Skeptics, Reproachers, and Embracers: The three rival camps of American officials leading the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—and the damaging illusions that unite them

By Nathan Thrall


In the early days of the Gaza war that took the lives of some 2,150 Palestinians and 72 Israelis, a number of officials in Washington, Ramallah, and Jerusalem began to speak of renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations mediated by the United States. As the fighting dragged on, this talk intensified, again showing that the “peace process” gains greatest urgency from the threat of Israeli-Palestinian violence, as well as from the U.S.’s desire to calm a roiling region, including by helping Arab allies justify pro-American stances to their publics. This was why the 1991 Madrid talks occurred during the first Palestinian intifada and immediately following Arab support of the United States in the 1991 Gulf War. It was why President George W. Bush’s 2003 Road Map for Middle East Peace was drafted during the second intifada and as the U.S. assembled a coalition for the 2003 Iraq War. And it is why the United States may soon seek to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, following sharply increased Israeli-Palestinian confrontation not just in Gaza but also in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and after Israel’s actions in Gaza were given both tacit and overt support by Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.

There is little reason to believe that renewed talks would succeed. The obstacles that caused the failure of the negotiations led by Secretary of State John Kerry have not disappeared. Many of them have grown larger. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his political program of nonviolence and negotiation have been weakened by Hamas’s strategy in Gaza, which impressed many Palestinians, although the costs were enormous. Hamas sent thousands of rockets into Israel, killing seven civilians, while Israeli air strikes and artillery killed hundreds of children, devastated large parts of Gaza, and left tens of thousands of people homeless. Reconstruction will cost many billions and take years.

Still, Hamas demonstrated that its militancy and its willingness to endure a ferocious Israeli attack could achieve more in weeks than Abbas’s talks have achieved in years.[1] During the Gaza war, Israel did not announce a single new settlement in the West Bank. Although Israel did not agree to some of Hamas’s most important requests—for example, the opening of a seaport and the release of recently arrested prisoners—it showed eagerness to negotiate with the Palestinians and willingness to make significant concessions, including the easing of some border crossings, extending fishing rights, facilitating the supply of construction materials, and offering to begin working in Gaza with the new Palestinian government formed in June.[2]

Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, who had been relatively quiescent in the years preceding the Gaza war, put new pressure on Israel through nightly protests and clashes that led to the largest number of arrests in Jerusalem since the second intifada. Israeli commentators questioned old assumptions about the sustainability of the status quo. The war brought a surge in international support for Palestinians, unusually heavy American pressure on Israel, and significant rifts in Israel’s right-wing coalition. The Ramallah leadership under Abbas seemed less relevant than ever, while Hamas’s popularity rose.

As hopes of a quick Israeli victory over Hamas crumbled and the ground invasion looked increasingly like an Israeli debacle, even Abbas and the Palestinian peaceniks surrounding him were forced to cater their official statements to Palestinian public opinion, implausibly professing support for Hamas and adopting some of its rhetoric. “No one in the world will enjoy stability and safety,” Abbas declared during the third week of fighting, “if this is not granted to … all of Palestine’s children.” Before the war, Abbas’s price for restarting talks had been too high for the Israeli government. He wanted a freeze in settlement construction and the release of the last remaining prisoners arrested before the 1993 Oslo Accords, including 14 Palestinian citizens of Israel. Today, after losing ground to Hamas, Abbas can ill afford to abandon these demands.

The positions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, too, have hardened. Though in recent years he appears to have conceded that the increasing population of Palestinians necessitates partitioning the territory of mandatory Palestine, Netanyahu has not fully accepted the principle of Palestinian sovereignty. During the first days of the Gaza war, he said that “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” which is to say, all of the West Bank. Following nearly two months of conflict in which Gaza militants proved themselves more capable than Israel expected, Netanyahu’s security demands in the West Bank are almost surely more stringent still. After heavy criticism from his center-right constituency for having failed to achieve his objective of severely weakening Hamas and for having made concessions to it in a cease-fire agreement, Netanyahu will find it difficult to concede on prisoners or settlement construction merely for the opportunity to enter negotiations. Many of his supporters oppose talks even without strings attached.

Smoke and fire from the explosion of an Israeli strike rise over Gaza City, July 2014. (Hatem Moussa/AP)

Yet these reasons may not be sufficient to deter efforts to restart negotiations. A decent chance of success has never been a prerequisite for U.S.-led talks. The peace process offers its own rewards, quite independent of its ostensible purpose. After the many strains in its external relations caused by the destruction in Gaza, Israel will view new talks as a means to improve relations with the U.S., as well as to exhibit goodwill toward those Palestinians still in favor of negotiations, repair its image in the world, slow the spread in Europe of boycotts of the products of Israel’s West Bank settlements, and solidify the tacit understandings between Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority that gave it a freer hand in Gaza.

Those Arab governments will want new talks to demonstrate that cooperation with the U.S. and Israel produces dividends for the Palestinians and a greater role for themselves in the peace process. The PLO leadership in Ramallah will want renewed negotiations to prove its continued relevance and show that violence is not the only means of winning concessions from Israel. Negotiations would also offer another excuse to continue yielding to Israeli and American demands that Palestine not pursue legal action against Israel at the International Criminal Court, which has been possible since it became a nonmember observer state of the UN in November 2012. (Close advisers to Abbas have stated that his threats in early September to join UN agencies and put forward a UN Security Council resolution calling for an end date to Israel’s occupation are designed to encourage new talks.) European governments will hope that negotiations provide an answer to constituents who ask why they are paying to rebuild Gaza when it is likely to be destroyed again.

More important, many U.S. officials believe that new talks will help prevent greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Convinced that the absence of negotiations leads to violence, they see the collapse of months of John Kerry’s efforts as one of the causes of the war in Gaza and of the turmoil in the West Bank and Jerusalem that preceded and in many respects helped precipitate it.

