In the New York Times review of the American Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross’ important new history of Israeli-U.S. relations, “Doomed to Succeed,” a telling moment on the eve of the 1991 Madrid peace conference caught my attention. The Palestinian delegation had raised some last-minute reservations with the secretary of state, James A. Baker III. Baker was livid and told the Palestinians before walking out on them: “With you people, the souk never closes, but it is closed with me. Have a nice life.”
I was struck because that kind of straight talk has been all too absent from U.S. Middle East diplomacy lately. Israelis and Palestinians – way too long at war – are trapped in political hothouses of their own making, incapable of surprising each other with anything positive, and desperately in need of a friendly third-party dose of common sense.
Listening to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel claim last week that the Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini – who met Hitler in the early 1940s – gave Hitler the idea for mass murdering all the Jews, you can only conclude that Bibi is in a sealed bubble, with no one around him able to say: “You know Bibi, that is provably historically false. You might want to keep that one to yourself.”
We forget how much the parties need America at times to play the reality principle to break the paralysis in their internal politics. Sometimes their leaders need to say to their cabinets: “I would never agree to this, but those damn Americans broke my arm. See it dangling here! It’s broken! I had to say yes!” Israeli and Palestinian internal politics are brutal. As Baker learned, if you don’t get in their faces on a regular basis, you’re listed as “nap time” on their daily schedules.
What would such a U.S. message sound like today? It would start by saying publicly to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, “You rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s unprecedented September 2008 offer of a two-state solution, in which, as The Jerusalem Post later reported, ‘Olmert essentially agreed to forgo sovereignty of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site, and proposed that in the framework of a peace agreement, the area containing the religious sites in Jerusalem would be managed by a special committee … from five nations: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, the United States and Israel.’
“The Post also said, ‘Olmert laid out for [Abbas] … a large map upon which he outlined the borders of the future Palestinian state,’ which included a roughly equal swap of Palestinian land in the West Bank to house Israeli settlements in return for parts of Israel.
“Abbas, Olmert is still waiting for your answer.
“It’s clear that with the Palestinians now split between Hamas-led Gaza and your Fatah-led West Bank, there is no single, legitimate Palestinian Authority to formally approve a comprehensive peace deal. And it is also true that you have been committed to nonviolence – and bless your for that. But where is your creative plan for an interim solution that can at least move the process forward? Why do you just sit there like Buddha, rejecting creative ideas like the one put forward by Secretary of State John Kerry?”
As for Netanyahu, the blunt U.S. message might be: “You are going to be a historic figure: the Israeli leader who left Israel with nothing other than a one-state solution, in which Israel will gradually give up being Jewish or democratic. We know exactly what a one-state solution looks like. Just look out your window: Palestinians grabbing a kitchen knife and stabbing any Israeli Jew, and masked settler vigilantes retaliating back.”
I visited Monday with Israel’s very decent defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon. Hearing him describe Israel’s strategic theater is hair-raising: The nation has nonstate actors, dressed as civilians, armed with rockets, nested among civilians, on four of five borders – Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria – and he does not want to chance opening a fifth one by just evacuating the West Bank. I get it.
But there has to be some alternative to doing nothing or doing everything. It needs to be an alternative that at least tests Palestinians to really control some territory – and creates some hope that the two communities can separate securely. And it has to involve Israel at least stopping all settlement-building in the heart of the West Bank, in the areas long designated for a Palestinian state. Some 70,000 of Israel’s 400,000 settlers now live in those areas, and it’s making any separation increasingly impossible.
This is what Israel’s friends are missing. Israel has so much creative energy – in science, tech and medicine. But you don’t see it today in diplomacy. It’s true that Israel can survive this war of the knives. But will it thrive? Will it remain a place where you will want to visit and raise their kids?
It may be that Israel has no choice.
But Israel is a really powerful country. It’s not a disarmed Costa Rica. No one expects it to give up everything. But fewer and fewer can understand why it puts so much energy into explaining why it can’t do anything, why the Palestinians are irredeemably awful and why nothing Israel could do would affect their behavior. I truly worry that Israel is slowly committing suicide, with all the best arguments.