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When Washington Has Amnesia, Israelis and Palestinians Pay the Price

My last two posts (here and here) discussed why no peace deal is likely to emerge from Barack Obama’s drive to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. But if this drive merely proves futile, the entire region will breathe a sigh of relief. The fear among those outside the White House/State Department cocoon is that it will produce a bloodbath.

Two notable signs of this fear are the latest poll by the Ramallah-based Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre and Maplecroft’s new Terrorism Risk Index.

As I noted yesterday, a plurality of Palestinians, 22.4 percent, rated the economy as their top concern in the poll. But among Gazans — whose economy, we are relentlessly told, is being strangled by Israel — the economy actually ranked only fourth. Their top priority, by a 29.8 percent plurality, was Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.

In the much larger West Bank, however, 27.6 percent put the economy first. And that, at first glance, seems bizarre, because the West Bank economy is booming: it grew by 8.5 percent last year and 9 percent in the first half of 2010. International aid is also soaring: just last week, the U.S. announced another $150 million. Yet fully 49.2 percent of West Bankers expected the economy to deteriorate in the coming year, while only 38.5 percent foresaw improvement.

The poll didn’t give reasons for this gloomy forecast, but there’s one obvious explanation: Obama’s peace push. First, if he does force Israel to freeze settlement construction again, thousands of Palestinian construction workers will lose their jobs. This concern was evident in JMCC’s June poll, in which 60 percent of Palestinians opposed their own government’s proposed ban on working in settlements.

More important, however, Palestinians remember exactly what happened the last time an American president forced an unwilling Palestinian leader into final-status talks that were certain to fail: the talks collapsed, and two months later, the second intifada erupted. And another intifada would destroy the West Bank economy: investments would dry up, while all the trade-hampering checkpoints the Netanyahu government has removed would reappear.

At first glance, Maplecroft’s new TRI seems equally bizarre. Israel’s ranking moved from 17 in February to 14 this month, making it one of 16 countries the consultancy deems at “extreme risk” of terrorism. But the rankings are based on data from June 2009-June 2010, plus a “historical component” covering 2007-2009. And throughout these years, terrorism in Israel was virtually nonexistent.

Indeed, the U.S. has suffered as many attacks as Israel this year, and those attacks involved a much greater chance of mass casualties — another factor Maplecroft considers. Yet America ranked only 33.

So why did Israel, during a period of almost total calm, suddenly soar in Maplecroft’s rankings? The individual country reports are subscription-only, but it’s not hard to guess. The index is meant to be “forward-looking.” And Maplecroft’s experts, too, undoubtedly remember what happened last time an American president dragged an unwilling Palestinian leader into fruitless final-status talks.

Indeed, it seems the only people who don’t remember are that president’s wife, now secretary of state, and her boss in the White House. Unfortunately, ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are liable to pay the price of their amnesia.



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