After Israeli media reported yesterday that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had threatened to curtail U.S. involvement in Israeli-Palestinian talks, the White House rushed to deny it. That’s a pity — because curtailing U.S. involvement would be far more helpful than what special envoy George Mitchell is actually doing.
Interviewed by PBS yesterday, Mitchell (as Jennifer noted) declared: “We think that the negotiation should last no more than two years … Personally I think it can be done in a shorter period of time.”
That, frankly, is ridiculous. In 16 years of talks, the parties have yet to resolve a single final-status issue. Just 15 months ago, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected an Israeli offer of 94 percent of the West Bank, territorial exchanges for the remainder, and international Muslim control over the Temple Mount. Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will certainly offer no more, and probably not as much. So what does Mitchell think will happen in the next two years to suddenly make Abbas abandon positions he has stuck to for the last 16 — or else make Israel agree to suicide by, for instance, accepting Abbas’ demand that it absorb 4.7 million Palestinian “refugees”?
Nor need one be “anti-peace” to recognize this. Here’s the first sentence of a column published in the left-wing Israeli paper Haaretz yesterday by its leftist, pro-peace diplomatic correspondent, Aluf Benn: “Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is right: During the next two years Israel will not reach a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians.”
While arguing that Israel must make concessions anyway to placate world opinion, Benn articulates an important truth: “The establishment of new states arouses multigenerational conflicts” that rarely end quickly. The India-Pakistan and Cyprus conflicts, which also date back to the British Empire’s mid-20th century breakup, are still unresolved, he notes, and the Israeli-Arab conflict is no less intractable.
But were Mitchell just spouting nonsense, nobody would care. The problem is that such nonsense does active harm by raising expectations that cannot be met — then provoking a backlash of disappointment.
First, Palestinians and other Arabs routinely interpret such statements by U.S. officials as pledges to make Israel kowtow to Palestinian demands. When that doesn’t happen, it increases anti-American sentiment, entrenches disbelief in the possibility of peace (thus strengthening extremists like Hamas), and can even spark renewed anti-Israel terror, as the Camp David summit in 2000 showed.
Second, it further entrenches Israeli skepticism about peace.
Third, it will almost certainly increase anti-Israel hysteria in Europe. Unlike Israelis and Palestinians, Europeans largely share Mitchell’s conviction that peace is imminently achievable. Hence every time it fails to materialize, they seek a scapegoat. And so far, that scapegoat has always been Israel: while demanding ever more Israeli concessions, the EU has yet to publicly demand any Palestinian concessions.
There are things America could do to further peace — like finally telling the Palestinians that they, too, must compromise. But doing nothing would be better than doing active harm. And that’s what Washington is doing now.