The Road to Compromise is a Two-Way Street

Henry Clay earned his reputation as “the great compromiser” when he forestalled the outbreak of the Civil War by ten years. Even so, one has to wonder whether even Mr. Clay’s genius for mediation could save the Mideast peace process from becoming a towering embarrassment to US foreign policy.

Compromise, according to Webster’s, is “a method of reaching agreement in a dispute, by which each side surrenders something that it wants.” This shouldn’t be hard to comprehend for anyone with a background in high school civics. What does remain incomprehensible is how otherwise reasonable people might seriously apply the term “compromise” to past peace proposals, and why anyone thinks it will be different the next time around.

Definitions notwithstanding, immediately after the Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000 the New York Times observed that Yasir Arafat’s “willingness for more talks suggests room for compromise.”

The Times deserved credit for optimism and imagination, but won few points for objective editorial insight. Indeed, only a month earlier (on July 11 of that year), the Times reported that, “The Palestinians want a settlement based on United Nations Resolution 242,” implying that if not for Israeli intransigence, there would have been peace in the region long before.

Let’s see. Resolution 242 mandates 1) the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” and 2) the “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”

For its part, Israel returned more than 90% of the Sinai to Egypt in 1981, and offered to give more than 90% of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Pretty good, for a compromise.

From the Palestinian side, however, it’s been hard to detect even a whiff of compliance. Rather, these are the ways the Palestinian Authority has terminated its claims and belligerency: all government and schoolbook maps, as well as children’s television programs, identify the whole of Israel as “Palestine;” teenagers at Palestinian “summer camps” train with automatic weapons to fight Israelis; Arafat has named squares and streets after Hamas suicide bombers; Israeli security has caught PA officials smuggling numerous weapons, including anti-tank weapons, into Israel. The list could easily fill this column.

Ehud Barak had been prepared to overlook all that. But then the Camp David talks broke down anyway, largely because of Palestinian insistence of absolute sovereignty over East Jerusalem. Yet Jerusalem has been the heart and soul of Israel for over 3000 years, the holiest site on earth according to Jewish tradition and the Old Testament. The Arab’s spiritual capital is Mecca, whereas Jerusalem is merely a religious and historical footnote, not mentioned by name even once in the Quran. What’s more, from 1948 to 1967, when Jordan controlled East Jerusalem, not one Arab ruler visited the city, except Jordon’s own King Hussein. Electricity and water services were neglected, and no government offices or cultural centers were set up there.

So what does the Palestinian Authority want? What it has always wanted: everything. The very concept of compromise appears utterly foreign to the thinking of Palestinian leaders, and is entirely absent from their behavior. It’s hard to see what the PA has ever thought it’s bringing to the negotiating table, except for the vague promise of controlling terrorism and the hazy commitment of conceding Israel’s right to exist, a right already granted by the United Nations over half a century ago.

In hindsight, it’s also hard to see what Ehud Barak hoped to accomplish by bargaining away so much for so little. According to Mideast analyst David Makovsky, Mr. Barak’s objective was “peace without illusions.” Peace between governments, the former Prime Minister believed, is the only possible goal presently within grasp; peace between peoples is generations away.

Mr. Barak assumed that once a treaty is signed, all of Israel’s Arab neighbors will abide by its conditions, gradually leading to normalization and the eventual cessation of the hateful rhetoric that foments Arab violence.

The trouble is, there’s no evidence it would work. Whatever the terms, any deal that produces even the coldest peace must rest on the foundation of compromise, a foundation that doesn’t exist. The indoctrination of children with hatred of Israel continues, even in Egypt, nearly three decades after it grudgingly traded political recognition for the return of its land.

Other Arab nations have refused to offer even this little olive branch; they have never demonstrated the slightest willingness to compromise. Neither Israel nor the United States should take another step forward until they do. Let us hope that the new U. S. president will learn from the errors of his failed namesake and not put his hope in false promises that have already led nowhere.

Adapted from an article originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2 August 2002


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