A faint sliver of Mideast hope

Revelations that Bush talked tough to Sharon and feels for the Palestinians may signal his willingness to pressure the Israeli leader to make peace. Or they could be another disappointment in a long history of betrayals.


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Gary Kamiya
June 6, 2003 1:06am (UTC)

The odds are dauntingly long, the obstacles formidable. But by finally putting the credibility of the United States, and his own, on the line in the quest for Mideast peace, President Bush has at least given weary Israelis and Palestinians a tiny glimpse of that rarest of commodities: hope.

For two years, Bush has stood on the sidelines, watching as the antagonists in the world's most intractable and dangerous conflict carried out their endless danse macabre, like blood-stained zombies enacting some predestined ritual of hatred and revenge. Wary of following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, ignorant of the complex issues involved, concerned about domestic fallout if he pushed Israel too hard, and drawn to the stark moral simplicity of the "war on terror" -- a mind-set that turned him against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and predisposed him toward Israel's martial leader, Ariel Sharon -- Bush tacitly signed off on Sharon's iron-fist approach. The result: more settlement building, more Palestinian terror attacks, more Israeli assassinations, more starvation, more incursions, more hatred, more despair -- and the complete eclipse of a political solution.

The numbers tell the grim story: 32 months of fighting. 781 Israeli deaths. 2,085 Palestinian deaths. Thousands more wounded. And the world a more dangerous place every day the conflict continues.

Now, Bush has plunged into the morass that for more than 80 years has swallowed up every attempt to resolve it. The list of failed peace plans, U.N. resolutions, international commissions and summits is endless: the King-Crane Commission of 1919. The 1937 Peel Report. The British White Paper of 1939. The Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry of 1945. The U.N. Partition Plan of 1947. U.N resolutions 242, 194 and 338. The Rogers Plan. The Mitchell Plan. The Tenet plan. Camp David. Taba. The Saudi plan. And now, the Bush-backed "road map," created by the "Quartet" -- the U.S., the USSR, the E.U. and the U.N.

On paper, there is no reason for either the road map or Bush to succeed. An incremental, cautious document, the road map avoids dealing with the explosive issues that sunk Camp David: the right of return of Palestinian refugees, the fate of Jewish settlements, the final borders of a Palestinian state and, above all, the status of Jerusalem -- in particular that black hole of religious history known as the Old City, a few hundred square yards of land, holy to three faiths, that may have the terrible power, like a chunk of antimatter, to detonate the entire globe. These issues are deferred because the two sides allegedly need to "build confidence" before they confront them. Yet it has been the failure to address and resolve these issues in advance that has doomed peace plan after peace plan.

As for Bush, little in his presidency so far inspires confidence that he will succeed where all others have failed. Before he took office, some observers believed that as a Republican and an oil man, he might turn up the heat on Israel more than Al Gore, who as a Democrat was thought to be more beholden to domestic Jewish concerns. Adherents of that view pointed out that Bush's father had slapped around right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over settlements -- probably the harshest medicine a U.S. president made an Israeli leader swallow since Eisenhower brutalized Ben-Gurion over Israel's role in the Sinai debacle of 1956.

That belief, of course, proved false. Instead of a traditional pro-Arab oil man, Bush the younger has proved extraordinarily sympathetic to Israel -- even more than Clinton, who many regard as the most pro-Israeli president ever. Some observers attributed this in part to Bush's fervent born-again Christianity, which they speculated might even extend to the literalist belief, held by many of his core religious-right supporters, that the Jewish state must survive in order for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to transpire. Whatever the truth of that claim, there can be little doubt that the terror attacks of 9/11, and Bush's single-minded, morally charged response to them, moved him decisively into Sharon's camp. Like Sharon, he was fighting a "war against terror" -- and since Bush defined terrorism as pure evil, anomic, outside of history and causation, a virtual emanation of Satan into human affairs, how could he expect Sharon to take a different view?

So far, little has been said to indicate that Bush has any understanding of or sympathy for the Palestinian dilemma -- although he was the first American president to explicitly call for a Palestinian state. But a remarkable article on Tuesday by the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler casts a new light on the president's approach to the crisis. According to Kessler, who interviewed a number of top-ranking U.S. officials who preferred to remain anonymous, Bush has "serious doubts that Sharon has a vision to achieve peace," and in fact issued an extraordinary rebuke to the Israeli prime minister. "Bush interrupted Sharon when he began to say he was a 'man of peace and security,' according to a witness to the exchange who recounted it," Kessler reports. "'I know you are a man of security,' Bush said. 'I want you to work harder on the peace part.'

