An Exercise in Futility

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Never in the field of Arab-Israeli conflict was so little expected by so many from so few. That is the accurate and near-universal verdict on the opening of the latest series in the longest-running soap opera in the world.

The three key roles are the same as ever. Two of them have been played with great consistency by a dozen or so bit-actors over the past three decades. Mr. Carter-Reagan-Bush I-Clinton-Bush II-Obama is the powerful, rich, yet exasperated sugar-daddy pretending to be even-handed in mediating the quarrel between his two infuriating mistresses. One of them, Miss Rabin-Begin-Shamir-Peres-Barak-Sharon-Olmert-Netanyahu, has him by the short-and-curlies back home—it’s a long and complicated story—making him look schizophrenic at some times, masochistic at others, ridiculous always. The other, played by the tried and tested tandem Arafat-Abbas, teases him endlessly by holding out the promise of granting him that which she knows she’ll never give. It’s a powerful drama, but it must never end. It is lucrative for the principals, and it is fun. There are lots of jobs for the extras, too—the maids and minders, consigliore and jesters, etc.—played by a long supporting cast of Foggy Bottom parasites, Euro-worthies, and other frequent-flying unemployables.

The Jerusalem Post offered a refreshingly value-neutral review of the new episode worthy of People’s report on an opening night in LA:

In the chandeliered, mirrored East Room of the White House, soon after the Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian support delegations had filed in and taken their places Wednesday evening, a voice came through the speakers just before 7 p.m. announcing that “the program will begin in two minutes.” And, indeed, two minutes later US President Barack Obama led Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordanian King Abdullah II, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas walk through a center door onto a slightly raised, plant-bordered stage. And, to a large degree, the “program” felt like theater. All the actors wore dark suits; all looked rather stern. Each leader paid homage to Obama for shepherding through the diplomatic process over the last 20 months, and they all talked about bringing peace to future generations. Obama, like a director carefully watching his charges, stood by the lectern as each “actor” rose to recite his carefully prepared lines. The words were well phrased, the sentiments came across as deeply felt.

The rub, the reviewer noted, is that it was déjà vu all over again. Pity the script-writers: after so many decades of work, they are out of ideas. Looking grim and statesmanlike, Obama opined that we need to “ask ourselves what kind of world do we want to bequeath to our children and our grandchildren.” Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak—still alive, apparently, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding—advocated “seizing the current opportunity” and “not letting it slip through your fingers.” Jordanian king Abdullah said something about having “all eyes upon us”—absolutely no eyes were upon him, mind you—and revealed that it is necessary to “show results sooner rather than later.” Netanyahu spoke about a “new beginning that would unleash unprecedented opportunities for Israelis, Palestinians and peoples throughout the region.” Abbas pledged to “not wanting any blood to be shed—one drop of blood from the Israelis or the Palestinians.” On this form, the Peace Process network would see its ratings collapse, deservedly so.

The reality is that we are further away from Peace in the Promised Land than we were at Madrid or Oslo in the early 1990’s, or at Camp David a decade ago.

Netanyahu came promising nothing: “We left Lebanon, we got terror. We left Gaza, we got terror.” He will not make any concessions on the settlements, on Jerusalem, on the Fence, or on any other core issue, and he duly avoided mentioning them at all in his vacuous introductory remarks. He might, if Obama promises to hit Iran for him, which the latter cannot and will not do.

Netanyahu thinks that he is in no hurry, and from the vantage point of his domestic political calculus he is right. Strategically, however, he is mistaken: the time is running out, Israel cannot maintain her dominant position in perpetuity. The region’s demography is not on his side, and Israel’s society is increasingly polarized after a string of weak and non-authoritative governments. There soon will be more Arabs than Jews in the combined territory between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. On current formArabs will account for close to two-thirds of that population—and one-third of Israel’s citizens!—by 2020. The only way for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic is for it to pull out of the territories. But genuine separation requires dismantlement of Israeli settlements, which Netanyahu will not accept.

The Arab press took an unsurprisingly dim view of the show. “A television spectacle with no impact,” declared an editorial in the influential London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi. “The Americans think they can credit themselves with a big achievement for meeting between the two sides in front of the television cameras. They think that it broke a psychological barrier which cut the direct talks short two years ago, but the same difficulties are still alive and kicking.” Past experience, it added, indicates that the fate of the upcoming round of talks will not be different than those preceding it: “We don’t know what happened in the closed meeting between (Abbas and Netanyahu, but we remember well that previous talks between him and (former Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert did not result in any progress in the negotiations or stop the building of even one housing unit in the settlements.”
At the same time, the editorial reflected an old Arab fear—that Abbas is a vulnerable and gullible leader who may be tempted to make far-reaching concessions to Israel without a mandate from the Palestinian street:

We are worried that all the leaks about the possibility for the failure of the negotiations are nothing more than a smoke screen meant to cover up what has been cooking below the surface in secret meetings in recent months and will only be revealed at the end of talks in another year . . . President Abbas is the weakest link in this process. He negotiates without being granted the authorization to do so by his people and surrenders to American and Israeli pressures. If they succeeded in bringing him to direct talks, why wouldn’t the influence him in the same manner to sign a peace agreement settled according to Israel’s conditions?

