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Lots of U.S. presidents have pushed for Middle East peace. Progress has been elusive

President Joe Biden speaks as he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in an expanded bilateral meeting with Israeli and U.S. government officials, Wednesday in Tel Aviv.
Evan Vucci
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AP
President Joe Biden speaks as he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in an expanded bilateral meeting with Israeli and U.S. government officials, Wednesday in Tel Aviv.

President Biden is now the latest in a long line of U.S. presidents to place himself in the middle of a Middle East conflict.

In an unusual wartime visit, Biden arrived in Israel on Wednesday, hours after a catastrophic blast at a Gaza hospital. During his visit, the president said it was important for him to "personally come" as a signal of U.S. support for Israel. He told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that "Americans are grieving with you, they really are. And Americans are worried."

"I understand and many Americans understand," the president said. "You can't look at what has happened here to your mothers, your fathers, your grandparents, sons, daughters, children, even babies and not scream out for justice. Justice must be done. But I caution this — while you feel that rage, don't be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes."

The president was referring to Israel's response in the Gaza Strip to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that killed more than 1,400 Israelis, with about 200 kidnapped and held hostage.

There have been ongoing airstrikes, and preparations for an expected ground assault on Gaza that is sure to kill many Palestinian civilians — inflaming tensions on the West Bank and around the region. More than 3,400 people have been killed in Israel's attacks on Gaza, and more than 12,000 injured, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

Here's a look at U.S. efforts to broker peace over the past 45 years — full of failed starts, wrong turns and dead ends, but also some progress.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, shakes hands with Israeli Premier Menachem Begin, as U.S. President Jimmy Carter looks on, Sept. 6, 1977, at Camp David.
AFP / FILES/CONSOLIDATED NEWS PICTURES
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FILES/CONSOLIDATED NEWS PICTURES
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, shakes hands with Israeli Premier Menachem Begin, as U.S. President Jimmy Carter looks on, Sept. 6, 1977, at Camp David.

The 1978 Camp David Accords resulted in a landmark Israel-Egypt peace deal

The first major effort by a U.S. president to foster peace in the region came a decade after the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. In that war, Israel occupied Syria's Golan Heights and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula — losses those countries fought unsuccessfully to reverse in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat told U.S. media he was ready to travel to Israel to meet face-to-face with Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

President Jimmy Carter, who had little foreign policy experience at the time, agreed to step in and try to broker a comprehensive deal that would not only result in peace between Israel and Egypt, but would also attempt to resolve Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. He hosted the leaders at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

Carter and his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, aimed to accomplish Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist, Israel's withdrawal from territories it had occupied since the end of the Six-Day War, a guarantee that Israel's security would not be threatened and securing an undivided Jerusalem.

Carter was a committed intermediary, but Sadat and Begin did not get along, according to the former president.

"For the first three days," Carter recalled, "I attempted to have Begin and Sadat come together. The two men were totally incompatible...shouting, banging on the table, stalking out of the rooms. So for the next 10 days, they never saw each other. We negotiated with them isolated from one another."

Eventually, the two sides came together. The official agreements that emerged are known as the "Framework for Peace in the Middle East." The deal recognized the "legitimate rights of the Palestinian people" and full autonomy within five years for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories that had been controlled by Jordan and Egypt, respectively, prior to the Six-Day War.

But the U.S. State Department's own history notes, "The talks failed to produce much as Palestinian representatives refused to participate, and the gap between Egyptian and Israeli positions on Palestinian self-government, not to mention their respective stances on Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank and the legal status of East Jerusalem, proved unbridgeable."

However, separate from the Camp David Accords, a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, signed in Washington, D.C., on March 26, 1979, is the lasting legacy of Carter's efforts, says James Hershberg, a professor of history in international affairs at George Washington University.

Carter "was deeply involved" in negotiations for the Israel-Egypt deal, Hershberg says, shuttling between Cairo and Israel to finalize it.

Although relations between Israel and Egypt have frequently been strained since then, the basic peace has endured, despite the 1981 assassination of Sadat by Islamic extremists in Cairo. Many in the Islamic world cheered Sadat's assassination, regarding the Egyptian leader as a traitor for having made peace with Israel.

