Myths, Illusions and Peace By Dennis Ross and David Makovsky


reviewed by Marc Schulman

Myths, Illusions, and Peace is an important book, both due to its content and due to the fact that one of the authors is partly responsible for the Obama administration's policies in the Middle East. This book does an excellent job of laying bare the many illusions on the Middle East by various American foreign policy ideologues, both the from "Neo-Conservatives" (such as William Kristol or David Frum) and from the so-called "Realists"(such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.) The first Myth the authors tackle is the claim by many there is the clear linkage between the Arab-Israeli conflict and other issues in the Middle East. The authors go through the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and show examined the claims that if the United States helped Israel in any way it would damage its ties with the Arab world. They show how the Arabists in the State Department in 1947-1948 tried to convince President Truman not to support the establishment of the State of Israel, claiming it would destroy US relations with the Arab world. They demolish that myth by showing it had no significant impact on the US relations with the Arab states at that time, especially on relations with the most important state to the United States, Saudi Arabia. They then show that when the United States did come out clearly on the Arab side (under Eisenhower in the Suez crisis), it brought the US no additional support from the Arabs in the Middle East. The authors then give an overview of events surrounding the Six Day War of 1967. They show how the Arabists at the time-pressured US government not to do anything to intervene. They opposed the proposed regatta of ships planned to open the Straits of Tiran. They quote the US Ambassador to Syria, Hugh Smythe stating, "On the scales we have Israel, an unviable client state, whose value to the United States is primarily emotional, balanced with the full range of vital strategic, political commercial/economic." The US did not take any action prior to the war, ignoring the commitment the US made to Israel in 1957, when Israel withdrew from the Sinai, partially in return for US assurances it would open the Straits-- if they were closed.

I could go on just describing this part of the book, but as the authors march through history they show US support for Israel has never effected US Arab relations, and more importantly that the Arab states consistently made decisions based on their own national interests and not as they relate to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Furthermore, they show American influence in the Arab world actually increased in times when it was more supportive of Israel.

In the next two chapters of the book, the authors deal with the myths about the Arab-Israeli conflict as presented by the realists and neoconservatives. First, they look at the views of the Neo-Conservatives, which they summarize as follows: "The Arabs categorically reject Israel and peace is not possible as a result. " The corollary is that if the Arabs prove themselves (in terms of accepting Israel), then peace can be possible, but until that point, there is no reason for US engagement on peace. Engagement is futile at best and counterproductive at worst, and as a result, disengagement is the right policy prescription. " President Bush embraced this policy. The authors, while agreeing with the concerns of the Neo-conservatives, criticize them for not distinguishing between those in the Arab world who will never accept Israel and those that do. Ross and Makovsky claim there is a large group within the Arab Middle East who will, (under the right circumstances) be willing to make peace, and by not engaging these moderates the US strengthens the extremists.

The Authors then take on the myths of the Realists. The first part of the myth they demolish when they deal with the question of linkage in the first chapter of the book. They then describe the other myths under which the Realists operate: The first is that the Israelis are to blame for the conflict. Second, is that the United States is too close to Israel and that that relationship just serves to exacerbate the situation in the Middle East. According to Ross and Makovsky the first two myths then serve to create a third myth, that only the US would be willing to step in to help to solve the conflict. The authors show, convincingly, how wrong the Realists are. The realists view the notion of the conflict is all Israel's fault is historically inaccurate. They show that while the United States has been an ally of Israel, it consistently played the role of mediator. They demolish the claim of some realists who argues that the US has only played the role of Israel’s representative, instead of that of an independent mediator. The authors give the example of Clinton after Camp David. Clinton went far beyond Israeli positions with his final proposal. It was the Palestinians, of course, who rejected Clinton's proposals. The authors believe sometimes it is not counter-productive to pressure Israel, but they believe context is everything, a factor the Realists ignore. Makovsky and Ross attack the Realists for suggesting that in absence of another Sadat it would be productive to pressure Israel. The authors further go on to say, any amount of pressure will not be enough to bring about peace, unless the parties themselves are ready and their publics are ready as well. They state that while the Israelis have made some progress on understanding what sort of compromises needs to be made to bring about peace, no effort has been made with the Palestinian public to prepare them for any final peace-- that will include compromise on the issue of the refugees. This dovetails with an interview I heard the other day with Dan Meridor, where first Meridor was asked how come he, who always believed there was no need to divide the land, was now proposing just that. He answered that he realized there was no way Israelis and Palestinians could live together in one state, and if the land were not divided they (the Palestinians) would eventually be the majority. The interviewer then asked him what was the major item standing in the way of an agreement. Meridor stated it was the inability of the Palestinians to accept the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state (the shorthand for that is their unwillingness to agree to anything less than a return of the refugees, to inside of Israel, which would effectively mean the end of Israel.)