There are several reasons Abbas will do nothing of the kind, but the basic answer is as simple as it was five years ago: because he does not want to be killed, as he would be—within weeks, if not days—if he were to sign a peace agreement to Netanyahu’s liking. If he wants to live, let alone to prosper, Abbas cannot settle for less than a Palestinian state on the land that was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. He has stated many times before that “we cannot accept an agreement which does not offer a fair and negotiated solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees.” Significantly, he avoids mentioning the “right of return.” He knows that, sooner or later, that “right” would have to be renounced in favor of some compensation formula—but he cannot settle for less than that formula.

THE MEANING, ANYONE?—In considering the seemingly never-ending Arab-Israeli conflict, we need to start by discarding the notion that Man is naturally good and ever improvable, or that human conflict is inherently unnatural. Accordingly, we need to resist the desire to make the world in general, or the Middle East in particular, as we want it to be, and look at it as it is: without clichés, ideological blueprints, or advocacy dressed as scholarship. We need to accept the existence of ethnic bonds and cultural and spiritual commonalities that are not global or universal, and that transcend what to most outsiders may seem logical or reasonable.

To that end it is necessary to reject neo-Wilsonian impulses in American foreign policy making, manifest in the successive administrations’ self-appointed “mission” to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East. American hyper-activism is not going to produce a solution now any more than Bill Clinton’s breathless efforts produced a deal at Camp David ten years ago.

Unlike back then, we can no longer talk about “the Arab-Israeli conflict” because it has morphed into a series of conflicts: the one between Israel and the West Bank Palestinians; the Israeli-Hamas dispute; the Israeli-Hezbollah dispute; the Iranian problem; the Israeli-Syrian dispute; the Hamas-Abbas dispute; and the growing internal Israeli-Israeli tensions.

Those Americans who contend that the U.S. has the “moral obligation” to bring an end to the conflict should recognize that—like in many other national, religious and ethnic conflicts around the world—it will go on if both sides are willing to pay the costs of what they regard as a just and necessary fight. No outside deus-ex-machina can save the parties from themselves. Not unlike other wars, the Arab-Israeli war will end when both sides grow weary of it and conclude that their interests would be better served at the negotiating table, with the outcome of such negotiations reflecting the balance of power between them. It is noteworthy that Washington’s efforts proved successful during the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace talks, but only when the two sides had agreed in advance to resolve their differences.

That, I submit, the parties in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute are unable and/or unwilling to do today.

A solution demands that all parties set aside their mutually incompatible metaphysical narratives. Most Israelis are committed to maintaining the Jewish identity of their country—but not to messianic projects of Eretz Israel from the Jordan to the sea, which is the domain of a minority. On the Arab side, more worryingly, Islamic exclusivism increasingly controls the mainstream discourse. In its paradigm no permanent peace is possible, because it would be against Allah’s will to cede any piece of land once controlled by the faithful to non-Muslim infidels.

Ten years ago both Israel and the PA agreed on the two-state model; today, by contrast, neither of them accepts it. Abbas claims that he does, but Hamas explicitly rejects any recognition of Israel. Netanyahu rejects a Palestinian state, and is under no real pressure to reconsider.

No progress will be made this year, or next, or the one after that. Only when both sides are exhausted by the conflict and ready to make peace should the United States mediate a settlement—but even then that role should not be imposed on the conflicting parties against their will. Both sides would be better off if they made peace, but ultimately it is their responsibility to do so, not that of the United States. Therefore, counter-intuitively, a “tough love,” hands-off U.S. policy would have the best chance of leading to a viable long-term solution of the dispute, a decade from now, perhaps, or two, or three…

A solution is desirable, of course: If peace in Israel-Palestine is possible, the misnamed “War on Terror” (in reality, war against an aggressive global jihad) will become more manageable. This is not to say that, if there is a settlement in the Holy Land, the seething anger that fuels Islamic militancy would abate; but the essence of the problem of Jihad will be seen with greater clarity: without the ever-present jihadist excuse of U.S. bias in Middle Eastern affairs, animosity towards infidels and propensity to violence will be finally perceived as fatally inherent to Islam’s orthodox mainstream, and not a fringe pathology nurtured by external causes.

The contours of that final status settlement do exist. They’ve been there for decades. In the curious dialectic of the Middle East, the American administration will need to be engaged to make that settlement a reality, in order to be able to creatively disengage from the region thereafter. But not as yet. They seem to have time, and therefore so have we.

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