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Back In The Real World

Thomas Friedman embodies characteristics of most liberal commentators when assessing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: moral relativism and a lack of reality.

The moral relativism drill is familiar. West Bank settlements and terrorism are equally to blame for the current state of war, he explains:

We’re getting perilously close to closing the window on a two-state solution, because the two chief window-closers — Hamas in Gaza and the fanatical Jewish settlers in the West Bank — have been in the driver’s seats. Hamas is busy making a two-state solution inconceivable, while the settlers have steadily worked to make it impossible.

If Hamas continues to obtain and use longer- and longer-range rockets, there is no way any Israeli government can or will tolerate independent Palestinian control of the West Bank, because a rocket from there can easily close the Tel Aviv airport and shut down Israel’s economy.

And if the Jewish settlers continue with their “natural growth” to devour the West Bank, it will also be effectively off the table. No Israeli government has mustered the will to take down even the “illegal,” unauthorized settlements, despite promises to the U.S. to do so, so it’s getting hard to see how the “legal” settlements will ever be removed. What is needed from Israel’s Feb. 10 elections is a centrist, national unity government that can resist the blackmail of the settlers, and the rightist parties that protect them, to still implement a two-state solution.

No line of ethical argument or historical explanation will disabuse Friedman of this thinking. Yes, Israel offered everything and the moon to Arafat but no peace was forthcoming. Yes, Israel withdrew from Gaza but no peace was obtained. No, it doesn’t matter. In Friedman’s mind those West bank settlements are every bit as responsible for the lack of peace in our time as Hamas’s efforts to eradicate the Jewish state.

And then there is the refusal to accept the obvious: there really isn’t a two-state solution in the offing. He declares:

Because without a stable two-state solution, what you will have is an Israel hiding behind a high wall, defending itself from a Hamas-run failed state in Gaza, a Hezbollah-run failed state in south Lebanon and a Fatah-run failed state in Ramallah. Have a nice day.

And his point is . . .? To recite the current circumstances is not an argument that an alternative is possible. Moreover, he seems not to grasp that the lack of a “stable two-state solution” is not the cause of the dangers Israel faces; it is the result of those dangers.

His conclusion though gives away the game. He is squarely planted in fantasyland:

It’s five to midnight and before the clock strikes 12 all we need to do is rebuild Fatah, merge it with Hamas, elect an Israeli government that can freeze settlements, court Syria and engage Iran — while preventing it from going nuclear — just so we can get the parties to start talking. Whoever lines up all the pieces of this diplomatic Rubik’s Cube deserves two Nobel Prizes.

It seems that Friedman used to rail against those who failed to appreciate the world as it is and to accept that we cannot remake the world simply by wishing it were different. To read Friedman’s Nobel Prize recipe is to recognize the level of absurdity and the suspension of disbelief required to bring about this nirvana.

Thankfully both President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu (who, if current polling holds, will be the next Prime Minister) seem a bit more grounded in reality. Surprisingly, they don’t sound too far apart in their assessments. The week before he was sworn in, Obama explained his approach to the conflict:

“That doesn’t mean we close a deal or we have some big, grand . . . Camp David-type event early in my administration,” he said. “The notion is not that the United States can dictate the terms of an agreement.” Mr. Obama pointed out that “most people have a pretty good sense about what the outlines of a compromise would be.” The problem is political weakness on both sides. So, he said, his aim would be “to provide a space where trust can be built”; he cited the suggestion of former British prime minister Tony Blair “to build some concrete deliverables that people can see,” such as greater security for Israelis and economic benefits for Palestinians.

And Netanyahu sounded much the same in a Wall Street Journal interview:

Mr. Netanyahu’s own prescriptions for a settlement with the Palestinians — what he calls a “workable peace” — differ markedly from the approaches of the 1990s. He talks about “the development of capable law enforcement and security capabilities” for the Palestinians, adding that the new National Security Adviser Jim Jones had worked on the problem for the Bush administration. He stresses the need for rapid economic development in the West Bank, promising to remove “all sorts of impediments to economic growth” faced by Palestinians.

As for the political front, Mr. Netanyahu promises a gradual, “bottom-up process that will facilitate political solutions, not replace them.”

“Most of the approaches to peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” he says, “have been directed at trying to resolve the most complex problems, like refugees and Jerusalem, which is akin to building the pyramid from the top down. It’s much better to build it layer by layer, in a deliberate, purposeful pattern that changes the reality for both Palestinians and Israelis.”

If we avoid both the traps of moral relativism and self-delusion we may not arrive at peace in our time, but we may get further down the road to a more peaceful and secure life for both Israelis and Palestinians. To that end, let’s hope the President and his Middle East envoy are closer to Netanyahu’s “bottom up” vision than Friedman’s fantasyland.



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