Yet this reasoning has a number of flaws. It ignores the fact that in the several years preceding the Kerry talks, when there had been no negotiations, there was relative quiet in the West Bank. It assumes that Palestinians and Israelis were driven to violence by frustration and disappointment at the failure of talks from which almost none expected results. And it relies on the premise that any violence is caused either by the collapse of recent negotiations or by the fact that there was hopelessness because no negotiations had recently occurred.

Yet for most Americans who support a “peace process,” as well as for European officials, and for peace-minded Palestinians and Israelis, rising instability is almost always taken as evidence of the necessity of new talks. They are supported in this, above all, by the U.S. Secretary of State, who appears still to believe that his talents and commitment will succeed where others have failed.


Even by the standard of his recent predecessors, John Kerry, who became Secretary of State in February 2013, took on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with unprecedented intensity. It was not an obvious choice, given the record of past diplomatic efforts, the bitter experience of President Barack Obama’s first term, the many factors that had made the conflict only more difficult to resolve, and the far larger scale and importance of other challenges facing the United States: the Syrian slaughter, then approaching 100,000 and steadily rising; sectarian violence and anti-American militancy spreading throughout the Middle East; and an effort to shift U.S. priorities to counter the rising power of China.

Despite all of these, America’s ambitious new Secretary of State found it particularly urgent to resolve the more than century-old conflict between Jews and Arabs in a territory smaller than his home state of Massachusetts. Between Kerry’s swearing in and the launch of the talks half a year later, intercommunal violence claimed fewer than ten lives.

The large attention Kerry paid to the conflict was matched by the resources the U.S. provides to Israel, which receives more American aid than any other country—over $3 billion annually, almost all of it military assistance, making up roughly one fourth of the Israeli defense budget and over half of U.S. worldwide military aid. The Palestinian government, too, secures close to half a billion per year, and is among the largest per capita recipients of U.S. aid. Over these two small and highly dependent clients, the U.S. might be expected to possess considerable leverage, more than any other country. Yet its efforts to broker a peace agreement between them have been repeatedly frustrated, suggesting not just U.S. mismanagement of taxpayer dollars but the apparent impotence of the world’s most powerful nation.

Still, Kerry’s temptation to enter the Israeli-Palestinian morass was not difficult to understand. Most U.S. officials believe without question that the end of a possibility of a two-state solution, whatever that might mean, would significantly harm American (as opposed to Israeli) interests. To many outsiders, the conflict seems simple to resolve—an ethnic partition of the territory into two nation states separated by the pre-1967 borders—and the U.S. seems well placed to resolve it. Confronted with accusations of U.S. retreat from the Middle East and the seeming insolubility of problems elsewhere in the world, Kerry focused on what looked achievable.

He appeared, moreover, to think that resolving the conflict was of great importance. The demography of Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel—where, collectively, the number of gentiles recently surpassed that of Jews—led Kerry to assert last year that soon Israel would face the choice between “either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.” Declaring, not for the first time and not for the last, that “the window for a two-state solution is shutting,” Kerry said, “I think we have some period of time—a year to year-and a-half to two years—or it’s over.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, 2014 (Thaier Al-Sudani/AP)

So Kerry pressed on, winning accolades not for any new strategy or tactic but rather for the sincerity of his avowed faith in the possibility of brokering a deal. He was convinced an agreement could be reached if only he could drag the parties to the negotiating table and mediate it. He operated under the misapprehension that after decades of failed efforts peace had remained elusive not because of irreconcilable positions but primarily because of a lack of trust. Normally the parties, whatever their doubts, are willing to appease a determined, legacy-seeking American Secretary of State. But Kerry found that months of shuttle diplomacy and earnest cajoling were not enough to surmount the obstacles that had prevented official, direct negotiations for several years.

Since the beginning of Obama’s first term, there had been only three meetings between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, all of them in September 2010. There had also been secret talks and, in January 2012, several unproductive “exploratory” meetings between lower-level officials in Amman. The Palestinians concluded that Netanyahu was not serious about a two-state settlement and so had refused to enter official, publicly acknowledged talks unless Israel met two conditions: first, agreement to a freeze in settlement activity, and second, an understanding that the final borders of the two states will be based on Israel’s pre-1967 lines, conditions all Israeli prime ministers before Netanyahu had rejected. (In 2011 and again in summer 2013, Netanyahu privately agreed to enter talks based on the pre-1967 borders if Palestinians would cancel plans to gain recognition of the State of Palestine at international institutions and offer recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, the latter of which they have consistently refused, seeing it as a ploy to have them relinquish refugee claims, consent to discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel, and concede the primacy of Jewish rights to the land from which they were displaced.) In the end, as American, Israeli, and Palestinian officials with direct knowledge of the talks have told me, Kerry found a formula to launch new negotiations. He made inconsistent promises to each side.

To the Israelis, Kerry said that he had obtained Palestinian acquiescence to hold talks in exchange for the release of prisoners, without either a settlement freeze or a commitment to the pre-1967 lines. To the Palestinians, he suggested that he had nearly obtained agreement to both. Israel, he told the Palestinians, would commit during the talks to exhibit restraint within the settlement blocs, and, according to several Abbas confidants, to stop issuing new tenders for construction outside them. A letter from Kerry given to the Palestinians at the outset of the talks stated that the goal of the United States was to create a Palestinian state whose borders are based on the pre-1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, as President Obama had stated in a May 2011 speech. To Palestinians, the implication in both cases was that the broker of the talks, the U.S., had obtained private commitments from Netanyahu to meet or come close to meeting both conditions, but that these commitments could not be acknowledged, since they would likely be rejected by the Israeli government or lead to its dissolution, and that the U.S. would work to ensure that both commitments were respected.

Palestinian negotiators say Kerry gave them three other important assurances. First, that he understood that, if he were to succeed, the coalition forming the Israeli government would have to change at some point during the negotiations. Second, that the talks would begin with a focus on borders and security before turning to other issues. And third, that the U.S. would be present as a third party in the talks, a commitment Palestinians wanted because they see mediation by Israel’s closest ally as preferable to negotiating with their occupier alone. As an added inducement for the Palestinians, Kerry announced an ambitious plan to invest $4 billion in the West Bank.

