the United States is exceedingly unlikely to impose it.
The solution is messy but obvious: Don’t sign anything. No treaty, no ceremony, no need for the Palestinian leadership to explain to their people why the leaders have abandoned the historic goals of the Palestinian national movement. The goals can remain intact, just deactivated for now, postponed to the future when conditions may be different.
Then, for the time being—a time that may stretch for decades—everybody tacitly agrees to live with the status quo: The Israelis keep what they have, the West Bank Palestinians commit to keep order on their side of the fence, Hamas remains an international pariah, foreign aid continues to flow to the West Bank so long as good behaviour continues. No process, no treaty, just quiet and development.
It’s not a great deal for the Palestinians, obviously. Certainly not as good a deal as they would have had if they had accepted the deals on offer in 1937 or 1947 or 1968 or 2000. But they didn’t accept those offers, and they have lapsed.
As the unspoken peace takes hold, the world can hope that Palestinian prosperity and Israeli security will soothe old quarrels. There may never be a peace agreement. But the alternative to a signed peace does not have to be fighting.