President George H.W. Bush speaks at a Mideast peace conference on Oct. 30, 1991.
Dirck Halstead / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President George H.W. Bush speaks at a Mideast peace conference on Oct. 30, 1991.

"[F]or most Arabs he had betrayed the Palestinian cause at the Maryland summit meeting and was considered a traitor and an outcast by 1981," Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in 2021.

The 1991 Madrid Conference brought Israel and Arab countries together, but resulted in little more than a meeting

The administration of George H.W. Bush tried, and largely failed, to move the peace deal forward, says Eric Altman, a professor at City University of New York, Brooklyn College, and author of We Are Not One: A History of America's Fight Over Israel.

Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, spent months trying to bring representatives of the Arab nations together with Israel, eventually getting Egypt, Syria and Lebanon to attend talks hosted by Spain and co-sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union. A joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation was also present.

The Madrid Conference was co-chaired by Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, just months before the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

"The great alleged victory of the Madrid Conference is that there were face-to-face negotiations," Altman says.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir gave no ground. Shamir "refused everything and he never offered anything," Altman says. "Baker is considered a genius for bringing Madrid together, and he did work very hard for it — but all he got was a meeting."

The 1993 Oslo Accords laid the groundwork for the "two-state solution" — but quickly unraveled

President Bill Clinton, although largely focused on U.S. domestic issues — particularly in his first term — nonetheless hoped that his administration could pick up the pieces of the Camp David Accords, including finding a two-state solution that would satify both Israel and the Palestinians.

Initially, however, Clinton and his advisers believed it would be better to try to bring Israel and Syria together, reasoning that Israel's leaders would find it "politically easier to pull back from the Golan Heights than to withdraw from the West Bank," as the Palestinians wanted, according to the State Department.

In this Sept. 13, 1993 file photo, President Clinton presides over White House ceremonies marking the signing of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, in Washington.
Ron Edmonds / AP
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AP
In this Sept. 13, 1993 file photo, President Clinton presides over White House ceremonies marking the signing of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, in Washington.

What eventually came to be known as the Oslo Accords started as secret negotiations in the Norwegian capital. Subsequently, Clinton brought Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin together.

The agreement they reached was signed in Washington just a month after Oslo talks concluded. The signing ceremony yielded a famous photo of Clinton presiding over a handshake between the two men.

The agreement saw Israel officially recognize the PLO as representatives of the Palestinian people and a partner in future negotiations. It also set a five-year time frame for establishment of a Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The PLO, in turn, renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist in peace, bringing an end to the Palestinians' first Intifada or uprising against Israel that had begun in 1987 — and spawned a more radical offshoot of the PLO, known as Hamas.

The deal raised expectations for a "two-state solution" that would eventually lead to Palestinian statehood.

It seemed like significant progress, but the spirit of the agreement was quickly undone, Hershberg says. And almost immediately, the "two-state solution" began unraveling.

"First you had the eruption of very violent protests on the West Bank and then a very violent Israeli suppression," he says.

A 1994 attack on a mosque in Hebron, carried out by an American Jewish settler on the West Bank, caused Palestinian sentiments to boil. Then came the 1995 assassination of Rabin by an Israeli settler opposed to the agreement. Rabin had come to symbolize the Oslo Accords, and his death marked their symbolic collapse.

"Rabin's assassination in 1995 pretty much put an end to those hopes" for peace, says Patrick Maney, a retired Boston College history professor and author of Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President.

In 2000, talks fell apart during another try at Camp David

But in 2000, toward the end of Clinton's second term, Rabin's successor, Prime Minster Ehud Barak, wanted to try again to reach a deal with the Palestinians. Clinton, Barak and Arafat met at Camp David.

"Clinton hoped to replicate ... Jimmy Carter's success by inviting the Israelis and Palestinians to Camp David," Maney says.

But the Palestinian leader was a reluctant participant, CUNY professor Altman says.

"Arafat didn't want to come to Camp David because he didn't think that they had been prepared sufficiently in advance or he wasn't ready or he didn't want peace," he says.

The Clinton team outlined plans for a Palestinian state that would encompass Gaza and a large part of the West Bank. "There were security considerations taken into account, and even compensation plans for refugees who had been displaced from their homes in 1948" in the formation of the Israeli state, Maney says.

