The Receding Horizon: The Endless Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace

In 1949, the legendary diplomat Ralph Bunche established what would become a gold standard for U.S. mediators in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Acting under the banner of the newly created United Nations, Bunche gathered Arab and Israeli diplomats together in a hotel on the island of Rhodes and managed to extract armistice agreements from them, effectively ending Israel's war of independence. Bunche accomplished this through a technique that came to be known as "proximity talks": he circumvented the Arabs' refusal to meet with Israelis directly by bringing the parties into nearby rooms and then shuttling between them, a tactic that has remained a fixture of negotiations in the Middle East and elsewhere ever since.

The armistice agreements were meant to serve as preludes to the proper peace treaties that, it was assumed, would soon be worked out. Hopes for a formal peace, however, quickly proved illusory. It would be 30 years before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin would join President Jimmy Carter on the White House lawn to sign the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty, and 15 more years before King Hussein of Jordan and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin would meet with President Bill Clinton to follow suit. Since 1994, hopes for similar peace treaties with Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians have risen high and fallen hard several times. Today, the prospects for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace seem almost as remote as ever.

This failure should not be blamed on the United States, however. No other major power in history has expended so much diplomatic effort, over so many decades, to try to mediate peace among foreign nations. Since the mid-twentieth century, Bunche's heroic exertions have been followed by those of a long succession of U.S. presidents, secretaries of state, special emissaries, and personal envoys. None has served longer than Dennis Ross, whose record, and his new memoir, deserve the highest praise.

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