Casting himself as the best friend Israel could hope for, President Donald Trump is promising, some may say threatening, to unveil his grand plan for a peace “deal” to end the so-called “Middle East problem”.
Trump has always fancied himself as a deal-maker; he has even written a book on the subject. It is, therefore, no surprise that he might want to put his skill to use on an issue which has defied numerous deal-makers for six decades.
What are the chances of him succeeding? The short answer is: nil!
This is no reflection on Trump’s talent for deal-making.
The problem with the “Middle East problem” is that those who tried to solve it never managed to define it and, as a result, sacrificed the existential reality on the ground to the essential abstraction of elusive ideals.
The current phase of the saga began in 1945 at the end of the Second World War.
Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry
The first would-be deal-maker was Britain’s Prime Minister Clement Attlee, then responsible for the fate of the chunk of the Greater Syria of the Ottoman times, known as Palestine. Influenced by the Foreign Office which had already allocated a portion of the booty to Trans-Jordan, Attlee was apparently persuaded that the remaining bit should also be distributed among Arab states, then allies of Britain grouped in The Arab League.
However, Britain’s evolving position run into opposition from former US President Harry S Truman who also fancied himself as a deal-maker. To iron out differences between the two rival deal-makers, London and Washington created the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry.
Truman’s envoy to the commission was a Californian Catholic judge, Bartley C Crum, who admitted he knew nothing of the issue. However, during the months he spent in the region attending the commission’s many hearings, addressed by envoys from Arab countries and native Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations, he concluded that creating a “homeland” for the Jews, as promised by Great Britain in the Balfour declaration of1917, must be part of any “deal”.
At that time, however, Britain had moved beyond Balfour and hoped to create an Arab bloc against the looming Soviet danger in the region.
Both Attlee and Truman failed in imposing their divergent deals. And in February 1947 British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin passed the hot potato to the United Nations.
UN General Assembly
In November 1947 the UN General Assembly cast itself as deal-maker by passing General Assembly Resolution 181 that recommended the creation of two states, one for Jews and the other for Arabs.
Britain was one of the 10 states that abstained while 13 others, (Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen) voted against.
However, it quickly became clear that the UN, too, had failed as a deal-maker.
The resolution was so long, so detailed and so laden with jargon that few apart from seasoned lawyers would comprehend let alone be able to implement it.
Rather than admit failure, the UN persisted in its deal-making delusion. Successive Secretary-Generals, from Dag Hammarskjold to Kurt Waldheim and passing by U Thant, appointed special emissaries to shape a “deal”.
Some emissaries, notably Sweden’s Gunnar Jarring, claimed that they were on the threshold of a deal. In every case they came close but no cigar.
Until the 1970s the issue was labeled “the Arab-Israeli conflict”, a term justified by four wars. The decade also marked the start of an inflationary trend in Mideast deal-making. Henry Kissinger, dubbed “the modern Metternich”, chased the mirage with his shuffle diplomacy, and failed.
He was succeeded in the role by President Jimmy Carter who achieved a truce between Egypt and Israel but kicked peace into long grass.
The Palestine conflict
By the 1980s the conflict had acquired a new appellation: the “Palestine issue” and the seductive dream of a deal remained.
Since then the list of would-be deal-makers has continued to get longer, so long, in fact, that one could not mention all of them in a single column. Among the pretenders were French President Jacques Chirac, British Premier Tony Blair and, in a different register, the Norwegian government. In 2005 even Angela Merkel, just named Chancellor of Germany, toyed with the idea of playing Mideast deal-maker but, wise lady as she is, quickly turned to other matters.
There are many reasons why so many deal-makers have failed.
The first is that peace is never negotiated and is always imposed by the side that wins a war. There is not any instance in history, which is primarily a narrative of countless wars, in which an outsider has imposed peace on unwilling belligerents.
The second reason is that outside deal-makers have their interests and agendas which make an already tangled web even more complicated. For example, in the case of American deal-makers, how to win Jewish votes in the US without antagonizing the Arabs who sell us oil and buy our arms?
The third reason is that wannabee deal-makers do not fully appreciate the importance of the status quo, the reality on the ground.
Whenever a status quo is at least tolerable for both belligerents the desire for risking it in the hope of an ill-defined peace is diminished. Many people in the world live with status quo they don’t regard as ideal.
Russia and Japan coexist, trade with each other, and maintain correct relations despite being technically at war with the Russian occupation chunks of Kuril Islands.
China and India coexist despite the Chinese annexation of large Indian territories along the border.
Bolivia and Chile are still technically at war because of the Chilean annexation of Bolivia’s access to the ocean. By one count no fewer than 89 of the 198 members of the United Nations are involved in territorial disputes or are home to restive, sometimes secessionist minorities.
If we add irredentist dreams and claims rooted in myths or history, almost all UN members are in dispute with their neighbors. I haven’t met a Mexican who didn’t think that California and Texas belonged to Mexico. Nor would you find many Serbs ready to forget Pristina, their “holy city”, now in the hands of Muslim Albanians. And there are few Iranians who don’t feel sad that Baghdad, the site of their ancient capital of Ctesiphon, is now an Arab metropolis.
Finally, and more importantly, there could be no deal and no peace unless and until those involved in a conflict desire it. Without that desire the best one could aim for is a truce, allowing for coexistence, living and half living as the Anglo-American poet Elliot put it.
There is one thing that Trump the deal-maker could do. He could ask the Israelis and the Palestinians to work on an agreement, each in their own camp, on what they exactly want, and report to him.
My bet is that, at this moment, neither of the two sides would be able to shape any agreement in their own respective camp on what kind of a deal they might accept. And that, at least implicitly, means that both are happier with the status quo rather than the prolongation of a “peace process” which could never lead to peace and now is no longer even a process.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.