None of these commitments was kept. There was not only no restraint but a surge of new building in the settlement blocs, no halt in issuing construction tenders outside of them, no initial focus on borders, no assurance that discussions of borders were based on the pre-1967 lines, no $4 billion dollar investment in the West Bank. At Israel’s insistence and over Palestinian objections, there was almost no U.S. presence in the room during the first several months of negotiations. And there was no choice forced on the Israeli prime minister between fully accepting U.S. guidelines for continued talks or breaking up his government. Quite the opposite: for all but the final, desperate weeks of the talks, US positions were formulated specifically to avoid posing problems to the Israeli coalition government, many of whose members are opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

There was one more unfulfilled promise that Kerry made, and this one proved fatal. In exchange for Israel’s promise to release all 104 Palestinian prisoners who had been in jail since before the 1993 Oslo Accords, Kerry secured a Palestinian commitment to halt any steps toward taking part in international conventions, treaty bodies, and organizations as a means of strengthening recognition of Palestinian statehood and exerting pressure on Israel. For Israel, this commitment was a primary inducement to enter the talks.

Netanyahu demanded that the prisoners be released in four groups, each spaced roughly two months apart. The Palestinians provided Kerry with a list of all 104 pre-Oslo prisoners, including 14 Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Kerry assured them that Israel had accepted. Israel had not.

Netanyahu never agreed to release the 14 Palestinian citizens of Israel, which the Israeli cabinet decided would require a separate vote. But the Palestinian negotiators say they were led to believe the opposite. Wishful thinking appeared to underlie the decision to mislead the parties. Had Kerry been on the brink of a peace agreement at the time of the planned fourth prisoner release, as he expected to be, he could have reasonably expected the pardons to be approved. But Kerry’s plans didn’t come to be. After the deadline for the final group had passed, and it became clear that the Palestinian citizens of Israel would not be released to their homes, despite several days in which the U.S. made repeated assurances to the contrary, Palestinians felt they were no longer under obligation to refrain from joining international conventions and treaties. They gave the U.S. repeated warning of their intentions—enough time for the Israeli government to change its mind—and then joined 15 conventions and treaty bodies as the State of Palestine. The talks collapsed.

When Kerry announced the start of the negotiations in July 2013, he stated that his objective was a comprehensive peace treaty within nine months, and he maintained this goal in the face of widespread skepticism. Yet his critics failed to understand that there was little penalty for wrongly forecasting success when the world had grown so accustomed to failure. Ahead of the July 2000 Camp David summit, President Bill Clinton said a peace agreement could be achieved in several days. At the outset of the Annapolis talks in November 2007, President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed confidence that an agreement would be reached within one year. Three years later, in September 2010, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton renewed Bush’s one-year vow as they launched talks that lasted all of three weeks.

Palestinian Hamas border officers stand near the Egyptian-Gaza border, Sept. 2012. (Hatem Moussa/AP)

In each case, reaching a peace agreement was not the only reason for Israelis and Palestinians to engage in talks. Palestinian leaders understand that their livelihoods and the foreign aid on which the Palestinian government depends would be jeopardized if the peace process were somehow to come to a definitive end. Even ebbs in the peace process have financial consequences for Palestinians, who suffered a large dip in Western funding when negotiations were all but non-existent for most of 2012. Each year Palestinians must show Western donors their “performance” in making progress toward statehood, despite the fact that we are now 15 years past the date at which, according to the time-limited Oslo Accords, five years of interim governance by the Palestinian Authority were to end. In the absence of peace talks, it is uncomfortably obvious to these donors that the “state-building project” they are financing is not part of a road map or a pathway to Palestinian independence but a treadmill.

For Israel, past talks have been no less instrumental. They have brought increased U.S. military aid; a conditional pledge from Kerry to release from prison an American defense official who spied for Israel; U.S. vetoes of UN resolutions seen as unfavorable by Israel; and heightened stature on the global stage. Talks have won the appeasement of nagging leftists, human rights activists, and European officials; decreased support for boycotts and sanctions of Israel and Israeli settlement products; and a halt in steps toward international recognition of Palestinian statehood. Negotiations are thought—often wrongly—to have helped lessen Palestinian agitation against occupation by modestly reigniting Palestinian hope in achieving independence and thereby bolstering the Palestinian Authority’s claim to its people that it is less a cover for occupation than a tool for ending it. In shoring up international support for Israel, negotiations can serve as a bulwark against criticism of Israeli military operations in Gaza and elsewhere.[3] At times negotiations have also provided impunity to construct settlements in violation of international law. This was seen during the Kerry negotiations, during which settlement activity—justified as necessary to keep the Israeli governing coalition intact while the prime minister prepared to make a far-reaching offer of peace—rose to levels far higher than in the months before or after. Finally, talks have yielded reduced pressure to roll back military occupation, since, it is argued, they will shortly end it in any event.

These, however, are not among the primary reasons the U.S. engages in the peace process. In contrast to cynics like Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who does not believe negotiations will succeed but supports them anyway as a form of conflict management, the motives of U.S. officials are at once more earnest and dispiriting. Though there are important divisions among current and former U.S. policymakers, including a few doubting, dissident voices and a group of neoconservatives who oppose U.S.-brokered talks because they believe Arabs will never agree to peace with Israel, the majority of senior U.S. officials who have worked on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—including, and especially, presidents and secretaries of state—have believed with each new round of negotiations that they had a good chance of reaching a comprehensive peace agreement.

