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.

32 thoughts on “Is there any hope?

  1. Welcome back to the scarcely inhabited, almost extinct, but ever-important land of optimists. Glad to see you’ve still got some hope! Don’t ever let it go…it’s what separates us from everything wrong with this world: passive acceptance of the status quo. Forge on fellow seafarer, keep sailing, and one day you may see a beautiful dove fly past in a sunset sky.

  2. I remain hopeful.

    Some Israeli commentator that I saw on a Facebook post, stated his indefatigable commitment, originating for spiritual spring with a spiritual obligation.

    Many have stated their cynicism. My reaction is twofold:

    1. They are actively (not passively) conveying a divestment in peace, as if they are silently wishing that it doesn’t occur, that “I told you so, I am a reliable prophet” is more important than the goal.

    2. That they are wrong anyway. The process in this effort is to create a product, a proposal. The product will either be ratified or rejected by the Palestinian community through plebescite and/or the Israeli knesset.

    Those two efforts are the ONLY ones at play. It doesn’t matter if Abbas is not the “elected representative of the Palestinian people currently, his term ended”.

    If he presents a viable and attractive proposal to the Palestinian community and they evaluate it, discuss it, test it, and ratify it, then that is the done deal.

    The most that Hamas, or Israel Beitanhu or Shas can do is attempt to either persuade the communities to vote against the proposal, or to intentionally disrupt its ratification by back-biting creating secondary distracted conflicts, or by terror.

    Two tasks ONLY.

    1. Elaborate a mutually confident proposal
    2. Keep the eye on the prize relative to ratification, don’t let anyone distract.

    That includes seasoned peace advocates who have been working on this for decades and are weary and maybe can’t be the ones to get credit for the effort this time, and it includes seasoned “resistance” fighters who derive their identity and street cred from their manly “resistance”.

    And, it includes cynics, who don’t realize that there are people on the other end of this, people that literally suffer, Palestinians that suffer isolation, harrassment, lack of self-determination. And Israelis, that suffer the fear of becoming evil out of necessity and that suffer the actual fears of terror.

    Indefatigable. No other choice but to INVEST.

  3. The Americans and Europeans are clueless about the Middle East. Obama showed his brilliant understanding of the dynamics early on, with his call for a building freeze. There’s no hope from the Americans or Europeans. They can only make things worse.

    This talk about narratives, and the gaps between them, is just distracting. You don’t need to bridge these gaps before making peace. They might be partly bridgeable after a peace, as a result of peace, if they’re bridgeable at all. It doesn’t matter, though. It’s enough for each side to say, “We are the victims of aggression. This whole land is rightfully ours, not theirs; but we will redeem it in the future, not now.” There’s no sign that the Palestinians are anywhere near that kind of thinking, not in numbers sufficient to suppress the rejectionists.

    I agree that the war will probably end – eventually, and for a while – but not with an agreement. It will most likely just fizzle out. The two sides will implicitly accept the status quo, with minor modifications such as further Israeli withdrawals from Judea and Samaria. No one will formally recognize anything. In my long-term optimistic scenario, the sides will be de jure at war and de facto non-belligerent. In my super-optimistic scenario they’ll be de facto at peace, like Israel and Jordan before the peace agreement.

    That’s my hope. Peace negotiations like Oslo and the current one only inflame the war and set back non-belligerence or peace further into the future. The good news is that even the Americans have learned enough over the last two decades not to get their hopes up.

  4. Except for the incremental annexation.

    The only way for Palestine to protect against that is by actual treaty, peer or disadvantaged.

    The concept that apartheid will result and that one-person one-vote will compel a democratic outcome is a fantasy.

    What is more likely is that the nearly certain violence that would erupt if that is raised, will give the right in Israel cover for more suppression and if overt war results, for actual forced removal of Palestinians, again followed by institutionalization of prohibition from return.