So, what do the authors recommend? Interestingly, what they recommend is very much of what is happening. They believe in incremental steps. Ross and Makovsky believe there is a need to show both sides the advantages of peace. For the Palestinians, they believe additional economic development, coupled with a possible halt to settlement activity can combine to show them the road to peace is not only possible but preferable. For the Israelis, a beefed up Palestinian security force, who truly take actions against potential terrorists would help. This will show Israelis that giving up more land is not national suicide. After all of these steps happen, the authors believe it will be possible to discuss core issues. One of the authors’ best insights is: No political leader is likely to take on history and mythology on such core issues as Jerusalem the refugees if he or she believes the public will reject it when they do. Clearly, from the Israelis point of view the second Intifada the Second Lebanon War and the Qassam rockets from Gaza convinced many there is no partner for peace. From the Palestinian perspective, the continued growth of settlements, combined with numerous Israeli checkpoints they have to deal with have soured many Palestinians on the chance for peace and statehood.

Interestingly, in the past six months since their book was released much of what they recommended has taken place. The authors recommend a continuation of the current strategy of isolating Hamas, and while letting the West Bank bloom. They believe that strategy will create fissures in Hamas and will result in its weakening. They warn, however, that Hamas will not stand idly by while this happens. Makovsky and Ross devote a separate chapter to taking on the “Realists” for their views on engaging Hamas and Hezbollah. Makovsky and Ross reject the idea promoted by the Realists that you can moderate the behavior of Hamas by negotiating with them. The authors posit that the Realists do not distinguish enough between state and non-state actors. States are ultimately responsible for their actions; while with non-state actors have no real address. More importantly, they attack the Realists for believing Hamas and Hezbollah do not really believe in their ideology and that they are like any other group who can be influenced by real-world practical events. The strongest argument they give in attacking the Realist position is Hamas' refusal to accept the terms of the Quartet, which would allow the blockade to be lifted. Their ideology stood four squares in their way and they could not do it. As a result, the Quartet and most of the rest of the world continues to isolate Hamas, something, by the way, the realists claimed would not happen. The authors, furthermore, state that engaging Hamas and Hezbollah without extracting a change in their behavior, in advance, would be very detrimental to the peace process.

The authors devote a full chapter to how to deal with Iran; which is both the most and least relevant chapter in the book. It's relevant because Ross is responsible for the Iran policy in the White House. However, it is somewhat irrelevant, since the authors (like everyone else) did not anticipate the elections and near revolt in Iran. The authors attack both the Neo-conservatives who believe that only regime change will work and any negotiations are pointless; and the Realists, who believe that if we were willing to negotiate with Iran we would solve all our problems with Iran. The Neo-cons, Ross believes, seem to have an almost irrational belief that, in time, regime change will successfully take place. Unfortunately, as they wait, Iran continues down its path towards developing nuclear weapons. The Realists, on the other hand, seem to ignore the ideological and religious basis for fundamentalist rule in Iran. They assume the Iranians are no different than Soviets were during the Cold war. They ignore, however, that there is a real difference between political ideology and religious ideology. The authors recommend a hybrid policy going forward with Iran, engagement, while at the same time ratcheting up pressure and sanctions on Iran. While this may have been a good plan six months ago, today in the aftermath of the elections and subsequent unrest, the Iranian regime seems unwilling to engage the US. Even more importantly, it would be very difficult for the US to engage the current Iranian government, thus undermining the dissidents. The problem, of course, is that as I write this the Iranian centrifuges continue to turn.

I conclude this review as I began– this is an important book that should be read.

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