Lack of experience is not at fault, for many of the senior advisers involved have played key roles in multiple administrations. Their views are echoed in the halls of Washington think tanks whose experts have encouraged each new miscarriage. In a 2009 memoir, Martin Indyk, who was Ambassador to Israel during the July 2000 Camp David summit and later Kerry’s Special Envoy to the Middle East Peace Process, sought to diagnose the disease:

[H]ope and optimism are critical components of the innocence that is the hallmark of America’s engagement with the Middle East. Why would we bother to try to transform such a troubled region unless we somehow believed we could, and should? But the dark side of that innocence is a naiveté bred of ignorance and arrogance that generate a chronic inability to comprehend.
A Palestinian woman stands in the rubble of her destroyed home in Gaza City’s Shijaiyah neighborhood, 2014. (Hatem Moussa/AP)


U.S. officials involved in the peace process—as well as the think tanks, NGOs, advocates, journalists, analysts, and former officials that seek to influence them—can be divided into three groups. Their differing approaches to policy have dominated Middle East decision making for over two decades and contributed to the failures of each administration.[4]

The first and smallest of the three groups, whom I will call Skeptics, is represented by conservatives and neoconservatives who fundamentally believe that Arabs will not make peace with Israel, or, in the more nuanced version, that Arabs will not accept peace on terms acceptable to Israel’s center-right majority. On the latter point, they are surely correct.

Prominent people and institutions associated with the Skeptical camp include senior officials of the George W. Bush administration, such as Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, and Douglas Feith; the Zionist Organization of America; the American Enterprise Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; and The Weekly Standard, Commentary, and the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.

Because many Skeptics oppose the peace process, their influence on U.S.-brokered negotiations has been more limited than that of other groups. Much of their suspicion of the peace process derives from their accurate assessment that past Israeli offers have fallen far short of Palestinian demands. This was true when Ehud Olmert was prime minister—and made an offer considered extraordinarily far-reaching by Israelis and inadequate by Palestinians—and it has been doubly true since he was replaced by Benjamin Netanyahu.[5] A few Skeptics still oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state, but since the administration of George W. Bush officially endorsed the goal of creating one, their voices have been largely muted.

Skeptics tend to consider peace negotiations not simply a waste of time but dangerous, citing as evidence the second intifada that followed the failure of the July 2000 Camp David summit. They note that every significant agreement signed between Israel and its Arab neighbors—from the Oslo Accords with the PLO to the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan—was initiated without the U.S. (Skeptics tend to downplay the importance of subsequent U.S. efforts to support these agreements.) Because of their antipathy to “top-down” negotiations for a peace agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, they have focused instead on “bottom-up” changes, most notably the program of the unelected former Palestinian finance minister and prime minister Salam Fayyad to build the institutions that could support an eventual Palestinian state. This program remains, according to nearly all Washington officials, one of the few policymaking successes concerning the conflict in recent years.[6]

The record shows that since the 1993 Oslo Accords that established limited Palestinian autonomy and self-governance, the Skeptics who held positions of influence during the George W. Bush administration were responsible for many more positive, consequential changes than their predecessors and successors in the Clinton and Obama administrations. Skeptics helped bring about the first official approval, both from an Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and a U.S. president, Bush, not of Palestinian autonomy but statehood. They pushed in 2003 for the Palestinian Authority to create the post of prime minister, in which they helped install Mahmoud Abbas, the most moderate leader in Palestinian history.

After the end of the second intifada in early 2005, Skeptics created a program to use U.S. advisers to coordinate the transition of Palestinian security forces under Abbas’s command from fighting Israel to cooperating closely with it. Skeptics worked to reduce checkpoints in the West Bank. They encouraged the popular though not altogether effective attempts by Fayyad to lessen corruption and reform Palestinian institutions. And Skeptics supported the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, perhaps the most significant change in the conflict since 1967. Skeptics of the Bush administration argue that their successes came precisely because they opposed fruitless peace talks—at least until they were outmaneuvered by Condoleezza Rice, who made such talks a priority near the end of her tenure—and focused instead on smaller, incremental goals.

The Bush Skeptics also presided over no small number of failures. Grossly underestimating the strength of Hamas, they pushed for Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, convinced that Hamas—which had boycotted all previous national elections, including the January 2005 presidential election won by Abbas—would be discredited and defeated. The Skeptics then orchestrated a U.S.-led policy to isolate the Islamist party and deprive it of its democratically elected power. In the view of Skeptics, the results were mixed. Their policy succeeded in punishing Palestinians for their electoral choice, preventing Hamas rule in the West Bank, and dividing the Palestinian polity. But the same policy was also a failure in that it did not bring down Hamas, as they hoped. Rather Hamas became stronger politically and militarily, while U.S. collusion in thwarting Hamas’s victory undermined the legitimacy of the unelected Palestinian government that the Skeptics had sought to support.

The proponents of a second, more activist approach toward Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—I’ll call them Reproachers—disagree with the limited goals of the Skeptics, dismissing their doubts and believing instead that the conflict could be resolved if the U.S. were to put sufficient pressure on Israel. Reproachers seek to be more balanced mediators, to forcefully criticize Israeli settlement expansion, and to dedicate greater effort toward conducting final-status negotiations.

A number of influential Reproachers are self-described realists and veterans of the peace process who are critical of themselves and other U.S. officials for having acted, in the words of former State Department official Aaron David Miller, as “Israel’s lawyer.” Prominent people and institutions associated with the Reproacher school include President Obama during his first term, former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former Middle East envoy George Mitchell, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, foreign service officers at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, Americans for Peace Now, J Street, and the editorial board of The New York Times.

Reproachers hold that most Israelis see little short-term incentive to change a status quo consisting of prolonged military occupation, increasing settlement activity, and deepening Israeli entanglement in the West Bank. The largest Israeli protests during recent years have been against the high cost of living and the military draft of ultra-Orthodox Jews, not the occupation that has become a normal, accepted, and easily ignored part of life for most Israelis. In the absence of U.S. pressure, Reproachers argue, Israelis may consider this status quo less than optimal but will still prefer it to the principal alternatives. Few Israelis want to withdraw unilaterally, even from something well short of the territory Palestinians demand, especially because doing so would not put an end to the conflict or to claims against Israel pertaining to what remains of its occupation. Fewer still want to grant citizenship to all Palestinians living under their control, although it is advocated by growing numbers on the Israeli right. And almost none seek an agreement on terms Palestinians say they can accept, which would grant sovereignty to a nation that may one day re-elect Hamas.

