Gaza: Books on the Winding Road to Mideast Peace

Barack Obama said virtually nothing last week about the fighting in Gaza. We only have "one president at a time," his aides argue, and he has already called for a robust American peacemaking effort. Still, as the bombs began falling it must have been tempting for the president-elect to simply avert his eyes. Cries of "all-out war" make the risks to U.S. credibility abroad and the political costs at home seem infinitely more acute. Fighting in the Holy Land has been raging for thousands of years, the familiar reasoning goes; it would be hubris to think America could end it.

Yet three excellent recent books suggest that such logic is seriously flawed. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly, diplomatic distance virtually guarantees the status quo. Because Israel is so much stronger, power dynamics in the conflict are "deeply unbalanced," write Daniel Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky in their trenchant guidebook, "Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace" (191 pages. U.S. Institute of Peace. $16.50). "Left on their own, the parties cannot address the deep, structural impediments to peace." Over the past half-century, the price of a generally desultory American policy has been compounded.

That's the takeaway from Patrick Tyler's ambitious new history, "A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East—From the Cold War to the War on Terror" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 628 pages. $30). The bottom line, according to Tyler: "After nearly six decades of escalating American involvement in the Middle East, it remains nearly impossible to discern any overarching approach to the region such as the one that guided U.S. policy through the Cold War." Still, starry-eyed naiveté is no way to solve one of the world's most intractable conflicts. Martin Indyk's nuanced new memoir of his tenure as a Clinton-era peace negotiator, "Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East" (494 pages. Simon &Schuster. $30), demonstrates how hard the balancing act can be.

American diplomacy in the region wasn't always so feeble. Back in the fall of 1956, intelligence reached Washington that Israel was massing troops near Gaza in the Negev Desert. U.S. officials discovered that Israel had conspired with Britain and France to seize the Suez Canal, which popular Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized the summer before. The Americans were furious at their allies' back-room plan. Israel's then foreign minister, Golda Meir, made an argument much the same as what Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said since then: "Imagine attacks from enemies camped on the Mexican and Canadian borders inflicting those kinds of casualties in America." But President Eisenhower wasn't buying. As Tyler recounts, Ike went on television and demanded a withdrawal, later withholding oil shipments and loans to Britain. The conspirators were forced to comply.

In the years after World War II, Nasser wasn't yet a reflexive U.S. antagonist. American diplomats and spooks assiduously (albeit clumsily) courted Arab nationalist leaders in both Syria and Egypt. Theodore Roosevelt's grandson, the CIA agent Kermit (Kim) Roosevelt, handed out suitcases filled with millions of dollars in cash to potential allies. His efforts were transparent, and Nasser considered it bribery. As Tyler recounts, the Arab nationalist used the money to build a tower topped with a revolving restaurant in central Cairo. Egyptians referred to the eyesore as "Roosevelt's erection." By the mid-1950s, Nasser was poised to sign a $100 million arms deal with the Soviet Union, and Syria was in similar talks.

In the meantime, Israel and America were growing closer. U.S. intelligence operatives were grateful for Israeli espionage help as the Cold War intensified. In 1966 the Mossad delighted the CIA's Tel Aviv station chief, John Hadden, by delivering a fully functional Soviet MiG-21 to the Americans for inspection. When Hadden was caught copying names from mailboxes in a neighborhood in Dimona—the location of Israel's secret, undeclared nuclear program—Mossad agents only laughed and began referring to Hadden affectionately as the "bastard," Tyler writes. The following year, Israel defeated several Soviet clients at once during the Six Day War, and respect for the Jewish state deepened among American cold warriors.

That strengthening relationship carried unintended consequences. When Israel's Arab neighbors launched a surprise invasion on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur in October 1973, then Prime Minister Golda Meir urgently requested an American airlift. Nixon eventually authorized a massive aid package—560 supply flights, 22,000 tons of equipment and weapons and 80 aircraft—to assist the Israeli military. The Arab world's subsequent embargo marked the start of modern Middle East oil politics. Tyler argues that the glut of weapons and easy American support emboldened the Israeli military in later conflicts like the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which spawned the Iranian-sponsored Islamist group Hizbullah.

As the Cold War eventually thawed, American presidents thought they might finally end the violence. Former Soviet clients in the Arab world, once relentlessly hostile to Israel, began seeking peace instead. George H.W. Bush tried getting tough with Israel to push the process along, threatening to withhold critical loan guarantees unless it halted settlement construction. Jim Baker, his secretary of state, publicly challenged the Israelis, reciting the White House switchboard number and demanding: "When you're serious about peace, call us." Bill Clinton took the opposite tack, closely coordinating peace proposals with Israeli negotiators. As Kurtzer and Lasensky argue, both strategies had flaws. Baker alienated some American Jews; Clinton's approach angered Palestinians. Still, there finally seemed to be some movement. In 1993 Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords; Jordan's King Hussein followed the next year with his own separate peace. Even Syria's strongman Hafez al-Assad began signaling his eagerness for talks.

Some of the Clinton-era Mideast hands who may return in the Obama administration believe the time is once again right to engage Syria. They're probably right, but Indyk's past experience is instructive. In the early winter of 1999, Assad summoned Clinton's peace team to his gray-marble palace high on a Damascus hilltop. The Syrian had six months to live, and he knew it. Assad had always acted as if he'd wait forever to get what he wanted; in negotiations he was known to deliver four-hour disquisitions on Saladin and the Crusaders. Baker once referred to the autocrat's interminable diatribes as "bladder diplomacy." Yet now Assad was curt and hurried. The Lion of Damascus was "a sick man, his emaciated face almost skeletal, his handshake bony and weak," Indyk writes. Assad told the Americans he thought a peace deal was "close." He seemed to be rapidly withdrawing demands. "I think we're lowering the bar," he told the startled Americans. "We should do something quickly."

The Syrian talks grew so intense and promising that jealous Palestinians began referring to Damascus as "the other woman." Yet the affair proved short-lived. One month after the Damascus meeting, Clinton summoned Israel's then prime minister, Ehud Barak, to Washington to work on the details. When the Israeli's Boeing 707 landed at Andrews Air Force Base, the prime minister, under intense fire at home from his political enemies, refused to get off his plane. Barak sent for Indyk, who was waiting on the tarmac. The American found the prime minister firmly planted in his blue leather lounge chair. "I can't do it," Barak said, adding later: "I cannot look like a freier"—a sucker—"in front of my people." He eventually rejoined the talks, but the gaps were widening. After details of subsequent negotiations leaked to an Israeli paper, Assad also began to hesitate. He stopped returning Clinton's calls. Six months later the Syrian leader was dead—and so was the peace process. As Clinton's Israeli-Palestinian talks also collapsed, the second intifada began—a conflict that would ultimately kill more than 5,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis.

George W. Bush arrived in the Oval Office determined to wash his hands of the conflict. One day in March 2001, Indyk, who remained as U.S. ambassador to Israel for a short time during the Bush administration, accompanied Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to a meeting with the president. On the way out, Bush stopped the diplomat at the door. "There's nothing to be done" with the Arab-Israeli conflict, the president declared. "No Nobel Peace Prize to be had here." Seven years later, with the region still in chaos, Barack Obama's shot at a Nobel may be equally remote. But after decades of conflict, it's hard to think of a more critical place to try.