Last chance for Mideast peace

While Bush and Olmert cling to their hard line, hope for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is slipping away forever.

Published April 3, 2007 10:45AM (EDT)

George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are letting what could be the last, best opportunity to resolve the world's most dangerous conflict slip through their fingers. Unless both leaders somehow find the wisdom and vision to seize the moment, 2007 may be remembered as the year when the chance for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians slipped away for the last time.

Last week Saudi Arabia revived the Arab League's 2002 peace initiative. This offer, backed by every Arab country, offers a fair solution to the crisis. It is basically a land-for-peace deal along the lines of the Clinton parameters and the 2003 Geneva accord. The rudiments of the plan are that Israel will return to its pre-1967 borders, with some territory swaps to be negotiated; a reasonable compromise will be worked out on the issue of refugees; and East Jerusalem will become the capital of Palestine, with Israel maintaining control over the Jewish holy sites and Jewish neighborhoods. Such a plan represents the only solution that will be acceptable to both sides. Essentially, the Arab states have told Israel: Whatever you work out with the Palestinians will be agreeable to us.

But despite U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's suddenly more active diplomacy and Olmert's invitation to Arab leaders to meet at a future regional peace conference, there is no indication that either the Israelis or the Americans are willing to take the steps necessary to make peace.

Rice headed home last Tuesday in diplomatic humiliation. She wanted to prod Olmert to discuss final-status issues, but was unable to get him to agree to anything more than meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas twice a month. As veteran Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery caustically commented, "Julius Caesar, as is well known, reported to the Roman Senate, 'I came. I saw. I conquered.' Condoleezza could report to the US Senate: "I came. I saw. I capitulated.' Who to? To a failing Israeli prime minister, whose popularity rating is approaching zero and who practically nobody expects to survive to the end of the year. In the ongoing debate about which is wagging which --- the dog its tail or the tail its dog -- the proponents of the tail have won the day."

Olmert's call on Sunday for a regional conference appears to be a positive step, but it is nothing more than diplomatic window-dressing designed to give the appearance of open-mindedness and bolster his approval ratings. (Considering they now stand at 3 percent, this should not be hard to do.) Olmert has refused to deal with the real issues, and Rice, who obviously lacks Bush's support, has not forced him to. Both Israel and the United States still refuse to end the boycott of the Palestinian unity government. They refuse to go directly to final-status issues. And they refuse to talk to Hamas, because they consider it a terrorist organization that will not recognize Israel or forswear violence.

In some dreamworld where enemies are nice and don't blow up each other's civilian populations, this rejectionist position -- which Bush has embraced with such ringing success in his "war on terror" -- would make sense. But as history has shown time and again, it is precisely the most hard-line and unappealing of your opponents that you must talk to. A painful historical irony underscored that this week: While the United States and Israel continued to dwell in a self-righteous fantasy land, hard-line Protestant leader Ian Paisley and longtime Sinn Fein head Gerry Adams announced that they were prepared to share power in a new Northern Ireland government -- giving the world, and the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland, hope that the bitter, bloody conflict might finally be ending.

As veteran Mideast expert and conflict-resolution analyst Helena Cobban noted, citing the work of University of Ulster expert Cathy Gormley-Heenan, the negotiations worked because both parties finally understood "the need to embrace political inclusiveness in the peacemaking. The sole criteria for inclusion in the process in Northern Ireland, [Gormley-Heenan] said, had been (a) willingness to abide by a ceasefire, and (b) the holding of a clear mandate from the electorate." Cobban added, "Note that by these criteria, Hamas could and should have been included in the peace diplomacy, while the government of Israel -- which never abided by any ceasefire toward the Palestinians over the past year -- would not." Cobban added that neither the Northern Ireland talks nor the diplomacy that ended the South Africa conflict required either side to give up arms or recognize any "rights" held by the other side -- conditions that the United States, the European Union and Israel have insisted Hamas meet before they accept it as a legitimate partner.

In short, the simple fact is that no peace is possible without dealing directly with Hamas and grappling with final-status issues -- getting real, in other words. Neither Bush nor Olmert is prepared to get real. And while they fiddle and Rice runs impotently around, the region burns, al-Qaida and its ilk gain in strength, the Palestinians' half-century-long tragedy continues, Israel's long-term situation continues to deteriorate, and America's standing in the Middle East sinks ever lower.

Israel's supposed "friends" in America will, as always, demand that the United States and Israel continue their hard line. But as M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum said, blasting the move by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., to prevent the United States from working with the Palestinian unity government, "It's time for the pro-Israel community in this country to stop pretending that those who work to thwart U.S. peace efforts are friends of Israel. They are not. They are champions of a hopeless status quo."

Indeed, some experts believe that the status quo is even worse than hopeless. Middle East Project director Henry Siegman, a veteran analyst whose pieces in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere are among the most cogent on the subject, said this is the last, best chance for peace. And he believes that if the United States and Israel don't seize it, the Jewish state will find itself heading down a dark road -- one that could even lead to its doom.