Reproachers differ from other groups mainly in how urgently they believe Israel must reach an agreement. Fearing that Israel’s more radical elements will drive the country to ruin, Reproachers aim to act with “tough love” toward Israel in order to help it achieve what they believe it may not fully realize is in its own interest.

Reproachers such as President Obama often claim that the nearly half-century-old occupation is “unsustainable,” that time is running out, that Israel faces demographic annihilation, and that the current circumstances present the last chance for peace—claims repeated so frequently as to be largely ignored by Palestinians and Israelis alike.[7] Seeing active U.S. mediation as a necessary condition for peace, Reproachers reject the notion of Skeptics that, as with past Israeli peace treaties, an agreement will have to await the initiative of the parties themselves. Some Reproachers doubt the chance of peace under Netanyahu or other right-wing Israeli leaders (indeed, since the Kerry talks broke down, Obama administration Reproachers have behaved more like Skeptics, calling for a “pause” in negotiations in the hope that the parties will eventually beg the U.S. to reengage) but this does not translate into skepticism about the peace process in general.

Reproachers argue that the conflict has not remained unresolved because the maximum Israelis will concede is less than the minimum Palestinians will accept, as Skeptics claim. Rather, they say, it is because the U.S. has not been bold enough in seeking to bridge the differences. Reproachers tend to focus more on settlements and territory than the thornier issues of sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade—known to Jews as Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount) and to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary)—and resolving the Palestinian refugee problem. They often state that the outlines of a final peace treaty are well known, and they tend to dismiss the possibility that failure thus far can be explained by the inadequacy of the arrangements they have suggested and seen rejected.

Nothing has done more to discredit Reproachers than holding power. No U.S. administration has been more stacked with Reproachers than Barack Obama’s, and no American president has been more sympathetic to Palestinians. But so far Obama has achieved much less for them than did George W. Bush.

This is partly the result of circumstance. Both the Skeptics of the Bush administration and the Reproachers of the Obama administration began their first terms at roughly the same time as a newly elected Likud Prime Minister who had still not accepted the idea of Palestinian statehood. Both Ariel Sharon in 2001 and Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009 entered office just months after the collapse of what in each case had been the most far-reaching Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to date. Both prime ministers refused to continue talks where their predecessors—Ehud Barak in 2000–2001 and Ehud Olmert in 2007–8—had left off, despite Palestinian pleas for them to do so.

Barak and Olmert had made offers that were both unsatisfactory to Palestinians and far ahead of mainstream Israeli public opinion. Each prime minister had proposed them at a time when he was losing power and a historic peace agreement was his only route to retain elected office. Both U.S. administrations were sure that the new Likud prime minister could not match, much less surpass, the offers made several months earlier. But whereas the Skeptics of the Bush administration concluded that renewed negotiations were pointless, the Reproachers of the Obama administration, believing that talks can succeed if the U.S. employs the right mix of seduction and pressure, sought to start negotiations between Palestinians and Netanyahu. They did so despite a deafening chorus of analysts and former officials stating that Netanyahu could not be brought to make even those concessions of his predecessor that Palestinians had so recently found insufficient.

Palestinians, meanwhile, stood to lose by entering talks with these Likud prime ministers. In all likelihood, they believed, the Likud leaders would harden Israeli positions, leading to a collapse of talks and a less desirable potential starting point for future ones. Over the years, Israeli negotiating positions regarding territory and Jerusalem had moved closer and closer to Palestinian demands for full sovereignty in East Jerusalem and the relinquishment of territory equal to the 22 percent of mandatory Palestine that is outside Israel’s pre-1967 borders. A Palestinian leader could not be expected to enter talks that stood a good chance of reversing this trend. The Skeptics of the Bush administration seemed to understand this. The Reproachers of the Obama administration clearly did not.

So in the early days of Obama’s presidency, the Reproachers, led by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, pushed for a settlement freeze, believing, incorrectly, that this would win respect, and subsequent steps toward normalization, from Arab states. The Arab states were not impressed, offering Obama little more than indifference. After more than ten months of painful failure at appreciable domestic cost, the Reproachers succeeded in obtaining from Israel—in exchange for Abbas’s domestically damaging commitment to postpone a vote at the UN endorsing the Goldstone report on the 2008–9 conflict in Gaza—not a freeze but a so-called moratorium on settlements that was filled with loopholes. These included a large number of exemptions, for construction begun just beforehand; for educational, religious, cultural, and sport facilities; for planning and public infrastructure; and for building in East Jerusalem, where settlement construction is most consequential. The 2010 moratorium—extended for 90 days in exchange for a U.S. security package worth $3 billion and a U.S. pledge to veto moves toward Palestinian statehood at the UN—was immediately preceded and succeeded by so much construction as to render it meaningless. In West Bank settlements, the number of construction starts dropped less than 7 percent from the previous year, while in East Jerusalem, the number of housing units approved for validation more than doubled.

Bush, by contrast, was offered a full freeze in settlement construction during Sharon’s first months in office in 2001, as Indyk, who was then Ambassador to Israel, writes in his memoir. The principal difference was that Sharon offered it in exchange for a halt in the Palestinian violence then raging, whereas when Obama entered office, the intifada had long since ended.

U.S. pressure on Israel during Obama’s first year in office consisted mostly of reprimands, which were more costly to Obama’s domestic political agenda than to Netanyahu. Frustrated with the failures of the Reproachers, Obama was reported by The Washington Post to have asked them, “I see you want the moratorium, but how does it get us where we want to be? Tell me the relationship between what we are doing and our objective.” It wasn’t long before he brought in a senior figure from a rival ideological camp, whose members I’ll call Embracers.