  5. The only hope is when the “peace process” will be dead and buried. Then the two sides can get down to building their societies and peace will be achieved in an incremental way. Again, this week we saw the old script played out…”progress” in the “peace process” causes an increase in violence. The best times for both Jews and Arabs have been WHEN THERE IS NO PEACE PROCESS. The worst violence was at times of the greatest “progress” in the “peace process”. If these talks continue and the terror accompanying it continue (and, mind you, Abbas isn’t really that opposed to the terror…it makes him the “good cop” supposedly opposed to the “bad cop-HAMAS” and he feels it strenthens his hand in the negotations because it demoralizes the Israeli side) then there will have to be, eventually, Israeli security crackdown and it will be the Palestinians and their recent economic growth that will suffer.
    By ending the “peace process”, the Palestinians will finally be able to develop their society and get rid of the sick Islamist and other violent elements and Israel can really ease up the restrictions that everone laments. This will take time, and it is about time everyone begin by throwing Oslo and the curren phony “peace talks” into the junk pile.

  6. Richard-
    There is no “incremental annexation”. Most of the territory of Judea/Samaria is off limits to Jewish settlement as a result of the Oslo Agreements. However, I am all for continued Jewish building in area “C” where it is allowed…only this way will peace eventually be achieved because by building the Arabs will see that Israel is serious and here to stay and not carrying out more suicidal withdrawals which only strengthen the extremist Arab factions making them think that continued pressure will eventually bring a total Israel collapse.

  7. There certainly is incremental annexation. NONE of the land east of the green line is consented for Israeli development, by its neighbors or by the international community.

    Until peace is negotiated, every settler will be living in contested, imperfect property status, permanently in undefined debt to eventually perfect their title.

    And permanently the object of some very horrid rationalizations that settlers are not civilians.

    It takes treaty to change that.

    The reason for the violence was not the effort for peace, but the tide.

    Waves ride for thousands of miles until they reach a beach. The magnitude of the wave is what constructs the violence, not the presence of the beach.

    Otherwise we’d have to live in a world in which it was actually forbidden to intentionally treaty.

  8. You know well that I am very aware of the opportunism of “we’ve got them on the run” by violent Palestinian and other radical factions.

    Defense is possible without cruelty (offense), or certainly minimally.

  9. YBD:

    If ending the peace process is so necessary to breaking the hold of Islamists over the Palestinians, why are those same Islamists opposed to the peace process?

  10. Tom-
    The “extremists” are not really opposed to the “peace process”, they are opposed to peace. Same with the mainstream FATAH-Palestinian Authority. A top FATAH official some months ago stated clearly that there is no difference between FATAH and HAMAS in their goals in the struggle against Israel. Both oppose peace, both support continued struggle. (There is no doubt they don’t like each other, but that is a fight over the nature of Islam in Palestinian society and who controls the billions of dollars the PA is given, but none of this has anything to do with Israel). Both also support terrorism, although Abbas’ official line is “terrorism currently is seen to be counterproductive to the Palestinian struggle”. Abbas desperately needs HAMAS…that we he can go to the West and demand money….”you have to support me or THEY will take over”. Just like in Egypt where the regime both opposes the Muslim Brotherhood but also allows it to operate and even to favor it over the secular political opposition, or even more blatently, in Pakistan where the gov’t both support the Taliban and fights against it at the same time.

    Look at the situation honestly….if HAMAS really opposed the “peace process” they wouldn’t kill Jews, they would kill FATAH people. Terrorism has paid off handsomely for the Palestinians, it gave them Oslo and then the unilateral Gaza pullout. Sharon and Olmert then proposed a unilateral withdrawal to the security fence. Netanyahu will repeat that offer now.
    Yes, terrorism has damaged the lives of the Palestinians on the ground, but you don’t really think the Palestinian leaders, both HAMAS and PA really care about that if they are going to get major unilateral concessions from Israel?

  11. I think that Abbas, Fayyad, Erekat, and most of Fatah genuinely want peace.

    The limits that they work in are that they live in a political environment, in which they need to deliver a proposal that CONFIDENTLY accomplishes what is most important to their people.

