"Washington did nothing to make Israel understand that it cannot continue behaving like a rogue country."

Elias Zananiri

In this exclusive interview, Elias Zananiri, former journalist and spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority, reflects upon both the historic and contemporary role of the United States as a mediator in the Israel-Palestine conflict. From the strategic relationship between the U.S. and Israel to the policies of Presidents Obama and Trump, this conversation covers it all.

Anya: Do you think the US currently has and will continue to have a monopoly over the peace process? Are the days of major US involvement with the creation of peace plans and diplomacy tactics over?

Today, against the backdrop of the conflict in Ukraine, it is clear the US can no longer be the only superpower that has a say in what happens in the international arena.

Elias: To start with, I should say the US played a very unfortunate role from the outset of the peace process and even before. It has chosen management of the conflict at the expense of conflict resolution. This way, it zig-zagged a lot, but maintained its compass always on Israel’s side. When there was a need to pressure Israel, we hardly saw such pressure coming from Washington. Perhaps, except for the loan guarantees issue that former President Bush Sr. and his Secretary of State James Baker used in 1992 against the Israeli government over settlement expansion.

Today, against the backdrop of the conflict in Ukraine, it is clear the US can no longer be the only superpower that has a say in what happens in the international arena. Therefore, I don’t see Washington playing any positive role on her own, but still, it can be very useful once its efforts are incorporated with those of the international Quartet that includes in addition to the US, the UN, the EU and Russia.

A: How has the strategic relationship between the US and Israeli complicated the US’s role as a mediator in the peace process?

E: I already said the US made sure its compass always remains on Israel’s side. In other words, it failed to pressure Israel where needed, mostly on the issue of Jewish settlement activities in the occupied territories. The US has always maintained that those settlements were illegal and obstructed peace between the Arabs and Israel. It also called for the full cessation of all activities in those existing settlements or in building new ones. But Washington did nothing to make Israel understand that it cannot continue behaving like a rogue country. 

In other words, Israel got used to the notion that it can always get away with what it does in contravention of international law and even mainstream US policy as long as the White House and the State Department are on her side.

That was very detrimental to US peace-making efforts as well as to US integrity and interests in the Arab world.

A: How have the last few US presidents either helped or harmed the peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine?

E: Let’s take Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump as an example. Obama came to office and rapidly made a high leap too fast. In his effort to mend fences with the Arab and Islamic countries, he delivered a remarkable speech in Cairo where he spoke of Israel having to cease every settlement activity in the Occupied Territories, including what it relates to natural growth. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was overtaken with this statement and he too announced that the PLO would not resume talks with Israel until after the latter froze settlement activities in the Occupied Territories. After endorsing what Obama said, Abbas could not afford to be seen as less Palestinian than Obama. A few months later, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement signaling President Obama’s backdown from what he said in Cairo. Obama thought he would avoid Bill Clinton’s mistake when he indulged in his efforts to solve the Middle East conflict only in the last year of his second term. Obama thought he would start his first term with something spectacular. Not only did he not finish what he started, he even backed down on what he said.

Trump did something different. He thought by embracing Israel’s Netanyahu, he would gain certain leverage to convince him to move towards making peace with the Palestinians. However, with all the support he gave, Netanyahu remained what he has always been: a hawkish prime minister whose personal agenda and political survival are more important than anything else in the country. Trump could have done better than any other US President because of the kind of affection he scored in Israeli hearts. Yet, on the other hand, he lost Palestinian hearts after he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and subsequently moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the Holy City. In both examples, the two presidents were ultimately driven not by what should serve both sides of the conflict but by loyalty and support for Israel and her alone. That was their mistake. I am afraid President Joe Biden is doing the same too. He even backed down on promises he made to the Palestinians to reopen the PLO office in Washington and the US Consulate General in East Jerusalem. What else can the Palestinians expect from him, anyway?

A: In the past, we have seen involvement from the Quartet in the peace process. Do you think this involvement is beneficial? Should we see more mediation from the European Union and the United Nations?

E: The Quartet was also influenced largely by the US role and therefore, it turned itself into a paper tiger that frightened no Israeli official. I don’t see the Quartet resuming its work now in light of the Ukraine conflict. I guess the whole notion of the Quartet may disappear as it will prove itself entirely impotent to take action on anything, mostly because of the wide gap dividing the US from Russia.

This is the reason why the UN is now becoming more relevant than before, although it was also party to the Quartet. The UN can play a significant role in making peace in the region but ways need to be found to circumvent US vetoes of any resolution that Israel doesn’t like at the UN Security Council. After the conflict in Ukraine, the world looks much different than it was before. We see world powers rearranging themselves with new sets of alliances away from those that existed in the past. It is the cold war in different means and between different foes.

A: What role do other Middle Eastern countries play in this conflict, especially as we see more and more of them normalizing relations with Israel? Would they be successful mediators?

E: Some of the Arab countries endorsed President Trump’s approach in that they thought moving close to Israel would give them the leverage they need to influence its policy on Palestine. They failed to make Israel move one step towards a conciliatory stand on Palestine while they lost the heart of the Palestinian people as well as the heart of many Arab masses throughout the Arab world. The Arab Peace Initiative of the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002 offered to establish normal and political ties with Israel in return for her total pullout of the Arab territories it occupied in the June 1967 war and her recognition of the State of Palestine. The Arab countries that normalized with Israel simply turned the Arab Peace Initiative upside down and started with normalizing ties with Israel hoping the latter would eventually end the occupation and recognize the Palestinian state. Well, that never happened and I don’t see it happening in the near future.

A: Are mediation and the participation of a third party productive and beneficial? Or has there been enough trial and error to confidently say that successful and long-term cooperation and peace can only come from direct negotiation between the internal parties involved in the conflict?

E: Not necessarily. The Oslo process started between Israel and the PLO without even the Americans knowing anything about it. This is at least what Israel’s former Prime Minister Shimon Peres told me one day when we met at his office in Tel Aviv a few months before he passed away. He said, “we, Palestinians and Israelis together, started the process and reached the peace we wanted. The day everything was ready, I asked a friend of mine, a business tycoon in Europe, to send me his private jet to take me to the US for a meeting with then Secretary of State Warren Christopher. We had to inform the Americans of the agreement because we both needed their political and financial support for the deal.”

In short, peace can be achieved directly between the two sides provided the leaderships on both sides are synchronized in their quest for peace, the same way the late Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were when they went ahead with the Oslo Process.

None loved the other. But both, as warriors, understood the substance of peace when they would stop sending their boys to the battlefields. This is why they called it the Peace of the Braves. This is certainly the reason why they both lost their lives. Rabin was assassinated by an extreme right-wing activist in Israel (Yigal Amir) and Arafat died in November 2004 the Palestinians believe he was poisoned, presumably by Israel or her agents.