Commentary Magazine


The “Even-Handedness” Question

In the wake of Sen. George Mitchell’s appointment as Middle East envoy, conventional wisdom, as Jonathan mentioned, has held that the Obama administration will pursue a more “even-handed” approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  For supporters of Israel, the “even-handed” approach — for which President Obama advocated as a congressional candidate in 2000 — always means one thing: that Israel will be “pushed around” and forced into making dangerous concessions.  Naturally, these fears delight the anti-Israel crowd – particularly those who promote absurd conspiracy theories regarding the nefarious power of pro-Israel Americans, and salivate when the supposedly indomitable squirm.

However, I find this “even-handedness” debate incredibly trite.  For starters, what would “even-handedness” even look like?  At the moment, it would presumably be the happy medium between the demands of Hamas and those of the current Israeli government.  Does such a thing even exist?  Is it possible to find a “fair” compromise between an Islamist group that rejects Israel’s very existence and a democratic state that has supported a two-state solution for nearly two decades?  Indeed, there is simply no way to please both sides sufficiently (if at all), and therefore no way that both sides could possibly come to view Mitchell’s mission as “even-handed.”  Remember: the ultimate arbiters of whether or not a Middle East peace mission is “even-handed” are not the Abe Foxmans or Matthew Yglesiases of the world, but the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.

Second, concerns regarding an “even-handed” approach completely ignore America’s foremost objective in the Middle East — namely, promoting stability, both to counter Iranian-inspired radicalism and as a mechanism for ensuring the free-flow of oil.  In turn, the debate regarding “even-handedness” overlooks the simple fact that — even if it were hypothetically possible to compromise between Israeli and Palestinian positions — the U.S. would be unwilling to tolerate any downgrade in Israeli strength, and therefore unable to approach Israeli and Palestinian security demands even-handedly.  Support for a regionally dominant Israel has been a central component of American security policy in the Levant for decades, and deserves much of the credit for the absence of Arab-Israeli interstate warfare since 1973.  For this reason, it is hard to imagine Mitchell believing that U.S. policy in the Levant could somehow be recast around promoting Israeli-Palestinian parity, or that Israel could make security concessions in the name of “fairness” without undermining precious regional stability.

Of course, there’s every reason to believe that Mitchell will press Israel on its West Bank settlements much as he did in his 2001 “Mitchell Plan.”  And, particularly if he has to contend with a right-wing Israeli government that will likely emerge from the upcoming Knesset elections, there is good reason to expect that Mitchell will speak more critically of Israel than any Bush administration official ever did.  However, inasmuch as these small changes in tone might please the anti-Israel segment of the blogosphere, they do not constitute “even-handedness.”

Simply put, the U.S. has critical objectives in the Middle East that true “even-handedness” — the kind that weighs conflicting Israeli and Palestinian security demands equally — would be unable to satisfy.  Even policymakers with minimal emotional attachment to Israel — James A. Baker III seems to be the favorite example — have ceded to this reality.  “Fairness” might be an appropriate doctrine for the schoolyard, but it has virtually no meaning in international relations, particularly when security interests are at stake.

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