    Some of that is substantive (a viable Palestinian self-governing geography), and some of that is residual (acknowledgement of the Palestinian tragedy including acknowledgement of Israeli wrongs, even if “inadvertent”), and some of that is symbolic.

    Some of their needs are as some representative of Islam, facilitating access to sites regarded as holy.

    Netanyahu is in the same boat. He needs to bring a proposal that is CONFIDENT of meeting Israeli substantive needs.

    They frankly do NOT include territorial expansion, even in “area C”. Those aren’t substantive needs. The land is NOT currently or recent historically Jewish land, in the sense that only a small minority of the population are Jewish.

    The religious motivations of settlers and others, cannot satisfactorily be embodied in the institutions of the state. They must remain private motivations, even collectively private, but land acquisition driven by romanticism or opportunist interpretations of scripture are wrong and untenable.

    Hamas opposes Jewish dominance over the land, any land. They accept subordinated Jewish residence, theoretically (not a good bet by my estimation).

    Peace is possible if law prevails. Abbas, Fayyad, leadership of the PA publicly state that they regard violent acts as illegal, and prosecute them.

    If law is attacked or neglected, by either Fatah or by Israel, then the basis of peace is attacked and neglected, no matter how self-righteously one describes actions to oneself.

  12. Richard-that is wrong. The settlements in Area C are in areas that were recently (i.e. before 1948) settled by Jews. There were Jews in what is not Area A (full PA control). There were Jews in Hevron, Shechem, Gaza, the Golan Heights and many other pleaces in Judea/Samaria before 1948 and the San Remo Treaty giving the British the League of Mandate for Palestine was granted to them on condition that they support Jewish settlement in those areas.

  13. YBD:

    Hamas kills Jews in an attempt to provoke a reaction by Israel that will then make it difficult or impossible for Fatah to continue with the peace process while “Jews are killing Palestinians.” It is the same logic that Baruch Goldstein employed in 1994. Hamas is opposed to the peace process whenever it threatens to actually result in serious negotiations, and the Islamists like the settlers have a low tolerance for risk of peace.

  14. Individuals that owned property in Hebron should be able to sue for their property rights, under the law of the state that holds legal jurisdiction.

    Individual Palestinians should be able to sue similarly.

    There is no “national” right to either. The IDF can’t displace current residents in Hebron because they live in a house that a former Jew left, and does not now claim.

    I’m glad that you are committed to the rule of law.

    Few of the settlements are built on land that was owned by Jewish communal institutions. Some was, but all of those have been extended by claiming adjacent land as abandoned or national security purposes then opportunistically transferred to the communal or even individual Jews’ ownership.

    Any land with contested title remains contested until title is perfected (by compensation usually, adjudicated by color-blind courts to realize functional “consent”).

    That the fanatics on both sides have low tolerance for risks of peace, suggest that it takes determination and support to realize.

    You do realize that the British made similar promises in writing to the Palestinians. An assertion resulting from a single British document, does not describe the will of the mandate as that vacilated widely.

    It is not compelling law. In any case, the British are not the power in temporary occupation of the area.

    The contested status of the sovereignty of the land MUST be clarified, and will inevitably.

    It is much much better that that occur by agreement, than by war.

  15. Tom-
    We’ve discussed this before but I will repeat what I said….The Arab policy is the same as that of the old IRA in Northern Ireland…..”A ballot box in one hand and a rifle in the other”. The Arab version is “terrorism and negotiations at the same time”. Their goal, both HAMAS and FATAH is to conduct a psychological and physical war of attrition against Israel in order to get Israel to make more and more concessions hoping that eventually they will find the “magic formula” which will leave the Arabs satisified, and of course that will only come when the state of Israel disappears. HAMAS knows negotiations will continue by FATAH and the PA-FATAH knows HAMAS will continue the terror, each feeds off the other. The fact that they don’t like each other doesn’t matter–Ben Gurion hated the ETZEL be he knew he could count on them to keep the pressure up on the British even while he persecuted them.
    The fact that the Arabs occasionally need cease-fires in order to give their population a rest and chance to re-energize themselves is an integral part of this strategy and these cease fires are always understood to be temporary and are NOT viewed as a fundamental alteration of the basic strategy.

