David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process, recently teamed up with Dennis Ross, now one of Obama's Middle East gurus, to figure out why the U.S. has consistently failed to broker peace in the Middle East (Dennis was there, after all). Their book, Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East, argues that America's strategies have been based on false assumptions and premises about the Arab world, making lasting agreements impossible. I interviewed Makovsky about the book and discovered that as chaotic and messy as things seem now, the real showdown has not even begun.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Has the administration gone down a dead-end alleyway by having so much emphasis in the early days on settlement growth?
David Makovsky: I think the administration is using an ax when it could use a scalpel. The fact is that there was a basic baseline understanding that Israel would not expand settlements. The administration felt that even if the agreement existed, it was insufficient, and that what you needed really was a more kind of undifferentiated freeze of settlements. It seems like in [the administration's] pursuit of the perfect, this has proven to be far more elusive than the administration would have hoped.
JG: I'll give you two broad developments and just frame them in the current negotiations: the negative development, of course, is that Iran continues its pursuit of nuclear capability. The positive development is that in the West Bank, you have, I would say, the first Palestinian leadership in Palestinian history to truly fight terrorism, to truly care about the daily lives of their people.
DM: The irony is that while U.S.-Israel relations is going through a period of considerable strain, Israeli-Palestinian relations are probably better than they've been in many, many years. I think events on the ground are the most encouraging dimension, and I only wish that the U.S.-Israel piece of this would catch up to it in a way that would say enough with the diminishing returns; let's get on with the main event.
JG: If you didn't have Iran sitting there, making the move toward nuclearization, you'd have this positive development in the West Bank, you'd still have Hamas and Gaza, but it'd be weaker because you wouldn't have Iran.
DM: I'm concerned that the strain between the U.S. and Israel over settlements is going to bleed into the U.S.-Israel relationship on Iran. If there's a lot of bruised feelings here, will this have an impact on the highest level of being able to work together on the main event? We need to maintain a sense of proportion and we should reach a pragmatic conclusion, which is, on the settlements, doable: No expansions. You can monitor that --that means no extra land, that can be prejudged negotiations, but keep the good relations for this main event, which is, if the U.S. and Israel don't work together in this Iran crisis, it is more likely Israel will strike out on its own. To the Administration's credit now, I think now they're making a real effort to keep Israel close and keep it updated on its views on Iran.