Siegman believes this opportunity must not be squandered, for two reasons. First, the Arab states will not repeat their offer if it is spurned. "The Arab states have decided that they would like to bring this to an end by offering Israel complete normalization -- political, economic and so on," Siegman told me. "But if their offer is turned down, and if the Arab world sees it as Israel simply slamming the door in their face, they will not be able to resume it."

Second, Siegman said that if this deal isn't closed, ordinary Palestinians will simply give up on the two-state solution. "For years, important Palestinian voices have said, 'Why are we pleading, why are we begging? We now have 22 percent of mandated Palestine. Israel has 78 percent. Why are we begging for crumbs? Why don't we forget about our state, and history, if we are patient, will give us all of it?'"

If there isn't real progress toward a two-state solution, Siegman said, "that view will become widely accepted in the Palestinian community. Because it's not as if they have an alternative. If you can think in terms of a longer time line, they're suffering anyway under occupation. And they say, 'The kind of deal at best we're going to be offered is an occupation by other means. Even in the small sliver that is left to us, we will not be genuinely sovereign and independent. We'll be totally under Israeli control. Why should we settle for that? We've suffered for 50 years, let's wait another 50 years. Then we will be clearly the vast majority in this land, and Israel's position as a Jewish state will become entirely unviable.' That view will come to predominate. And there's a certain logic to it that is difficult to escape, particularly if there is no alternative. At least not an attractive alternative."

Siegman is referring to what many Israelis have argued is the greatest danger facing the Jewish state: the so-called demographic threat. In just a few years, thanks to explosive Palestinian population growth, Jews will be a minority in Greater Israel, the area composed of Israel proper and the occupied territories. As Siegman pointed out, unless Israel divests itself from the occupied territories, this will leave it in an untenable position. "How long will the world accept a situation in which a Jewish minority refuses to grant sovereignty to an overwhelming Arab majority?" he said. "The U.S. will not be able to support that situation. If a Jewish population that is only 35 or 40 percent of the total, or even less, continues to deny all rights to 6 million, 8 million Palestinians, that's simply not sustainable. An occupation can only last so long."

The Saudi peace plan is a lifeline that could save Israel, Siegman said. But Olmert -- inexplicably, since he was one of the first Israelis to publicly raise the demographic issue -- lacks the vision to understand this. Instead, he is "taking the easy way out" by stalling and trying to avoid entering into genuine negotiations with the Palestinians. "If Olmert had an interest in pursuing a serious peace process, he has ample opportunity to do so now," Siegman said. "He has the wiggle room to do it. He knows that there is room for negotiation on all of the final-status issues. But that's not what he's looking for. He continues to look for reasons not to engage in the process so that at some point he can say, 'Well, we tried, but we have to do it unilaterally.'"

Olmert's rejection of the Saudi plan on the grounds that it insists on a Palestinian "right of return" to Israel is the most egregious example of his deliberately evasive response to the plan. In fact, all the Saudi plan says is that a fair solution to the refugees be found, in accordance with U.N. Resolution 194 (which states that the refugees "be permitted" to return to their homes), but that the solution must be agreed upon by both sides. As the Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar noted in Haaretz, this is obviously not an extremist position -- the Palestinians could hardly be expected not to mention the refugees -- or one that anyone serious about making peace would seize on as a reason not to talk. Indeed, it was Olmert who took the extreme position, proclaiming to the Jerusalem Post that Israel had no moral responsibility for the Palestinian refugees and that "not one refugee can return."

What is Olmert's motivation for not engaging immediately in serious talks? I asked Siegman. Is it simply a maximalist position driven by a desire to hold on to more land?

"That's exactly it," he replied. "It's a desire to hold on to areas of the West Bank that Sharon before him, and now he, knows Israel will not be able to hold on to once a genuinely bilateral negotiation under the auspices of the international community proceeds. Because then Israel will be seen as making unreasonable demands and saying, 'No, in the end we won't sign this document.' They don't want to be placed in that position. They want to be able to hold on to land beyond what are now known as the Clinton parameters."

In short, Siegman said, Olmert is still playing the same old maximalist game, one he sees as essential to his political survival. The same motivation, along with deference to Bush (who wants to isolate Syria, which he sees as a rogue state) lies behind Olmert's continued refusal to accept a remarkable peace offer from Syria that has been on the table for two years. (According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, in exchange for the return of the Golan Heights, Syrian President Bashar Assad offered "surprisingly broad" concessions to Israel, including turning most of the Golan into a demilitarized national park that Israelis could visit, granting Israel control of vital water rights, and stopping its support of Hamas and Hezbollah.)

The only thing that could force Olmert to negotiate with the Palestinians is pressure from America. But could Bush, who has been demanding that Olmert not talk to Syria, be the one to exert that pressure? I asked Siegman if it was possible that Bush, facing the collapse of his entire Likud-like Mideast policy, might try to save his legacy by making a 180-degree turn and broker a Mideast peace -- which would mean leaning on Israel.