  16. Here is a perfect example of what I was saying above:

    In Egypt, the government despises the Muslim Brotherhood, yet they allow them to operate while the shut down secular opposition parties.
    The gov’t need the Brotherheood, yet fights against it at the same time. The same with the relationship between FATAH-PA and HAMAS.

    If HAMAS was REALLY against the negotiations, they would kill FATAH people, not carry out terrorist attacks against Israelis.

  17. And, still it is possible for Fatah and Israel to form a proposal that does accomplish the needs of both communities and is confidently enforceable with the help of EU, NATO, US, UN and other international parties as appropriate.

    And, if that proposal is in fact confident, then the Israeli and Palestinian populace should ratify it, apply it an enforce it.

    In that setting, no Israeli or Palestinian faction can then say “we are the true representatives of our people”. Some will take them seriously. But after an election, they will be laughed at, in fact the enemy of their people.

    But, that only happens if Netanyahu and Abbas can articulate a mutually satisfactory agreement, sincerely seeking peace.

    It is possible, and even feasible.

    Those that seek to make peace infeasible, harm their own and their neighbors.

    May we be indefatigable in our effort to achieve consented peace in this coming year.

    Leshana tovah to those that celebrate.

  18. # Tom Mitchell Says:
    September 5th, 2010 at 10:55 am
    “Hamas kills Jews in an attempt to provoke a reaction by Israel that will then make it difficult or impossible for Fatah to continue with the peace process while “Jews are killing Palestinians.”

    Wrong. Hamas just sent a message:
    “So, you thought we were powerless and you could just leave us out of the the equation, eh? Think again.”
    Very simple to see, really.

  19. “If we can’t sit at the adult table, we will turn it over.”

    That message was sent to Hamas earlier when the US instigated a civil war and overturned the results of the elections that Hamas won. There are no adults in this conflict, or at least not any with political or military power. (There are human rights activists and other people struggling for a just peace through nonviolent methods–they are adults, but they aren’t in charge.)

  20. Donald,
    Still the reality is that denying Abbas the opportunity to present a proposal, is denying the Palestinian people the opportunity to determine for themselves what they desire.

    I get that there is danger that the expansion of East Jerusalem will continue to the point that it cannot be turned back. Maybe that time has passed. I don’t know.

    Hamas is quiet for the last week or so. Maybe it was just a token message. Lets kill a couple Israeli civilians so that Abbas knows that we are really targeting him.

    That, a token message, is what I hoped Hamas would do in December, 2008. Send a message that “we are still here. We know that we had an agreement, that you broke.”

    Instead they escalated from a token demonstration to actually threatening large cities.

    Even if Israel is responsible for the scale of their assault, Hamas is responsible for the necessity of the assault.

  21. “Hamas is responsible for the necessity of the assault.”

    False. Israel could have taken up the offer of a ceasefire accompanied by an end to the blockade, which should not have been imposed in the first place. They refused. If they had taken up the offer and Hamas had still fired rockets, then Hamas would be responsible.

  22. Would of, should of, could have.

    I agree with all of what you said, that Israel could have and should have relaxed the blockade to more normal border maintenance after Hamas compliance with the hudna for the long period that they did.

    They still did not undertake a token firing for the purpose of saying “we object”.

    They undertook an escalation, UNTIL Israel responded militarily. They desired that Israel respond with a ground assault.

    Israel screwed up in its all or nothing war approach (rather than more flexible approach, that they could turn back from once they realized how militarily weak Hamas was in fact, rather than what they suspected).

