Commentary Magazine


The Mother of All Quagmires

I’ve just returned from a week-long trip through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Israel’s border with Gaza, and I’m reminded all over again of what has been beaten into me during my many visits to the Middle East: there is no solution to the problems that vex that region right now. Most Americans are inherently optimistic and think just about any problem in the world can be solved. We put a man on the moon before I was born, but that was easy compared with securing peace between Israelis and Arabs.

The American Jewish Committee brought me and seven of my colleagues to Israel and set up interviews with Israeli military officers, politicians, academics, and journalists on the far-left, the far-right and at every point in between. One of my colleagues asked the eternal question during one of our meetings. “What is the solution to this problem?” He meant the Arab-Israeli conflict, of course, and the answer from our Israeli host was revealing in more ways than one. “You Americans are always asking us that,” he said and laughed darkly.

Americans aren’t the only ones who have a hard time grasping the idea of an intractable problem. “Unfortunately we Westerners are impatient,” said an Israeli politician who preferred not to be named. “We want fast food and peace now. But it won’t happen. We need a long strategy.” “Most of Israel’s serious problems don’t have a solution,” said Dr. Dan Schueftan, Director of National Security Studies at the University of Haifa. “Israelis have only recently understood this, and most foreign analysts still don’t understand it.”

A clear majority of Israelis would instantly hand over the West Bank and its settlements along with Gaza for a real shot at peace with the Arabs, but that’s not an option. Most Arab governments at least implicitly say they will recognize Israel’s right to exist inside its pre-1967 borders, but far too many Palestinians still won’t recognize Israel’s right to exist even in its 1948 borders. Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist inside any borders at all.

“We will never recognize Israel,” senior Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan said before he was killed by an air strike in Gaza during the recent fighting. “There is nothing called Israel, neither in reality nor in the imagination.”

Hamas does not speak for all Palestinians. I’ve met Palestinians who sincerely despise Hamas and everything it stands for. But let’s not kid ourselves here. Hamas speaks for a genuinely enormous number of Palestinians, and peace is impossible as long as that’s true. An-Najah University conducted a poll of Palestinian public opinion a few months ago and found that 53.4 percent persist in their rejection of a two-state solution.

Far too many Westerners make the mistake of projecting their own views onto Palestinians without really understanding the Palestinian narrative. The “occupation” doesn’t refer to the West Bank and Gaza, and it never has. The “occupation” refers to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. A kibbutz in the center of Israel is “occupied Palestine” according to most. “It makes no sense to a Palestinian to think about a Palestinian state alongside Israel,” Martin Kramer from the Shalem Center in Jerusalem said to me a few days ago. “From the Palestinian perspective, Israel will always exist inside Palestine.”

“Making peace with the Palestinians is harder than making peace with other Arabs,” said Asher Susser, Senior Research Fellow at Tel Aviv University. “With the Palestinians we have a 1948 file as well as a 1967 file. With other Arabs we only have a 1967 file. The 1967 file relates to our size, but the 1948 file relates to our very being. It is nearly impossible to resolve because we cannot compromise on our being.”

The problem here isn’t just with the worst of the violent rejectionists. Even the moderates on each side remain too far apart.

Fatah Party leader Mahmoud Abbas is clearly more moderate and reasonable than the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but even he can’t compromise on the “right of return,” the so-far non-negotiable demand that all Palestinian refugees and their descendants from the 1948 war be allowed to return to settle in Israel. Israel would become an Arab-majority country if that were to happen, and most of the would-be arrivals have been radicalized in politically toxic refugee camps. The “right of return” would ignite a civil war worse than Lebanon’s.

Listen to Ran Cohen, Member of the Knesset for the left-wing Meretz Party and former leader of the Left Camp of Israel peace movement. “Even I refuse the right of return,” he said. “It’s impossible. It’s the opposite of a solution. Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and the others know our position on the right of return. Who are they going [to] negotiate this with? Not me, not Meretz, not Peace Now. Who? The Communist Party? Not even the radical left supports this.”

Palestinian right-of-returners aren’t the only ones to contend with. “We cannot look at Israel-Syrian talks or Israeli-Palestinian talks without looking at how Iran influences these talks,” said an Israeli intelligence officer who asked not to be named. “Iran has its fingers all over these talks. The situation is much more difficult now than it was in 2000.”

All wars end, and this mother of all quagmires will eventually end like the others. But the Middle East will have to change before it is solvable. President Barack Obama no doubt will pull out all the stops to broker a peace agreement no matter how bleak the prospects may look. There is something to be said for struggling against long odds, and an excessively negative attitude can be self-defeating. Perhaps it’s even worth sponsoring a doomed peace process just to keep up appearances so the United States won’t be blamed when it continues to fail. But President Obama should take care to proceed as though failure – through no fault of his own – is the most likely outcome right now.

Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a cautionary note to Israelis in the New York Times that applies just as well to the Obama Administration. “There is a fixed idea among some Israeli leaders that Hamas can be bombed into moderation,” he wrote. “This is a false and dangerous notion. It is true that Hamas can be deterred militarily for a time, but tanks cannot defeat deeply felt belief. The reverse is also true: Hamas cannot be cajoled into moderation. Neither position credits Hamas with sincerity, or seriousness.”

Dan Schueftan made a similar point much more bluntly when I met him last week in Israel. “Ariel Sharon believed we could change the world by force,” he said. “Shimon Peres believed we could change it by being nice and stupid. They are both megalomaniacs.”

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