What to Read on the Middle East Peace Process

Courtesy Reuters

So many people have been interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict for so long that there are literally thousands of books -- and many more thousands of articles -- devoted to it. Most follow a simple pattern: a discussion of the origins of the conflict, an explanation for its intractability, and (paradoxically) a set of prescriptions for how to bring it to a close. Given such a vast literature, one might think that the basic contours of the subject would be well understood, and in the abstract, this is true: there is remarkable agreement concerning what peace in the Middle East will look like should it ever materialize. Yet the divergent interests and perspectives of Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, and American leaders have for decades bedeviled efforts to get there. The following works are excellent guides to the practical problems in the way.

Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967. By William B. Quandt. University of California Press, 2005.
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Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East. By Daniel C. Kurtzer and Scott B. Lasensky. United States Institute of Peace Press, 2008.
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If one wants to know anything and everything about America's role in the Arab-Israeli conflict since the June 1967 war, one has to start with William Quandt's Peace Process. Now in its third edition, the book should be on the syllabi of all undergraduate courses taught on the Middle East. It is a straight history of Washington's involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is why it is so valuable. The best part of the book is Quandt's discussion of the 1970s, when he was both a professor and practitioner, serving as a senior staffer for the Middle East on Zbigniew Brzezinski's National Security Council. Overshadowed by the more recent Oslo period, the 1970s was a decade of exceptional American activism and progress in the Arab-Israeli arena. Given the institutionalization of peace between Egypt and Israel, few tend to appreciate the extraordinary breakthroughs that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's Sinai disengagement agreements and President Carter's Camp David accords and subsequent Egypt-Israel peace treaty represent. It's a good thing that analysts and students have Quandt's Peace Process to remind them. Meanwhile, the short recent book by Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to both Egypt and Israel, and Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert, is a valuable addition to the literature on Arab-Israeli peace diplomacy. Based on interviews with important players from the United States, Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the United Nations, and the European Union, it gets to the heart of Washington's peacemaking efforts from 1989 through 2008. Kurtzer and Lasensky have a keen sense of what policymakers need to know about the mistakes of the past, and their recommendations are so sensible many have already been put in place by the Obama administration. 

The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. By Dennis Ross. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004.
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Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East. By Martin Indyk. Simon & Schuster, 2009.
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The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace. By Aaron David Miller. Bantam, 2008.
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These are three must-read memoirs by key officials involved in American diplomacy during the 1990s. Clocking in at 800 pages, Dennis Ross' book reflects the negotiating style of its author: indefatigable. Ross was the State Department's director of policy planning and chief Middle East negotiator during George H.W. Bush's presidency and special Middle East coordinator during the Clinton years, and is now a key player on Middle East policy in the Obama administration. He reconstructs the Clinton administration's painstaking efforts to encourage, nudge, cajole, and pressure Arabs and Israelis to make peace, and then draws lessons from the experience. His memoir is an indispensable guide to the real-world complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Washington's role in resolving it. Martin Indyk's Innocent Abroad is also required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict. During the Clinton administration, Indyk served as senior Middle East expert on the National Security Council, assistant secretary of state for the Near East, and U.S. ambassador to Israel (twice). His memoir complements Ross', recounting the Clinton team's eight-year effort to forge peace between Israelis and Arabs, corral Saddam Hussein, and contain the clerical regime in Tehran. In a gracious, friendly style, Indyk highlights the Clinton administration's triumphs but also addresses its shortcomings and failures, making two important points about Middle East policy along the way. First, "linkage" exists: progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track tends to improve prospects on the Israeli-Syrian track, and progress in those areas improves Washington's chances of containing Iran. Second, ignoring such connections led George W. Bush's administration into trouble. The Much Too Promised Land is Aaron David Miller's contribution to the peace-process-memoir genre. A veteran of a quarter century of American involvement in the region, Miller starts his story well before Ross or Indyk, reaching back to the 1970s and Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy. His book is extraordinarily engaging because Miller is determined not to hold back on what he has learned over the years, and he weaves the inspirational, depressing, and outright absurd into a big argument about what it takes to make progress toward resolving the conflict. Miller sees Kissinger, President Carter, and former Secretary of State James Baker as far more successful in the region than Presidents Clinton or George W. Bush, because they combined the leadership, political acumen, and independence from domestic constituencies to break new ground in Arab-Israeli diplomacy. 

Waging Peace: Israel and the Arabs, 1948-2003. By Itamar Rabinovich. Princeton University Press, 2004.
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This book by Itamar Rabinovich, former president of Tel Aviv University and former Israeli ambassador to the United States and negotiator with Syria, offers a view of the peace process from the Israeli side. More workmanlike than exciting or groundbreaking, it is nevertheless a breath of fresh air because it is not freighted with ideological baggage. Rabinovich is simply interested in telling the story of the momentous efforts to forge peace in the 1990s from his own unique perspective.

The Question of Palestine. By Edward W. Said. Vintage, 1992.
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Building a Palestinian State: The Incomplete Revolution. By Glenn E. Robinson. Indiana University Press, 1997.
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Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993. By Yezid Sayigh. Oxford University Press, 1998.
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Turning to the Palestinian side of the conflict, Edward Said's The Question of Palestine presents a clear case not just for Palestinian self-determination but also for the recognition of the injustice and dispossession of Palestine's Arab inhabitants. Whether one exalts or reviles Said (and there are many in both camps), the book is compulsory reading. Its most enlightening part is the section titled "Zionism From the Standpoint of Its Victims." Said's polemics will be tough going for supporters of Israel, but his articulation of the Palestinian encounter with Zionism is extraordinarily useful for understanding the vast gulf between the Palestinian and Israeli historical narratives. Glenn Robinson's Building a Palestinian State offers a sophisticated analysis of the political struggles that have taken a toll on the Palestinian nationalist movement. According to Robinson, the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s was akin to the social revolutions that swept the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s, but was short-circuited. Robinson argues persuasively that once the intifada began, the Palestine Liberation Organization -- in an effort to control events in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip -- sought to transform a vibrant Palestinian civil society into an instrument of Yasir Arafat and his loyal cadres. This doomed the emergence of a democratic Palestinian state and produced the corrupt, quasi-authoritarian, and largely inept Palestinian Authority of today. Yezid Sayigh's detailed and readable book traces the development of the Palestinian national movement from 1948 until the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Sayigh's central argument is that "armed struggle," both as a matter of practice and discourse, were critical to the development of the basic building blocks of statehood -- a Palestinian identity, a legitimate Palestinian leadership, and a functional bureaucracy. The book provides the necessary context for understanding what happened to the Palestinian national movement after the events Sayigh describes came to a close.

Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment. By J. J. Goldberg. Basic Books, 1997.
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Finally, in an era when the debate about the "Israel lobby" and the role of American Jews in U.S.-Middle East policy has become commonplace, it is important for readers to be able to separate myth from reality. Unlike other, more celebrated discussions of the topic, J. J. Goldberg's book is terrific -- a comprehensive, nuanced, and sophisticated narrative of the role American Jews play in public life. For those specifically interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Goldberg's chapters on the Israel lobby and the relationship between American Jews and Israel will suffice, but the rest of the book deserves a read as well.


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