One of the most memorable photos in White House history shows Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shaking hands, with the open-armed encouragement of Bill Clinton, on the White House lawn in September, 1993, for the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. The following summer, once again on the White House lawn, Clinton, Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan signed a non-belligerency agreement between Israel and Jordan. The following October it became a formal peace treaty.
While the Clinton administration deserved some credit for nurturing the Israeli-Jordanian agreement (King Hussein conducted private talks with the Israelis for years), it deserved much less for the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, quite properly known as the Oslo Accords, because they had been crafted in back channel negotiations over many months with support of the Norwegian government and the peace researcher Terje Rød-Larsen. In the single most important Middle East peace agreement since the 1979 Camp David Accords, the American role was essentially to provide a blessing for the agreement and then to supply resources for its implementation.
As the Obama administration prepares to take office, the Oslo Accords provide an important lesson in Mideast peacemaking: The parties themselves and third-party facilitators can accomplish much of the work without U.S. involvement. Outgoing Israeli premier Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas have already come to a virtual agreement on the terms of peace. Olmert, once a Likud hardliner, has admitted that peace will require giving up control of the West Bank and—what is politically even more remarkable—of East Jerusalem. Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, has also been holding face-to-face meetings with Arab leaders. After a session with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Peres endorsed the four-year-old Beirut Plan for a comprehensive (regional) Arab-Israeli peace. All this is the result of direct talks.
Meanwhile Turkey has been providing good offices for contact between Syria and Israel, and Egypt has been facilitating talks between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization. U.S. engagement may be necessary to conclude an agreement, and it will be enormously useful in implementing one. But U.S. leadership is not needed to bring the sides together or for them to see what needs to be done. Experience had taught them that, and the design of an agreement can already be found in the unofficial Geneva Accords of 2003.
It would be a mistake for the Obama administration to scratch the Mideast off its list of top priorities, but it may be equally mistaken to allow preening about “American leadership” on this issue. Such self-gratifying rhetoric is a relic of the cold war and its aftermath. Given the unresolved conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the poor standing of the United States in world opinion and the downward spiral of the economic crisis, the United States is no longer “the world’s only remaining superpower.” It is simply a great power, perhaps prima inter pares, but no longer the hegemon of a virtual empire. In the waning months of the Bush administration, others have stepped forward, and the principals themselves have engaged with one another. These developments presage a new age in international affairs.
If this winter Israelis and Palestinians elect new governments committed to peace, then, like a priest at a wedding, the United States need only serve as the official witness, as President Clinton did in 1993. The determination of the two peoples, not U.S. leadership, is the sine qua non to seal a permanent peace agreement. A reduced U.S. role fits our reduced standing in the world. The capacity of the United States to influence events is diminished both by the growing power of “the emerging nations” and by the catastrophic errors of the Bush administration.
Wisdom in foreign policy today recommends that the United States be committed to working together with other nations. The limits to power also counsel that the United States permit others to take initiatives to resolve problems with minimal help from us, especially when we cannot offer the nation’s full attention to the task. The only obstacle to peace in the Middle East greater than intransigent opposition among the two peoples themselves will be domestic U.S. politics masquerading as indispensable U.S. leadership.