"Then, adding a bit of colloquial language that first seemed to baffle Sharon, Bush jabbed: 'I said you were a man of peace. I want you to know I took immense crap for that.'"

But the most surprising thing in Kessler's story is his account of Bush's relationship with Prince Abdullah, the Saudi leader. Kessler reports that "Aides said the one leader in the region who has earned Bush's respect is Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, who forcefully challenged the president over his handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a visit to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April of last year. In a scene that one senior Bush adviser later likened to 'a near-death experience,' Abdullah arrived at Crawford with a book showing pictures of Palestinian suffering and a 10-minute videotape of images of children shot and crushed by Israelis that had appeared on Arab television.

"The adviser said Abdullah spoke eloquently about what these images meant -- conveying a respect for life rather than a hatred of Israel -- and then laid it on the line for Bush: Was he going to do something about this or not? ... Few leaders had ever spoken so directly to Bush. The president, the official said, concluded that Abdullah was a good person who has a vision of where he wants to lead his country. Since then, the president frequently asks aides whether Abdullah believes Bush is living up to the commitments he made at Crawford."

This astonishing account of Bush looking at images of Palestinian suffering and being touched by the manly directness of a fellow leader, if true, makes possible an entirely new way of looking at the American president's attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What might previously have been seen as ignorance and naiveté suddenly could be seen as noble simplicity. And far from being the pawn of a neoconservative cabal out to implement the Likud line at all costs, he could be seen as a genuinely open-minded, if untutored, man, even if perhaps a sentimentalist, determined to try to make things better for all the people, Israeli and Palestinian, of that tortured region.

It is far too soon to know what to make of any of this. But one thing is sure: If Bush is to succeed, he will have to go beyond sentimentality -- laudable as his human sensitivity to suffering may be -- and plunge in all the way. He will have to educate himself about the issues, live and breathe them. He will have to exert all of his power and will to make peace a reality.

And sooner rather than later, he will have to confront head on that wiliest and most stubborn of leaders, Ariel Sharon -- even letting Sharon's coalition government crumble, if that's the result of American pressure.

It seems almost impossible that Bush will do any of this. But if he does, he will have proved himself a thousand times tougher and more courageous than he did by commanding a space-age army that remote-control blasted a tattered Iraqi army to smithereens.

What does Bush's war on Iraq, and his alliance with the neoconservative hawks who championed it, tell us about his attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian crisis? At first glance, it seems clear evidence of his administration's pro-Israel tilt -- but things may be slightly more complicated. Despite the rationale -- unproven and increasingly looking like it was based on cooked "evidence" -- that Saddam's regime posed an "imminent threat" to the world, the only nation one can say for certain it imminently threatened was Israel. (Not surprisingly, Israel was virtually the only country in the world whose government and people supported the invasion of Iraq. Britain, Spain, Italy and doughty Poland, which purchased Bush's undying love for the bargain price of a few hundred support soldiers, officially supported the war, but those nations' peoples did not.) This fact, and the Likudnik tendencies of top officials like Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams and Doug Feith and top unofficials like Richard Perle, led critics like Michael Lind to charge that the war on Iraq was fought in large part on Israel's behalf.

In a May 13 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, the French expert on Islam Olivier Roy put foward another explanation, one echoed in a slightly different form Wednesday by the New York Times' Thomas L. Friedman: that we did not attack Iraq because we feared it posed an imminent threat, but simply because we could and it served our purposes to do so. For Roy, our goal was to "reshape the Middle East through military pressure" -- pressure that is falling on Iran and Syria, in political form, for now. For Friedman, our goal is more self-defensive: to prove to Muslim radicals convinced we had gone "soft" that we were not a paper tiger. The two positions are not mutually exclusive, but Roy's is darker and more Machiavellian.

To what degree this hit-'em-and-scare-'em reason for invading Iraq indicates a pro-Israeli tilt is unclear. It is true, as I have argued elsewhere, that the "reshape the Middle East through force" doctrine bears a strong resemblance to the "Iron Wall" approach favored by Ariel Sharon, and derived from his right-wing, Revisionist Zionist forebears: always hit the enemy as hard as possible, always kill 10 of the enemy for every one of yours, never show weakness, always negotiate from a position of mastery, always assume that the enemy has the worst intentions. It also is tinged by the "clash of civilizations/resentful Muslim world" line taken by Bernard Lewis, the most pro-Israeli of all leading scholars of Islam (and, not coincidentally, the most popular with the White House).