    But, to imagine that the escalation of shelling could be ignored, or wasn’t intended to evoke a response, is ignorant.

  23. Please let’s stop this nonsense that “HAMAS carries out attacks to stop the peace process”, or that “HAMAS is directing these attacks against Abbas”. Here is a lucid explanation of HAMAS tactics, which means escalating attacks when they KNOW THAT ISRAEL’S HANDS ARE TIED BY POLITICAL CONSTRAINTS, regardless of any real “progress” in the “peace process”.

  24. Let’s tell the truth…If Israel marched into the Gaza Strip and ousted the HAMAS terrorist leadership, they would be welcomed with open arms as liberators by most of the population.

  25. YBD:

    Just like the Israelis were in Southern Lebanon–but how long did that last? And that was without any real history between the Shia and Israel. How long were the Americans considered liberators in Iraq? I’m glad the settlers still are not yet in charge of Israeli foreign policy, even if the foreign minister is one of their number.

  26. Tom-
    No doubt that is true that such gratitude wouldn’t last, but Israel is the only one around who could do it, and, contrary to common belief, I think it would be pretty easy to do…I don’t think the HAMAS regime there is any more popular than the Iranian regime, probably even less. I am pretty sure the time will come when it will happen.

  27. Richard, here’s my position on Hamas violence–Hamas should not have fired one single rocket at any time. Or ever carried out an attack on Israeli civilians. It’s morally wrong and also (since morality doesn’t seem to enter into either side’s calculations too much) it doesn’t do Palestinians one bit of good. (Actually, that second point just reinforces the first point).

    But Israel was wrong not to take the opportunity to end violence by ending a policy they never should have used in the first place. The blockade was wrong from the start. They should have lifted it and told Hamas they would do so and then warned them that if Hamas still fired rockets after Israel ceased its own unjust policies, they would use (carefully targeted) military force.

  28. Here, read it for yourselves. Olmert offered the much beloved by the peace camp “solution that everyone knows the terms of” to Abbas and he turned it down. He even offered to give up Israeli control of the Western Wall, Jewish Quarter of the Old City, City of David and all the other Jewish holy places to an international condominium including the Saudis and Jordanians. Thus when the inevitable clashes between Muslims and Jews occurred at these sites, all of which are claimed as holy sites by the Muslims, including the Western Wall, the Saudis among others would have to agree to giving the Jews security there and guaranteeing access, which they would never do.
    He also offered to recognize the Palestinian “right of return”, at least partially.
    Yet, they turned the offer down.

  29. “Let’s tell the truth…If Israel marched into the Gaza Strip and ousted the HAMAS terrorist leadership, they would be welcomed with open arms as liberators by most of the population.”
    So why didn’t they? Are Israelis just sadists who want to see the Gazans suffer rather than ‘liberate’ them?

    “Here, read it for yourselves. Olmert offered the much beloved by the peace camp “solution that everyone knows the terms of” to Abbas and he turned it down.”
    Olmert’s saying a lot of things now, about Abbas, about Barak, about this and that. And it all boils down to how he did everything right when he was in office and all others were idiots. Only a fool would take his claims without a heaping-helping of salt.

  30. “how about complaining about the Palestinians ineantiontlly killing Israeli civilians”No. Because of statistics like this which illustrate the true nature of the conflict:0 Israeli homes have been demolished by Palestinians and 4,170 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israel since September 29, 20001 Israeli is being held prisoner by Palestinians, while 10,756 Palestinians are currently imprisoned by Israel118 Israeli children have been killed by Palestinians and 952 Palestinian children have been killed by Israelis since September 29, 20001,024 Israelis and at least 4,274 Palestinians have been killed since September 29, 2000When one considers that all of this killing takes place in territory illegally occupied by the force that is doing most of the killing, the retaliation by way of home-made rockets becomes understandable, if not heroic. Would we condemn those partisans who, should the Japanese have occupied Australia or New Zealand in 1942, resisted that occupation wherever and whenever possible?

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