Clinton would "table hop" between the Israeli and the Palestinian delegations at Camp David, Maney says. "He would sit with the Palestinian delegates and then he'd go over and talk to the Israelis and go back and forth. And there were a couple of all-nighters where he was meeting with representatives of the delegations."

But still no agreement ever made it onto paper, and the talks fell apart, with Arafat apparently still thinking the deal did not offer enough.

"A lot of people on the Clinton team, they said this was close," Maney says. "Barak had said yes to all all of this, and Arafat had said no. And so Clinton really blamed Arafat. ... There is some, I have to say, dispute about that in retrospect."

Altman says that to get Arafat to the table, Clinton promised him that "if [the talks] broke down that he would not be blamed. And then Clinton blamed him."

The 9/11 attacks diverted attention — and little progress followed during the Obama years

President Barack Obama tours the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, on June 4, 2009, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Egyptian officials.
Gerald Herbert / AP
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AP
President Barack Obama tours the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, on June 4, 2009, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Egyptian officials.

The al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent "war on terror" so preoccupied the administration of President George W. Bush that Middle East peace efforts were put on hold.

Bush, like President Donald Trump later, believed that strong U.S. support for Israel was enough to give it "the confidence to make significant concessions to the Palestinians and peace [would] become possible," Altman says.

Bush's successor, President Barack Obama, made ending Israeli settlements in the West Bank a key position in U.S. relations with Israel, but did not meet with much success, Altman says.

Obama's first trip as president to the region, in June 2009, was to Egypt, where he delivered a speech aimed at reassuring the Muslim world that "America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition." His first presidential trip to Israel didn't come until 2013.

"Most people think Obama made two big mistakes," Altman says. "The first one was going to Egypt first thing and not stopping off in Israel. The second was demanding a freeze on [Israeli] settlements" in the West Bank.

"The Israelis didn't like Obama. They didn't trust Obama," Altman says.

President Donald Trump with, from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, on Sept. 15, 2020.
Alex Brandon / AP
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AP
President Donald Trump with, from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, on Sept. 15, 2020.

Despite Secretary of State John Kerry's own version of shuttle diplomacy, he was never able to make much progress, Altman says.

"After Oslo, the idea was to build up trust" between Israel and the Palestinians, "so that each could make further concessions, so there could be an actual peace agreement between them," he says. "The opposite happened. Both sides dug in and tried to fortify their positions."

Trump's Abraham Accords normalized relations between Israel and some Arab countries

In 2020, then-President Trump announced "the dawn of a new Middle East" at a White House signing ceremony for the latest peace effort, the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and several Arab states — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and later, Morocco and Sudan.

Altman calls the Abraham Accords "probably a net negative" because they ignored the most fundamental issue: the Palestinians.

The deal was "mostly the result of a fear of Iran and Shiite countries as opposed to any acceptance [by the signatories] of Israel's legitimacy," Hershberg says.

President Biden's Oct. 18 Israel visit — and beyond

So, what about Biden's wartime trip to Israel on Wednesday, as bombs dropped on the Gaza Strip and dreams of peace seem to have receded into the distant past?

On Wednesday, Biden met with Netanyahu and in remarks ahead of their bilateral in Tel Aviv, the Israeli leader thanked his U.S. counterpart, saying "the world sees that support in the moral clarity that you have demonstrated from the moment Israel was attacked." Biden emphasized his administration's full support to Israel and said he was impressed by the "courage" of the Israeli people. "It's really stunning. I'm proud to be here," the president said.

At Biden's urging, Israel agreed to allow some aid into Gaza and the U.S. announced $100 million in humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

History will be the judge of his visit's impact — but the involvement of U.S. presidents in trying to foster Middle East peace seems likely to continue, even as specific goals change.

Speaking on NPR's All Things Considered on Tuesday, journalist and editor Susan Glasser, had this to say: "The failure of the great dream of so many American presidents, this idea that there was a viable two-state solution to be negotiated and that the U.S. president would become the broker of that ... that foundered, and really is sort of no longer even really flickering as a dream of U.S. presidents."

That may be true for now, says Hershberg, and probably for the foreseeable future. "But," he says, "if anything's ever going to happen, a U.S. role is inevitable — because it clearly has the most leverage."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.