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Diehl: The United States’ Middle East peace process paradox

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The Middle East “peace process” can look like an endless loop of diplomatic failures that leave Israelis and Palestinians stuck in in­trac­table conflict. So as the latest round of U.S.-sponsored negotiation teeters on the brink, it’s worth pointing out that during the course of the last 25 years the two peoples have made glacially slow but cumulatively enormous progress toward coexistence. In fact, they have traveled most of the path to a final settlement.

A decisive majority of Israelis and the political elite have given up the dream of a “greater Israel” and accepted that a state of Palestine will be created in the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank. That was out of the question in 1990, when Secretary of State James Baker threw up his hands in frustration and advised the parties to “call us . . . when you are serious about peace.”

Jackson Diehl

The Post’s deputy editorial page editor, Diehl also writes a biweekly foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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Palestinians have dropped their denial of Israel’s right to exist and, for the most part, the tactics of terrorism and violence that undid the diplomacy of the Clinton administration. Once racked by suicide bombings and messy military sweeps, Israel, the West Bank and lately even Gaza have been islands of relative tranquility in a bloody region. Israeli troops that once patrolled every major Palestinian town are gone. They are replaced in the West Bank by competent Palestinian security forces whose commanders work closely with their Israeli counterparts — another once-inconceivable development.

True, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are still far apart on the specific terms for the Palestine state, including where the border will be drawn, how former Palestinian refugees will be handled and whether and how Jerusalem will be divided. But, contrary to the claim of Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the time for a two-state settlement is not running out. In fact, the doomsayers who made that same argument 25 years ago, such as Israeli demographer Meron Benvenisti , had a more plausible case.

Then, Israel was aggressively expanding Jewish settlements. Now, all but a handful of the new housing it is adding is in areas near the 1967 border that both sides know will become part of Israel. Despite all the episodic furors over the settlements, careful studies have shown that 80 percent of their residents could be absorbed by Israel’s annexation of less than 5 percent of the West Bank — and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hinted at his acceptance of the principle that the territory could be swapped for land that is now part of Israel.

So why isn’t this progress reflected in the diplomacy? Simple: Almost every positive development in Israeli-Palestinian relations has happened outside the “peace process.” Israelis accepted Palestinian statehood because they realized their country could not keep the West Bank and remain both Jewish and democratic. Palestinians abandoned violence because it failed to end the occupation and was far more costly to Palestinians than to Israelis. Security cooperation works in the West Bank because Israel and the Palestinian authority share an interest in combating Islamic extremists.

The United States has helped to advance this process not by holding peace talks but by backing up the pragmatic decisions of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. George W. Bush helped Ariel Sharon make the decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and to carry out the first dismantlement of settlements in the West Bank by endorsing the principle that Israel would retain settlement blocs near its 1967 border. U.S. training and funding has helped create those Palestinian security forces.

The Obama administration could have kept the forward movement going by continuing to promote the construction of Palestinian institutions — including a democratic, corruption-resistant government — and by pushing Israel to turn over more security responsibility and remove impediments to the Palestinian economy. Instead it chose to embrace the ever-failing peace process and bet that it could quickly broker a deal between two very reluctant leaders: Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.

The wager not only has foundered, but it also has partly reversed the more organic change that was underway. Freed from pressure from Washington, Abbas forced out his reformist prime minister and repeatedly postponed promised elections. He is now in the tenth year of the four-year term to which he was elected. Big-time corruption in his regime is back, as are serious human rights abuses. Rancor over the failing peace talks meanwhile is causing Israel to withhold cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, which could cause its collapse.

The moral of this story is that the United States can’t produce a Mideast settlement by diplomatic blitzkrieg. It must rather patiently invest in the conditions and institutions that would make a deal possible — and not call a conference until conditions are ripe and leaders ready. By stubbornly refusing to recognize that principle, President Obama and Kerry probably have postponed Palestinian statehood. But the odds are that the evolution toward peace eventually will go on without them.

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