Israeli soldiers begin their day next to their mobile artillery unit at a position on the Israel-Gaza border, Friday, July 11, 2014. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

Representatives of the third and most influential stream, Embracers, combine the unconditional love of Israel of the Skeptics and the unwavering faith in the peace process of the Reproachers. Prominent institutions associated with the Embracer school include the Anti-Defamation League, the more moderate (non-Skeptical) parts of AIPAC, the US embassy in Tel Aviv, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the editorial board of The Washington Post. Like Skeptics, they think a U.S. focus on settlements mistaken. Like Reproachers, they firmly believe that an agreement can be reached and that the U.S. is necessary to achieving one. But unlike Reproachers, they argue that peace can be brokered only by embracing Israel tightly, reassuring it and alleviating its fears. Israel, the Embracers reason, is the stronger party, with both more to give and more to lose; for Israel to have the confidence necessary to take generous steps, it needs unwavering American support.

The most prominent Embracer is Dennis Ross, a George H. W. Bush and Clinton administration veteran who was asked to lead Obama’s Middle East policy when the Reproacher strategy hit a wall. Ross and other Embracers opposed the Reproachers’ push for a settlement freeze. He struggled with George Mitchell over control of Middle East policy until he won; when Obama sided with Ross and refused to call for the division of Jerusalem in an important policy speech in May 2011, Mitchell resigned.

Before becoming Secretary of State and launching peace talks, John Kerry, with his comments about the last chance for a two-state solution and the dire consequences of not achieving peace, was thought to be among Washington’s Reproachers. But he soon chose a team of Embracers and applied their strategy to enthusiastic Embracer acclaim. Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which was cofounded by Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk (a former Embracer who has moved somewhat toward the Reproacher camp), praised the “tenacity and wisdom” of Kerry’s anti-Reproacher position, which brought about talks on terms Israel had long sought. “In contrast to Obama 2009,” Satloff said, “the initial Kerry 2014 strategy has been to ‘hug’ Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, essentially asking him, ‘What do you need?’”

Embracers are popular with presidents because they tell them precisely what they want to hear: that you can achieve your goals by closely allying the administration with Israel, improving relations with it in the process, making Palestinians happy since your cradling of Israel will lead to the peace they desire, and all while winning plaudits from Israel’s supporters in the U.S., thus paying no domestic political price. So far this dream has not come true, but the words have been too sweet to be resisted.

Obama, who fell under their spell quite early in his first term, adopted a strategy toward the peace process not unlike that of Goldilocks toward porridge. He entered office thinking the Bush Skeptics were too warm toward Israel, telling a group of Jewish leaders in 2009, “During those eight years [of Bush], there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that?” But Obama soon concluded that his Reproachers were too cold. So he handed responsibility to the Embracers, whom he believed would be just right.

Kerry’s appointment as Secretary of State heralded not a move away from the strategy of the Embracers but a reemphasis on it. When Israel put forward plans for extensive expansion of settlements with each new prisoner release, Kerry did little more than call the new announcements of buildings “illegitimate” and “unhelpful,” while simultaneously angering Palestinians by announcing that the sharp rise was “expected” and urging them not to abandon the talks. He made it his top priority to find a way to meet Netanyahu’s demands for an Israeli security presence in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley and for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a position the U.S. had failed to get even the Middle East Quartet—the U.S., EU, UN, and Russia—to endorse in summer 2011. Until the final weeks of the talks, he sought to avoid presenting Israel with any choice that might break up Netanyahu’s coalition. On difficult issues like the division of sovereignty in Jerusalem, he used evasive rhetoric — such as a reference to Palestinian “aspirations” for a capital there—to imply to Palestinians that they would enjoy sovereignty in the city while suggesting to the Israeli right that no division would take place.

Following one disappointment after another, the Palestinians came to realize that there was a far greater risk in negotiations than they had anticipated. As the talks foundered and the U.S.’s objective was steadily downgraded—from a comprehensive peace treaty to a framework agreement between the parties to a mere extension of talks without a framework—they feared that Kerry would put forward his vision of the outlines of an agreement, a vision that looked increasingly like it would represent several steps backward from what they perceived as commitments already secured.

Palestinians recalled that in 2003, Bush’s Road Map for Middle East Peace, which was drafted by the U.S. in consultation with others and endorsed by the Quartet and the UN Security Council, promised that all settlement activity would be frozen and that more recently erected settler outposts would be immediately dismantled. The Road Map also stated that a final resolution to the conflict would be based on (though not identical to) the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. This proposed a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem; a just solution of the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with the 1948 UN General Assembly resolution, voted for by the United States, that called on Israel to permit peace-seeking refugees to return and provide financial compensation to those not wishing to do so; and a full withdrawal to Israel’s pre-1967 borders, with no mention of accommodation for settlement blocs or land swaps.

Palestinian negotiators do not insist that a comprehensive agreement entail no modifications of the Arab Peace Initiative or other possible bases for future talks. But they have little incentive to accept negotiations based on less favorable terms than had been offered in the past. Even the Clinton Parameters of December 2000, about which the PLO expressed major reservations, offered Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade and also Israeli recognition in principle, though with implementation left to Israel’s sovereign discretion, of “the right of Palestinian refugees to return to historic [i.e., mandatory] Palestine.”

Kerry failed to comprehend just how deeply flawed was his notion of winning Palestinian acceptance of detailed U.S. parameters. There was no precedent for a Palestinian leader making hugely controversial concessions on final-status issues for the mere opportunity to hold or extend talks, much less for talks with an Israeli government whose intentions Palestinians had strong reasons to doubt. To concede, in the absence of a comprehensive peace treaty, that almost no refugees would have the choice of returning to Israel is to commit an act of political hara-kiri that any Palestinian leader would naturally avoid. Yet the U.S. asked Abbas to do just that and expressed great disappointment when he refused to take the sword.

Reproachers repeatedly call on the U.S. to issue its vision of a final peace deal. They think that proposing U.S. parameters for a comprehensive agreement would either serve as the basis of renewed negotiations or force the Israeli coalition to break apart (so that it could be replaced, they hope, with one that can accept U.S. parameters). But no Reproacher has yet drafted, as the mere basis for talks, a set of specific parameters on all final-status issues that could be fully accepted by both Abbas and even the Israeli left, to say nothing of the Israeli right and center. Unless Abbas accepted such parameters without a set of nullifying reservations, the Israeli government would be under no pressure to do so.

