One of the meanings of “facility” in English is now rare: “a tendency to be easygoing, yielding, etc.” But in French, “facilité” is very much a live word. “Solutions of facility,” which Charles de Gaulle inveterately decried, means taking the easy way out. This the United States has done with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli “peace process” for the last 40-plus years, indeed since the Six Day War of 1967.
Bland statements to the effect that the international community does not recognize the annexation of Arab East Jerusalem, or flaccid pronouncements that the building of settlements in the Arab West Bank are “unhelpful” for the peace process, have essentially been all that Washington has been able to muster by way of reining in its Middle East ally.
Is this now changing? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has remained—so far—very much on Barack Obama’s playbook, has described the president’s position in categorical terms: “He wants to see a stop to settlements—not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though he has now accepted—grudgingly and with caveats—a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, nevertheless cannot accept ruling out “natural growth” in settlements. After all, babies are babies! They keep coming!
Now, the Israeli Prime Minister has gone a step further, in response to a State Department admonition to Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, that construction of an apartment complex in East Jerusalem (financed by Irving Moskowitz, an American businessman) should not take place. Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday that the issue of construction in Jerusalem cannot be linked to a discussion on settlements. What is more, construction in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and the Jewish people, is not open to discussion, as Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem is indisputable.
Ironically, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had already offered East Jerusalem to the Palestinians in 2000. (Barak, now defense minister, was also Netanyahu’s team leader in the successful takedown of a terrorist group aboard a Sabena plane at Brussels airport in 1972.)
The background to Barak’s offer (and Yasser Arafat’s demurrer) is as follows: towards the end of the Clinton administration, peace seemed to be within grasp. First at Camp David in the summer of 2000, where the negotiations ended inconclusively after 15 days of intense negotiations, and later at Taba at the end of that year. The positions of the two sides seemed to be getting closer.
On January 2, 2001, just after the initial talks at Taba, Yasir Arafat was invited to the White House where he was presented with a final offer by President Clinton, who was only days away from leaving office. This offer comprised the following elements, according to Dennis Ross, the leading American negotiator at the working level, in his book The Missing Peace: “a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and nearly all of the West Bank; a capital for that state in Arab East Jerusalem; security arrangements that would be built around an international presence; and an unlimited right of return for Palestinian refugees to their own state, but not to Israel.”
In spite of Bill Clinton’s formidable powers of persuasion, Arafat, always elusive at the hour of decision, could not or would not accept the offer of the United States president. The main reason for this refusal, it appears, was that Arafat could not accept a right of return limited to the new state of Palestine, as it would have put an end to the dream of Palestinians in the camps surrounding Israel that they could someday return to their lands in what had become the state of Israel.
Three days earlier, Dennis Ross had given a warning to the Palestinian negotiator, Abu Ala: “Mark my words, [the Bush Administration] will disengage from the issue, and they will do so at a time when you won’t have Barak…but at a time when you will have [Ariel] Sharon as prime minister. He will be elected for sure if there is no deal, and your 97 percent [of the West Bank] will become 40 to 45 percent; your capital in East Jerusalem will be gone; the [Israeli Defense Forces] out of the Jordan Valley will be gone; [the] unlimited right of return for refugees to your state will be gone. Abu Ala, you know I am telling you the truth.”
With a note of complete resignation, Abu Ala replied, “I’m afraid it may take another fifty years to settle this [conflict] now.”
Now Sharon is in a coma, and Netanyahu, who is even more beholden to the Israeli hard right, is prime minister.
Will the talented team of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George Mitchell be prepared to give up “solutions of facility” and lead the parties into a settlement? To leave a settlement to the parties themselves is, of course, a prescription for no change.
Charles G. Cogan was chief of the Near-East South-Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from 1979 to 1984. It was this division that directed the covert action operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He is now a historian and an associate of the Belfer Center’s International Security Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.