Whenever a President of the United States begins to talk effusively about cutting through the Gordian knot of the Middle East conflict it is time to start worrying about a renewed outbreak of hostilities.
That’s because for decades American Middle East policy has aimed at the unachievable only to end in encouraging further violence and despair.
How many successive administrations have had their plans for Middle East peace wrecked on the reef of hard reality? That reef today is littered with the rusting hulks of successive plans and missions – from the Rogers Plan of 1969 to Kissinger’s haunted shuttle diplomacy of the mid 70s to the Oslo Accords of 1993 to the Zinni Mission of 2003 to the ill-fated Road Map of 2004. These hapless initiatives and plans have shared one commonality – a staunch belief that Palestinians and their Arab sponsors only wish for the dignity of Palestinian self-determination. Given the reality of self rule, so the creed goes, Palestinians would cease their relentless assault upon the Jewish state.
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Palestinian nationalism, from its very beginnings, has never had as its focus the creation of an independent state or self rule. On the contrary, Palestinian nationalism is erected, not on giving self-respect to a dispossessed citizenry but on the elimination of another people. In fact, anti-Zionism is and always was the one overarching principle which unites the notoriously fractious Palestinian groups and their Arab state sponsors. It remains to this day a central article of both the Fatah and Hamas charters. Without it, the various Palestinian chieftans would be tearing each other apart, much as their great-grandfathers did in the not so distant Palestinian tribal past. Nation building, at least as it is understood in the West, has never been an essential element in that struggle.
Revisiting the mistakes of the past is evident in the selection of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy and Dennis Ross as a key advisor. Mitchell, although perhaps well meaning, has consistently used moral equivalence as his prevailing tool of analysis in determining a path to peace in the conflict. Dennis Ross, on the other hand, is a diplomat with such a staggering record of failure and misunderstanding of key personalities and events in the Middle East, that his selection as a central figure in the Middle East policy circle almost has a ring of mockery to it.
Mitchell’s inability to appreciate that Palestinian hatred of Israel transcends issues of borders and territory and goes to the very heart of Israel’s existence is evident in almost every comment he makes on the conflict, while Ross’ penchant for believing that propping up dictators and tyrants is the surest way to bring stability to the region ( ie: his consistent embrace of Yasser Arafat) made a joke of his role as Middle East envoy in the 1990s. This incompetent duo is as likely to steer the Middle East towards peace as Batman and Robin.
While we have yet to hear the full details of an Obama plan for Middle East peace, a certain misty outline is already forming. The first element, articulated in Obama’s interview on Muslim television station al Arabiya last Tuesday is the fundamental belief that the West and the East need to converse under an umbrella of mutual respect and mutual interest. This is a subtle recalibration of Clintonian “ I feel your pain” politics, a way of bespeaking the ragged old axiom that the West has somehow been negligent in its awareness of Arab sensitivities.
This is ludicrous. When Palestinians stop burning American flags in the streets of their cities; when democratic elections bring true democrats rather than murderers and human rights abusers to power; when the Palestinian educational system is gutted of incitement, antisemitism and anti-Americanism, then perhaps we can talk about a basis for mutual respect and interest.
Until then, the Obama Administration should understand, as the Bush Administration did to a certain degree, that there is no George Washington-styled nation builder among the corrupt and brutish leaders of would-be Palestine. Thugs and kleptocrats are the central figures of the Palestinian national movement and they are no more capable nor willing to urge moderation on their people than any other tyrant or dictator in the region.
The second element that is becoming clear is the Obama Administration’s willful determination to see a Palestinian state come into being. While George Bush became the first U.S. president to offer that state, for Obama and his team Palestinian statehood is likely to become an unassailable creed.
But what kind of guarantee of peace does this offer? If , in the likely event the West Bank becomes as radicalized as Gaza and major Israeli cities come under threat of daily rocket attacks, how does Israel respond? As everyone knows, there is a significant difference between raiding a territory and invading a sovereign nation. Intelligence and surveillance, the key elements in the current maintenance of Israeli security, would be drastically compromised and the minimal diplomatic leverage the Jewish state presently maintains as a sovereign nation exercising its basic defensive rights, would be lost.
The creation of another terrorist sponsoring state on Israel’s door step is a guarantee for war, not peace – and a war, to boot, of deep attrition that threatens to extend far into the future.
So lets get real. A major thrust by the Obama Administration into the Middle East quagmire requires a truly fresh approach and not warmed over Clinton obeisance or Carter gullibility. It needs to reflect the fact that there are powerful interests in the Middle East for whom keeping the fires in the Middle East conflict burning constitutes a vital political or psychological need. It must come to grips with the fact that the drive for Palestinian statehood does not issue from the Palestinian street but from distinctly American and Israeli sources. In the absence of an effective leadership, capable of leading the Palestinians to peaceful coexistence, and for the want of popular acceptance of Israel’s right to exist, there is no hope for true peace in the near future or even in our lifetime.
Americans are typically gung-ho problem solvers who assume that all conflicts can ultimately be settled between well meaning people. But when one side is emphatically and irreversibly committed to the others’ destruction, what room is little room left for negotiation? Ultimately, U.S. policy needs to shift from an insistence that the conflict can be definitively resolved to an acceptance that it can only really be managed. Until the Palestinians find the will to edit their children’s text books to reflect amity and friendship towards Jews or begin to read them stories that do not involve the murder of Israelis, they should be put on notice that any hope of accommodating their national aspirations will be dashed.
These should now form the bedrock preconditions for any discussion of Palestinian statehood. Sadly, it appears that Barack Obama will not have the prudent advisors he needs around him, capable of informing him of this uncomfortable reality.