President Bush will travel to the Middle East next week, where he will become the latest U.S. president, going back to the 1940s, to make a major push to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It is hard to see what in the current situation—with the Gaza Strip in the hands of a rabidly anti-Israel group and the West Bank in the hands of only a mildly less anti-Israel group—makes him think he will succeed where his predecessors failed.
Those who insist on pursuing the “peace process,” notwithstanding the low probability of success, claim that we have no choice. “What is the alternative?” they ask. “Perpetual war?”
To be skeptical of the peace process is not to suggest that such never-ending strife is desirable, but merely to acknowledge that it may be inevitable. The contrary view—that even a conflict as intractable as this one should end soon—rests on a sunny, if ahistorical, Enlightenment faith that peace is the natural order of things and war a temporary aberration.
There is also a uniquely American perspective at work here: We normally fight short wars overseas, with even our longest conflict, Vietnam, lasting less than a decade (1965-1973) if measured by the deployment of ground forces. Win or lose, we are used to having the shooting end within a few years. Given this outlook, many Americans believe that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which has been raging in one form or another for 60 years, is overdue for resolution.
But if measured by the length of other tribal and territorial disputes throughout history, there is no reason to think that the Arabs and Jews will soon beat their swords into plowshares. Consider just one such conflict, pitting the Scots against the English. The divide between the two nationalities—with similar religions (first Catholic, then Protestant), ethnic origins, languages and political systems—should have been easily bridged. But the Scots and English spent centuries killing one another.
War broke out in 1296 after King Edward I of England tried to claim the empty throne of Scotland. This sparked a prolonged resistance led first by William Wallace and then, after his execution, by Robert Bruce. Both the Scots and the English resorted to terrorist tactics, with frequent burning, looting and killing on both sides.
This savagery was evident early on: In 1297 William Heselrig, the English sheriff of the small town of Lanark, burned down a house belonging to Wallace’s wife or girlfriend, Marion Braidfute, killing her and everyone else inside. Wallace’s riposte is recorded in a medieval chronicle: “Gathering together a band of desperate men, he fell by night on the sheriff and his armed guard, hewed the sheriff into small pieces with his own sword and burned the buildings and those within them.”
Some scholars have cast doubt on elements of this traditional tale (which was dramatized in Mel Gibson’s 1995 film, “Braveheart”), but there is no doubting the ferocity or frequency of such small-scale clashes. There were also some major battles—the Scots prevailed at Stirling Bridge (1297) and Bannockburn (1314), the English at Falkirk (1298), Halidon Hill (1333) and numerous later battlefields—but none proved decisive. Scotland was too small and poor to defeat England. And English monarchs lacked the resources or the will to pacify the prickly Scots. So the war ground on, century after century, interrupted occasionally by truces and treaties.
The accession of a Scottish monarch to the throne of England in 1603 as King James I might have been expected to end the strife. Yet the two realms clashed again during the English Civil War in the 1640s. The conflict did not truly end until 1745, when a revolt by mainly Scottish supporters of the Stuarts (descendants of James I), was put down—449 years after the start of Anglo-Scottish hostilities.
It is instructive to contemplate the virulence and length of the English struggles with the Scots (and also the similar, more recent battles with the Irish), given that their cultural and religious differences are trivial compared to those separating Israelis and Arabs. Attempts to end such conflicts before both sides are thoroughly exhausted are likely to have no more success than the Treaty of Northampton, which was supposed to end the Anglo-Scottish dispute in 1328. The only exception is if outside powers commit massive military force to bring peace, as happened in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. But that's unlikely to happen in the Holy Land.
While there is plenty of evidence that most Israelis are tired of today’s war, there is little sign that their enemies are likely to give up anytime soon. Jihadists speak of their struggle to eliminate the “Zionist entity” as the work of centuries. Even if many ordinary Palestinians privately long for peace, their preferences are unlikely to prevail over those of the gunmen. Hard as it may be to accept, we have to confront the possibility that the Arab-Israeli conflict may not have a “solution,” at least not in the foreseeable future, and that trying to create one represents a triumph of hope over experience.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.