A Palestinian boy looks through the damage of Omar Ibn Abed Al-Aziz mosque, 2014. (Adel Hana/AP)

At a White House meeting in March 2014, Obama read to Abbas a draft U.S. framework for continued negotiations, telling Abbas that he could add reservations to it, as could the Israeli side. Obama’s March 2014 proposal was more favorable to the Palestinians than was the 2000 Clinton Parameters on one issue, territory: Whereas Clinton’s proposal precluded the possibility of a Palestinian state equal in area to all of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, Obama’s did not, saying that the borders would be along the pre-1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. But the rest of the proposal was less favorable to Palestinians. Unlike the Clinton Parameters, Obama’s March 2014 proposal offered no end date for the withdrawal of Israeli security forces from Palestinian territory. It made no mention of a right to return and it specified that only a small number of humanitarian cases would be permitted to return, at Israel’s discretion. Like the Clinton Parameters, it did offer a Palestinian capital in part of East Jerusalem, but unlike Clinton’s plan, it did not state that Palestinians would be sovereign over Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade, the third holiest site in Islam.

The Obama administration expressed great frustration at Abbas’s refusal to accept the framework. In August, Obama said that Abbas was “too weak” to make peace, a defensible yet incomplete assessment of what went wrong with the Kerry talks. Obama failed to mention that Abbas’s inability to accept the U.S.’s March 2014 framework was greatly exacerbated by the fact that Abbas does not represent huge parts of Palestinian society, including the many supporters of Hamas, which for decades has been excluded from the PLO, the body that is supposed to represent all Palestinians. U.S. officials privately lament the lack of vision or courage of Palestinian leaders. But instead of seeking to bolster their legitimacy and strengthen them, the U.S. prioritizes the exclusion from Palestinian decision-making of all but the most dovish voices surrounding Abbas—not just Islamists but other large, neglected constituencies, including refugees and the diaspora. This all but guarantees that the doves will be too weak to gather consensus around possible compromises, too afraid in the absence of such consensus to sign a deal, and too isolated to successfully sell one. It was little wonder, then, that given the choice between making politically explosive concessions and rejecting the U.S. framework, the PLO moved in April 2014 to end the talks, join international conventions and treaties as the State of Palestine, and sign an agreement with Hamas to form a new government of technocrats acceptable to the PLO and not loyal to Hamas.[8]

In the end, Kerry did help broker an agreement, but not the one he intended, and for that Hamas and Fatah owe him thanks. And yet, obvious as the Palestinian decision to leave the talks may sound, the rationale for it remains mysterious to Kerry and his team. During a speech following the collapse of negotiations, Indyk stated, “I can’t say that I fully comprehend all of the factors involved” in causing Abbas to “shut down.” On other occasions he and Kerry have blamed failure not on the large differences between Israeli and Palestinian positions but on procedural impediments and the cliché of a “lack of trust.”

Today there is again discussion of attempting to restart negotiations in order to fill the “political vacuum” that numerous US.. officials believe was an important cause of the war in Gaza. If efforts to renew talks are not successful, the Obama administration may once again weigh the possibility of publicly putting forward the U.S. vision of the end of the conflict. By now one would think U.S. policymakers would have more modesty about their ability to predict what terms a final-status agreement will contain. But even as the collapse of the talks came into view in March, both Kerry (“it is really no mystery what the end-game really looks like”) and Obama (“everybody understands what the outlines of a peace deal would look like”) remained convinced they knew the terms on which the conflict would end: something more or less like the past proposals Palestinians have found wanting—the Clinton Parameters, the proposal made by Olmert to Abbas in 2008, or the Obama framework of March 2014. And so it seems likely that Kerry and Obama will repeat their past mistakes.


Despite the tactical differences among Skeptics, Reproachers, and Embracers, there is more uniting the three approaches than distinguishing them. If they were to draw up the outlines of a peace treaty, they might fight over the size of land swaps, the number of settlers Israel would evacuate, the location of the border dividing Jerusalem, the duration Israeli security forces would remain in a Palestinian state, and whether the refugee issue would be “based on” UN resolution 194 or represent the fulfillment of it. But to a non-expert observer it would be difficult to discern the importance of such distinctions.

On issues of broader significance, their opinions largely overlap. Members of all three groups consider themselves pro-Israel and are concerned with preserving it as a Jewish state. All favor a two-state solution, the annexation by Israel of large settlement blocs on the West Bank, and a Palestinian capital in some part of East Jerusalem. When speaking of dividing Jerusalem, all three mean dividing only occupied East Jerusalem, while forcing Palestinians wishing to go from Ramallah to al-Aqsa mosque to travel in tunnels running beneath East Jerusalem settlements annexed by Israel. All wish to deny Palestinian refugees anything more than a symbolic return to Israel and do not call for the return to Israel of an upper limit of 120,000–125,000, as discussed at the Taba negotiations in 2001.[9] All underestimate the moral significance to Palestinians of Israeli recognition of at least partial responsibility for the refugee problem. All imagine amounts of financial compensation to refugees that are orders of magnitude lower than refugees expect. (A 2003 survey showed that among those refugees willing to choose compensation instead of returning to Israel, 65 percent believed a fair amount would be $100,000–$500,000 per family. Prior to the Camp David negotiations in 2000, U.S. officials estimated that a combined total of up to $20 billion might be available to Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees from Arab countries, meaning that Palestinians could expect to receive no more than $1,000–$3,000 per refugee.) All neglect how unacceptable their proposals are to refugees, whose support will be indispensable for a lasting agreement, since they make up a majority of Palestinians worldwide and roughly 45 percent of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.