"I think it's highly unlikely," Siegman replied. "In terms of his own convictions about how right he really has been all along, and how it's just the rest of the world that hasn't come on board, that hasn't changed even 10 degrees. He may reluctantly yield, where he has to, to the new Democratic Congress. But on this issue there is no opposition. In fact, if anything, the Democratic Congress, when they were in opposition, criticized Bush for being too generous in his support of the Palestinians. So he doesn't have that pressure from the Congress."

Siegman praised Rice for at least trying to restart peace talks, but said her task was impossible because Bush didn't support her. The reason: The Israeli-Palestinian issue is the last one where he is still under the sway of the hard-line neoconservatives. "While many neocon ideologues, who were the architects of the Bush administration's approach to the Middle East, have been let go or have left on their own, on the Israel-Palestine situation it seems that [Deputy National Security Advisor] Elliott Abrams and Cheney are still very much in control, sufficiently so to prevent any effort by Condi Rice to pressure Israel to join the team and to engage in a serious peace process," Siegman said. "She has decided, it seems to me quite bravely, and despite the fact that she doesn't have the support from the president, to try to sweet-talk the folks in Jerusalem to suck them into the process although they don't want to be. And what she discovered is that Olmert is not suckable, to put it inelegantly."

The only ray of hope Siegman held out was that individual European countries might "break the taboo" and begin talking with members of the new Palestinian unity government. "If Europeans begin a dialogue with this new government and with the Hamas leadership directly, which is what it will take for the Hamas leadership to begin changing its formula for recognition of Israel, then I think a political dynamic will be created that will compel the United States to do the same," Siegman said. "And if Olmert sees that Israel's policy is becoming undone in terms of its boycott of Hamas and the unity government, then it may have to change its policy."

But all these speculations about what Olmert, the United States or the Europeans may do are probably moot anyway, according to Clayton Swisher, program director at the Middle East Institute and author of "The Truth About Camp David," which debunks the myth that Arafat refused then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's "generous offer" at the 2000 peace talks. Swisher said the peace process is likely to be torpedoed before it even gets a chance, because the Bush administration, including Rice, is still clinging to the deluded belief that Hamas can be defeated -- politically or militarily. With the help of Egypt and other "moderate" Arab states who are afraid of the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is a branch) in their own countries, the United States is arming Fatah, which backs Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to prepare it for a showdown with Hamas. The likely result, Swisher says, will be the end of the Saudi-brokered cease-fire between Fatah and Hamas, and a Palestinian civil war. This catastrophic outcome would end all chances of peace.

"I see a perfect storm brewing," Swisher said. "Because you have, on the one hand, Rice pushing for a Palestinian state, what she calls a 'political horizon,' while at the same time she's pursuing a policy of 'strengthening moderates' like Fatah and Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]. Between now and the summer, the idea is to inject Abu Mazen with steroids." To strengthen Abu Mazen and weaken Hamas, Swisher said, the United States is bolstering Fatah's military capability and "pushing Fatah to make reforms that people can see, like young people getting promoted, people getting their salaries, making these changes so that people say, 'Oh, Fatah's cleaning its act up and they're delivering.'"

"Hamas is going to see this as subversion," Swisher said. "And that's going to undo the cease-fire between it and Fatah. And what the hell good is talking about 'political horizons' when the West Bank and Gaza look like Mogadishu? You can't concurrently pursue these policies. They're unworkable in the end."

Pumping up Fatah to defeat Hamas is the same wrongheaded strategy the United States has employed since Hamas had the temerity to win the elections the United States insisted on. Swisher, like Siegman,argues that it is essential for Israel to negotiate with Hamas -- and it is an ignorant fantasy to believe Hamas can be defeated either militarily or politically. "Hamas will do a two-state deal, but they will not jump first," Swisher said. "Like it or not, Hamas is a fact. They are a significant portion of Palestinian society. A significant proportion of Palestinian society also believes in a two-state solution. The two aren't necessarily incompatible. But Rice doesn't get that."

Swisher said that the Bush administration's timid, wag-the-dog approach to Israel is doomed. "The administration is already adopting this 'Why press Olmert now, he's weak' line. This is a fantasy and Rice is buying into it. She wants to do a deal, but she's going about it the wrong way at a pace that won't work. She's hesitant to talk final status now, to say the four words: Jerusalem. Security. Refugees. Borders. But she's got to be standing on the roof and shouting this now. Because if you don't condition the Israeli public for this, they'll never be able to swallow it. We should be telling the Israelis, 'Bend over -- here it comes.' They should know that they're going to have to make a painful concession on this. That would give Olmert cover. But we're playing the same old game. And there won't be time. And more importantly, the cease-fire will break."

Both Swisher and Siegman see the current situation as far more momentous and dangerous than either Bush or Olmert realizes. Trapped by their self-righteous assumptions, unwilling to abandon their hard-line positions, under no political pressure in their own countries to do anything, the two leaders are failing to realize that a catastrophe is coming. If that happens, the United States will suffer irreparable harm. But the worst will fall on Israel.

"I do not believe for a moment that time works in Israel's favor," Siegman said. "And so I have a sense that what we are witnessing is an unfolding tragedy. Because I would consider an endangered Jewish state, and one that in the long run loses its possibility of viability and existence, to be a great tragedy for the Jewish people."

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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