The Last Camp David

The almost manic fascination by most of the mainstream media about the current negotiations at Camp David – I weakened and watched a lot of network and cable news Monday night – might well turn out to be the stuff of nostalgia. I will be amazed if anything more than minor progress comes of it – I still think the issue of Jerusalem will be a stumbling-block for years – but the media have been virtually breathless, perhaps in part because there’s a phony press "blackout" to be broken mainly by the Boy President in search of a legacy and his thuggish press secretary. They seem entranced by the possibility that big news might come out of it, that America in all its jejune wisdom might be able to impose – or, perhaps more accurately, to buy – a semblance of a settlement to problems that have simmered for centuries. What might actually be interesting about this get-together is that it might represent the last time the United States takes such an active role in the imperial task of trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians together.


Clinton has an interest in a legacy, so he has no interest in noticing, and the major media are almost always the last to figure out long-term trends. But with the end of the Cold War and the effective collapse of Russia as a major global threat (despite our incompetent foreign policy leaders’ blundering and mostly inadvertent efforts to revive Russian hostility to the U.S.) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become more of a regional conflict than a global concern. Sooner or later our foreign policy elites will come to understand that. That insight comes from talking with Leon T. Hadar, the Cato Institute research fellow who has worked for the Jerusalem Post, the Singapore Business Times and lectures at American University. It is always intellectually stimulating to speak with Leon, whose book, Quagmire: America in the Middle East, though published in 1993, is invaluable and hardly dated at all.

What Leon suggested to me as we discussed a major piece he is preparing for the Orange County Register, is that we are seeing what he calls the "localization" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With no Soviet Union nosing around the area, trying to meddle in oil supplies and subsidizing client states, with the Middle East now having less strategic importance than once it had, the conflicts there are becoming more like ethnic conflicts in other parts of the world, from Bosnia to Indonesia to Sudan to Rwanda – troubling and sometimes even heartbreaking to any human being with an ounce of empathy, but not of supreme strategic importance to the world’s great powers.


Leon Hadar suggests that as these realities are recognized, the pressure from Washington to come up with visible evidence of "advances" in the "peace process" – and the pressure on Washington to be not just Israel’s most reliable ally but the "honest broker" of the peace process (an impossible combination, by the way) – will decline. American politicians won’t measure their stature quite so much on how influential they have been in the Middle East. As long as the oil flows, European leaders won’t try so assiduously to effect outcomes. Such "benign neglect" would be welcome – and not only because the habit of American presidents even before Jimmy Carter’s excellent Camp David adventure has been to use money from American taxpayers to subsidize a simulacrum of peace and progress between Israel and its neighbors, through lavish and apparently perpetual foreign aid. I’m of the opinion that the Israelis and Palestinians would actually be more likely to come to some sort of accommodation with minimal conflict – one is reluctant to toss the term "peace" around too lightly when speaking of the Middle East – in the absence of the tender ministrations of the United States, the United Nations, the Europeans and other outsiders.

Mutual awareness that Uncle Sugar is willing to pay for small increments but hasn’t much of a clue about what would constitute the real conditions for peace plays a role. Both parties have an incentive to keep negotiating enough to gull the Americans but not enough to reach an accommodation solid enough that an argument could be made that it would be stable without subsidies. So the desultory character of negotiations is likely to continue as long as the main reason for them is to please Washington.


If the time comes reasonably soon, as Leon Hadar suggests, however, that Washington doesn’t really care that much, then both Israelis and Palestinians will have to fall back on their own resources and decide whether continued hostility, an interminable and irresolvable peace process or something resembling actual peace serves their own interests. They will have to take account of reality in their own region more than the perceptions – sometimes skewed, always incomplete and more often than not driven by domestic politics rather than Middle Eastern problems and opportunities – in Washington. That would be healthy. If genuine peace – or even a cold truce like the one that still prevails between Egypt and Israel 20 years after Carter’s Camp David – is to develop it must be based on reality in the region, not responses to demands from Washington and New York. A settlement reached because of pressure from the United States is almost certain to include strictly artificial elements. I prefer to be an optimist to believe that eventually both sides will tire of the costs and absurdities of hostilities and find ways to get along. I think it’s more likely without outside interference and influence. But if the United States loses its enthusiasm for trying to broker a deal in the Middle East and the parties never reach even coexistence, that would just be something the world will have to learn to live with.

Unlike some who write for this site I instinctively side with Israel, though I’m not uncritical, I think I have a fairly nuanced approach, and have always opposed US aid for Israel or any other country in the region. But I’m a long way from having the emotional investment many Americans have.


One can understand the continued fascination with the Middle East and especially with Israel. The issues have loomed large in American politics at least since the formation of the state of Israel, which might not have happened without active American help (or it might have anyway). I remember back in the early 1980s, David Broder, in one of his well-reported books (pardon me if I can’t remember just which one) recounting the bromides of conventional wisdom he dispenses so well, outlined the difficult issues the United States faced in the Middle East at the time. Then he unveiled his trick, writing that the issues he was discussing were the issues of the 1950s. Nothing had changed. Broder took this as evidence of the failure of the American political system to deal seriously with serious issues and achieve some kind of resolution. More likely it was evidence that the United States shouldn’t be involved with trying to impose its will on regions of the world it understands little if at all. But it showed, if nothing else, the ongoing and often earnest concern on the part of the American political class with developments in the Middle East and the usually good-hearted (if naïve) desire to make things come out just right. Clinton has the legacy thing as a reason for Camp David. The rest of the political class has old habits and sentiments. So we get the breathless, yet virtually information-free lengthy reports from "blacked-out" Camp David each day, reporting on moods and rumors, possible attitudes and emotion, intimations of pessimism or optimism, with almost nothing hard to back them up. The news media, most of them, have always assumed that the Middle East is a big deal and Israeli-Palestinian issues are global in scope. So they just feel they have to report something even if there’s nothing to report. If Leon Hadar is right, however, this may be the last time it seems so breathlessly important just what American government officials are doing to influence the latest wrinkle of the largely mythical "peace process."

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).