All three groups back the Israeli demand to place severe restrictions on the sovereignty of a future Palestinian state, with limits on Palestinian armament, border control, airspace, and ability to form alliances, as well as the presence in the Palestinian state of international security forces, Israeli early-warning stations, routes for Israeli emergency deployments, and a continued presence for some considerable period of Israeli troops. Some but not all of these restrictions are acceptable to PLO leaders, but they remain highly unpopular with the Palestinian public.

Most important, all three groups underrate how ineffectual and often detrimental U.S. actions and policies have been, whether the incremental steps favored by the Skeptics or the final-status talks promoted by Embracers and Reproachers. All three groups justify their positions on the grounds that they advance the parties toward a two-state peace. Yet the effect of all three groups, in practice if not in intention, has been to create false hopes.

For two decades, the notion of Embracers and Reproachers that peace may come in the near future has excused taking little more than minimal and inadequate steps to lessen the hardships imposed by occupation today. Neither Israel nor the U.S. demanded that a peace treaty accompany Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza or southern Lebanon, which is one reason the Israeli army departed from both. In point of fact, the U.S.’s earnest and patient search for peace serves to entrench a one-state reality: Israeli Arabs deepen their ties to Palestinians in the West Bank; settlements spread; outposts are legalized; and annexationist Israeli ministers and parliamentarians grow in power and strength. New roads and parks cut through Arab East Jerusalem and make any realistic division of the city untenable. East Jerusalemite Palestinians are cut off from the West Bank, receive eviction orders from their homes, or move to the other side of the separation wall. All the while a series of fruitless negotiations helps to discredit the two-state model and confirm the depth of the chasm between the two sides.

Despite the good intentions that Skeptics, Reproachers, and Embracers express, the U.S. is less a cure than a cause of stasis. It deprives any other third party—whether European or Arab—of a meaningful part in the peace process. It negotiates and drafts proposals without adequately consulting or considering the concerns of communities whose support would be crucial for a lasting peace. These include religious Zionists and ultra-Orthodox Jews as well as Islamists, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and refugees. The U.S. tells the Palestinians that peace talks, as well as Western support, are conditional on a halt in Palestinian steps to place more pressure on Israel.

Those steps—which, though popular with the public, are opposed or regarded warily by many Palestinian leaders—include popular protests, boycotts and sanctions, lawsuits, pursuit of recognition of a Palestinian state in various international institutions, and limits on security cooperation with Israel. They also include reforms within the PLO to admit Hamas and other excluded Palestinian factions. The U.S. opposes such reforms, which are necessary for true Palestinian reconciliation, but fails to see that Palestinian negotiators will have little legitimacy without them.

U.S. policy is designed to thwart actions that would raise the costs of the status quo, in effect sustaining it. At the same time, the U.S. expends considerable effort preaching to unconvinced Israeli and Palestinian leaders that the continuing impasse cannot be sustained. But most Israeli voters, and many among the Palestinian elite, are quite at ease with existing conditions, thanks in no small part to the United States. This will remain so as long as the different proponents of the U.S.-led peace process insist on mediating the conflict even as they help perpetuate it.

Rather than accepting current circumstances in an effort not to harm the possibility of a negotiated two-state settlement, the U.S. could condition ongoing support on unilateral changes that are consistent with partition. Netanyahu claims that he is in favor of creating a Palestinian state. In any future two-state agreement, Palestinian, European, and U.S. officials will require that the Palestinian state contain, at minimum, all of the 91.5 percent of Jerusalem and West Bank territory east of the planned route of the separation barrier. The U.S. can exert influence on Israel to greatly reduce the presence of occupation in this territory and grant far more Palestinian control there.

At the same time, the U.S. could reverse its opposition to the formation of a unified PLO leadership. Without such leadership, no stable Israeli-Palestinian coexistence can be reached, and no PLO leader can avoid the accusation of being “too weak” to make peace. The U.S. could also remove its threats against Palestinian accession to international treaties and institutions, including the International Criminal Court. Membership in such organizations would serve as a protection against the possibility of binationalism and bolster the Palestinian statehood that the U.S. professes to support.

Yet the political incentives for the U.S. to take such radical steps do not exist. The potential benefits of creating a small, poor, and strategically inconsequential Palestinian state are tiny when compared to the costs of heavily pressuring a close ally wielding significant regional and U.S. domestic power. And even if the steps I have mentioned were taken, they would be no guarantee of a peaceful future. But unlike current policies, they at least offer the possibility of a better one.

A shorter version of this piece appears in the October 9, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books.


[1] For a discussion of Hamas’s strategy during the war, see my article, “Hamas’s Chances,” The London Review of Books, August 21, 2014.

[2] For more on the efforts by Israel and the US to obstruct the functioning of the new Palestinian government prior to the war, see my article, “How the West Chose War in Gaza,” The New York Times, July 18, 2014.

[3] Israel’s Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, claimed this was the case during the war in Gaza in 2008–9. At the time, Livni, as Foreign Minister, was still ostensibly committed to continuing the near-dead Annapolis talks.

[4] Proponents of bi-nationalism or a one-state solution, from either the left or right, have had no voice in the U.S. government.

[5] For a discussion of the Olmert-Abbas talks and the significant differences between the sides during them, see my article “What Future for Israel?,” The New York Review of Books, August 15, 2013.

[6] For more on U.S. support for Fayyad’s state-building program, see my article, “Our Man in Palestine,” The New York Review of Books, October 14, 2010.

[7] Yet Reproachers tend to neglect that even if Palestinians were to one day demand enfranchisement in a single state, Israel could probably thwart the move, and the accompanying international pressure, by withdrawing unilaterally from large Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and disclaiming responsibility for them.

[8] For a discussion of U.S. policy toward the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the PLO, see my article, “Whose Palestine?,” The New York Review blog, June 19, 2014.

[9] At Taba, the Israeli team proposed absorbing into Israel 25,000 refugees over three years or 40,000 over five years, with refugee return to be resolved over a fifteen year period. Narrowly interpreted, this meant Israel accepted the return of 25,000 to 40,000 refugees. A broader interpretation is that it accepted 120,000 to 125,000 over the entire fifteen-year period.