American foreign policy Arab-Israeli conflict Israel Israeli occupation Middle East peace process Palestinian Authority Palestinians

Is there any hope?

We’ve been here before, of course. We’ve been here so many times I’ve lost count. Most of what needs to be said about the upcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks was expressed in a poem written nearly sixty years ago by the late, truly great Yehuda Amichai.

In The U.N. Headquarters Headquarters in the High Commissioner’s House in Jerusalem, he described an early version of the Middle East peace process industry:

The mediators, the peacemakers, the compromise-shapers,
the comforters
live in the white house
and get their nourishment from far away,
through winding pipes, through dark veins, like a fetus.

And their secretaries are lipsticked and laughing,
and their sturdy chauffeurs wait below, like horses in a stable,
and the trees that shade them have their roots in no-man’s land
and the illusions are children who went out to find cyclamen
in the field
and did not come back.

After devoting more lines to sadly mocking this nest of illusionists, Amichai concludes:

And hopes come to me like bold seafarers,
like the discoverers of continents coming to an island,
and stay for a day or two
and rest…
And then they set sail.

There has been an unrelenting barrage of gloomy pronouncements about the Israeli-Palestinian talks. All manner of pundits from the right, left and center have explained why the talks will amount to nothing and might even do more harm than good, why only fools and impractical dreamers would permit our bold seafarers, our hopes, to arrive and remain.

One of the most thorough and convincing critiques comes from Donald Horowitz, a scholar who doesn’t seem to have any ax to grind (HT: Tom Mitchell). On the left, Juan Cole explains “how little Netanyahu is interested in real peace with the Palestinians” and offers compelling reasons to be scornful. On the right, Barry Rubin is equally convincing when he explains how “Palestinian Authority incitement to kill Israelis and destroy Israel” is a “powerful subverter of chances for peace.” (Note that he is talking about the PA, not Hamas).

Just wander around the blogosphere for five minutes and you will find many more.

If you were expecting persuasive rebuttals, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I don’t disagree with any of these arguments for gloom. Daniel Levy probably doesn’t disagree either, although he bravely shoulders the burden of showing why the talks might defy expectations and amount to something:

(T)he main reason for hope rests with the potential that President Obama, having taken ownership of this issue, will pursue decisive leadership down the line. As a candidate, Barack Obama flirted with a definition of pro-Israel that was more sophisticated and more relevant to contemporary realities than the standard fare served up by pandering politicians (at a campaign stop with Jewish leadership in Cleveland, Ohio, he suggested that pro-Israel need not only be defined as pro-Likud. In insisting that a two-state solution and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is in the U.S. interest, President Obama is advancing a narrative that was adopted rather late in the day by his predecessor and that is very much the consensus of the U.S. military…

…The seemingly plodding progress made by the Obama administration thus far can be more generously interpreted as the U.S. methodically walking the parties to a place where decisive U.S. intervention and presentation of U.S. proposals becomes more possible, more justifiable, and more likely to succeed. According to that view, this week represents another and particularly important step in that direction. American officials have openly acknowledged that bridging proposals might be forthcoming and are showing a greater commitment to being present in the room at negotiations than has been the case in past efforts.

That helps. At least it helps a little bit. But even if the PA and Israel astonishingly come to terms under American auspices, given the deep political divisions within both peoples, and given the profound gaps in their narratives, it is unlikely that either party would be able to implement an agreement that would hold up in the near future.

If there is little hope for the short-term, though, that doesn’t mean the long-term prospects are entirely bleak. Lately, the popular analogy of this mess to the one in Northern Ireland has been demolished by many different commentators, including Horowitz and Levy. They point out the many differences between the players and the circumstances of the two conflicts. But they miss the most important point about the Republican-Unionist struggles, a more general and much much less complicated point: eventually, people in both communities just couldn’t take any more violence and turmoil. Eventually, the extremists on both sides decided that violence was counterproductive and gave up their maximalist demands.

Tom Mitchell is one of the few people around with a detailed knowledge of the nuances of both conflicts. In a message he sent to me that will eventually become part of a post, he wrote: “Peace in Northern Ireland came about only after the Republican Movement realized that a military victory was impossible and that there was a political cost to pay for the continued conflict.”

In a subsequent note, he gave one explanation of why the Republicans made that decision, a point that will make the left very uncomfortable: “British, and to a lesser extent Irish, intelligence did a very good job of infiltrating the IRA and INLA during the 1980s and early 1990s and thus were able to neutralize many IRA operations and imprison experienced terrorists.”

For a host of reasons, somehow both sides eventually grew tired enough to put aside centuries of resentment and bitter memories and sectarian passions.

There are any number of reasons why that kind of transformation probably won’t happen in Israel and the territories. But no one should assert with smug certainty that it will NEVER happen. Nor should anyone try to predict how long it will take. People and nations do change, change utterly. Grand ideologies are discarded and others replace them (e.g., China got fed up with Maoism and embraced free enterprise). Assumptions are overturned. Bitter conflicts somehow end (think France and Germany). That is not a very sophisticated political analysis, but that doesn’t make it less true. Right now, I confess it is the only reason for my bold seafarers to hang around.

So I will conclude with Yehuda Amichai, who, unsurprisingly, got it right decades ago. In “Sort of an Apocalypse,” he wrote:

And they’ll beat their swords into plowshares and plowshares into swords,
And so on and so on, and back and forth.
Perhaps from being beaten thinner and thinner
the iron of hatred will vanish forever.

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