Commentary Magazine


The Show Needn't Go On

This week the Israeli government announced it will resume negotiations with Syria without preconditions, and the Syrians responded in kind.

Peace talks, if they ever actually start, aren’t going anywhere, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows it. He’s going through the motions so Western diplomats don’t throw him and his country out in the cold. Syria’s Bashar Assad knows it too. He’s going through the motions so that he and his country can come in from the cold.

It has been years since I spoke to a single person in the Middle East who thinks the Arab-Israeli conflict will be resolved any time soon. Last time I visited Jerusalem with a half-dozen American colleagues, Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh bluntly told us to stop asking "What’s the solution?"

"I don’t see a real peace emerging over here," he said. "We should stop talking about it."

Some Westerners, though, can’t stop talking about it and get bent out of shape when they hear comments like Toameh’s from either side. As Evelyn Gordon pointed out here a few days ago, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner can’t see the difference between Israeli disillusionment about the prospects for peace and an abandonment of the desire for peace in the abstract.

“What really hurts me," Kouchner said, "and this shocks us, is that before there used to be a great peace movement in Israel. … It seems to me, and I hope that I am completely wrong, that this desire has completely vanished, as though people no longer believe in it.”

It’s not that people over there no longer want it. They’ve learned the hard way, repeatedly, that the Arab-Israeli conflict is no more stoppable right now than are plate tectonics.

Because supposedly right-thinking Westerners are appalled, Israel and Syria will pretend to hold talks while the more seasoned Western diplomats will pretend the talks stand a chance. It’s like the old Russian joke about Communism: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."

There’s a difference, though, between what Israel and Syria are up to right now. Unlike Netanyahu, Assad can get himself into trouble by talking about peace with the "Zionist Entity." When it looked like the elder Hafez Assad might sign a peace treaty with Israel in the 1990s, a prominent military officer warned him of the consequences. "What are you doing?" he said, according to an account by Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. "We will be lost if you make peace. We will be accused of treason.’"

So in the very same statement where he announced unconditional peace talks, Assad reassured his regional and domestic audience: "Resistance forms the core of our policy," he said, "both in the past and in the future."

I suppose it has been vaguely in the American interest to participate in this farce, at least for a while. No one can say that the Mother of All Quagmires persists thanks to our negligence. We might want to ask ourselves, though, if we should continue spending so much effort and political capital just on appearances when hardly anyone aside from the French foreign minister and Barack Obama’s dreamy campus fan base takes it seriously.

This is a show for us in the West, but it’s for a dwindling number of us in the West. When discussing the conflict last year at the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, historian Michael Oren — who is now the Israeli ambassador — said, "Remove ‘solution’ from your vocabulary and everything will be fine." The audience laughed, and not because he was cracking a joke. The audience laughed because almost everyone knows, at least in their gut if not their head, that peace today between Israelis and Arabs is a fantasy.

The Middle East will stop performing its "peace process" theater as soon as we stop demanding it. And as soon as we stop demanding it, time, resources, and energy can be spent on something that might be slightly productive. The conflict isn’t resolvable now, but it’s manageable. Even in the Middle East, there is such a thing as damage control.

And damage control is urgently necessary. Just this week Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah claimed he has more missiles than he did before the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and can strike every inch of Israel’s territory. "All cities, military bases, factories, and settlements in Israel are within the organization’s firing range," he said.

I suspect that’s just an empty boast from Hezbollah, but I have no doubt Nasrallah wishes he could. It’s too late to call do-overs and wrap up the 2006 war on terms that would starve him of rockets and bullets, but it’s not too late to prevent him and his comrades in Gaza from getting their hands on that kind of arsenal. We can’t solve this problem right now, but we can try to make it less deadly by isolating and even blockading the combatants instead of cajoling their paymasters into talks they don’t take seriously.

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