However, the linkage between Bush's strategic reasons for invading Iraq and Israeli concerns remains murky. After all, the United States has its own terrorist concerns, which are different from Israel's; it is possible that Bush invaded Iraq mainly out of what he conceived to be America's self-interest, with only a vague belief that "showing the Arabs we mean business" would help jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Here, it becomes critical whether Roy or Friedman is right about American goals. It is too early to say, although the slippery Friedman may actually subscribe to more of Roy's thesis than he acknowledged in his column. Certainly Ariel Sharon has taken advantage of the identification of Israel's interest with America's, whatever Bush's real motives.

What does Sharon do now? He may, as some Israeli commentators have hopefully speculated, have decided he wants his legacy to be as the man who brought his country peace, not the "butcher" who bombed Beirut from the air, squandered tens of thousands of Lebanese and Israeli lives in a rash plot to remake the Middle East through force, and stood contentedly by while bloodthirsty Phalange militias massacred hundreds of unarmed Palestinian men, women and children. But it seems much less likely that he has had a conversion experience than that he is simply obeying the oldest law of Israeli politics: never cross the United States.

No Israeli leader can afford to disobey the president of the United States, for the simple reason that America is Israel's best (and almost only) friend in the world and virtually guarantees the country's existence. So when Bush told Sharon that he wanted him to accept the road map, Sharon had no choice. But whether Sharon is prepared to actually dismantle existing settlements -- whose creation is his life's work, and whose destruction could literally end his life -- is a different story.

At this point, Sharon is probably assuming that this peace plan, too, is doomed to fail -- and he is likely planning ways to make sure the blame falls on the Palestinians, just as it did after Camp David. He may believe that Bush, too, secretly believes this. He may believe that Bush believes that his victory over Iraq means that he can now dictate terms to the Palestinians -- that he can buy Mideast peace on the cheap, shunting the hapless Palestinians into a cantonized Bantustan, thus avoiding any conflict with Israel. That belief would be ruinous: As the Israeli historian Benny Morris has noted, the Palestinians have always taken the long view. Today, 86 years after the Balfour Declaration, 36 years after the 1967 war, three years after the collapse of Camp David, they are still there and they will not be satisfied with less than 22 percent of historical Palestine -- give or take a few swapped settlements.

It will be up to Bush to show Sharon that he is wrong -- that this time he means business.

The only way that Bush can do this is to force the Israeli leader to actually take concrete steps to create the "contiguous state" Bush says the Palestinians must have. Since their current territory is bisected and trisected by Israeli settlements and security roads, removing the pathetic "outposts" -- all that Sharon has pledged to do so far -- is meaningless. Polls show the Israeli public is ready to abandon most of the settlements in exchange for peace. There is no other answer. The National Religious Party will bolt from Sharon's coalition, but Labor can replace it.

As for Palestinian extremism, here Bush must reject his natural tendency to scupper the entire peace process at the first terror bombing by Hamas, or make Sharon's concessions dependent on a "crackdown on terror" that would amount to a Palestinian civil war. Neither Abu Mazen nor any other Palestinian leader is either capable of or willing to instigate an all-out war against their own people to root out extremists at this time. In order for the Palestinian leadership to fight extremism, the Israelis must make real and tangible concessions. Closures must cease, work permits must be given, and so on.

But in the long run, the incremental approach is doomed to fail simply because it takes too long and leaves unresolved the vital issues. It is just too easy for terrorists to disrupt a process whose end point is so unclear that no one has faith in it anyway. To really assure a lasting peace, Bush needs to address the basic issues in advance and come up with a solution that both sides can live with.

That solution is simple and has been evident to students of the conflict for many years. Israel returns to its June 4, 1967, borders, with the exception of some big settlement blocs for which Palestinians are given compensation elsewhere in the West Bank. In exchange for this, the Palestinians essentially waive the full-fledged right of return, which could destroy the Jewish character of Israel: Only a symbolic number of Palestinian refugees are allowed back. The Palestinians are given sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the Muslim holy sites; the Israelis are given sovereignty over the rest of Jerusalem and the Western Wall. The Palestinian state is demilitarized. U.S. or U.N. troops protect Israel's borders. And the two long-suffering people slowly, slowly learn to live together.

If this vision is laid down in advance, with U.S. backing, peace can be achieved.

Bush is not, of course, going to get to this point today or tomorrow. It is unlikely that he ever will. But on this day when the leaders of Israel and Palestine met on the Gulf of Aqaba and spoke of peace, one may be allowed to hold out hope, however small. For without hope, there is nothing.


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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