What's Love Got To Do With It - Part One

(This is the first of a two-part post marking Senator Mitchell's appointment as Middle East Envoy.)

President Obama is getting nearly as much advice about Israelis as about puppies, and at times the advice seems eerily the same: we want them close, but they can get too scared, or wild, or selfish; we cannot indulge their ferocious instincts or territorial overreaching—anyway, they’ll need some leashing in. “Tough love,” writes the New York Times’ Roger Cohen, and this counsel—these very words—have been repeated (by my count) by five other prominent journalists and diplomatic hands in recent weeks.

The people offering this advice are thoughtful, even brave, given how tender (or wary) presidential love of Israel has been since Ronald Reagan took office. But I fear the advice is out of date, and not only because of Gaza. There are three implied premises here. If the new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, buys into them, he’ll just give us more of the same.

THE FIRST PREMISE is that U.S. intervention is for the purpose of facilitating a negotiation between the interested parties, Israelis and Palestinians, so that we can finally arrive at a deal. The second premise, closely related to the first, is that America is a disinterested party: a kind of Dr. Phil, strong and well-intentioned, to be sure, but a mediator who—how did former Secretary Powell put it?—“cannot want peace more than the parties themselves.” The third, and most important, is that Israeli and Palestinian leaders will sign a deal when they’ve overcome, or are cajoled (or bribed or “pressured”) into suppressing, psychological barriers—at which point they’ll exert sovereign power to implement what they’ve signed.

The inference for action is new invitations to summits and secret negotiations, more hand-holding—perhaps some public hand-wringing—with the U.S. providing diplomatic structure and a sense of urgency: in effect, a new Road Map like the one Mitchell gave us in 2002, albeit with a reinvigorated navigator. What we will not get is a precise destination or an American at the wheel, that is, a peace deal stipulated by the U.S. government itself and the patient, firm diplomacy over several years to bring outliers into line. Which means—no matter who wins the Israeli election, but especially with Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightist bloc poised to reassume power—that we will not get peace at all, perhaps ever.

1. A reasonable deal is already known. It was all but negotiated in Taba in January 2001, between the outgoing Labor government of Ehud Barak and the Fatah leadership now in power in the Palestinian Authority; when the parties had got stuck the month before, the American president, husband of the Secretary of State-designate, offered bridging “parameters,” which along with the Taba agreements were given detailed articulation in the Geneva Initiative of 2003. The Clinton parameters were implicitly underpinned by the 2002 declaration of the Arab League.

Their terms are well known. They were spelled out recently by Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski: the 1967 borders, with minor, reciprocal and agreed-upon modifications; compensation and repatriation to Palestine as the way Palestinian refugees exercise their right of return; Jerusalem as home to two capitals, with creative ascriptions of sovereignty for the old city and Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary; and a non-militarized Palestinian state, reinforced by a significant "international presence."

The Clinton parameters were set aside by Ariel Sharon because he (and his rightist bloc) did not want to entertain its compromises; his disengagement from Gaza was meant to allow for consolidating Israel’s hold on the West Bank settlements and Jerusalem. In effect, Ehud Olmert implicitly endorsed the parameters all over again before the Gaza operation, though his decision to attack so violently may say something about his sincerity; Netanyahu says he will end any negotiation over them were he elected, for the same reason Sharon did.

2. America is itself an interested party. Israel and Palestine are really just two-city states, together about the scale of greater Los Angeles, fitting together like jig-saw puzzle pieces. The Middle East, which their conflict roils, has the span of a continent, with the world’s largest proven reserves of oil and dollars, teens and violence. The U.S. can have no leverage in its diplomacy with Iran, therefore, no orderly exit from Iraq, without a working partnership with the surrounding, “moderate” regimes of the Arab League—regimes that could provide peace-keepers, investment capital, understanding journalists, and diplomatic cover.

Which brings us to the “Arab street.” Anyone who’s visited Fez or Tripoli or Amman knows that a burgeoning Arab middle class hungers for Westernization; they look at Dubai and Tehran and choose Dubai. But they are surrounded by restless, mainly under-educated people, governed by mosques and fathers where state security services leave off. World economic stresses will only make them more volatile. Obama’s is the face of a more progressive globalization but, as in Tehran in 1979, a throng can become a riot, a riot a movement. How many Al-Jazeera-projected images of new violence in Gaza, or South Lebanon, before crowds inflamed by western “materialism” try to storm the Israeli or American embassy in Cairo? How many times can Mubarak’s police fend them off before somebody gets killed—and retaliatory violence spreads to take down Mubarak’s regime itself?

3. The deal is not getting done, not because of psychological barriers, but because each side’s moderates are in an impossible political trap, which only great power intervention can spring them from. Everyone knows by now that Palestine is really two entities, a West Bank majority, nominally led by the Palestinian Authority—really by a secular business and professional class in Ramallah—and, an Islamist minority, centered in Gaza, and run by an arguably pragmatic but inarguably totalitarian Hamas. What we have yet to learn, however, is that Israel is, in effect, two entities, also.

There is a slim secular majority, a Hebrew-speaking republic, anchored by Tel-Aviv, hugging the coastal plain, and profiting increasingly from the global grid. This Israel is McCainish about security and the IDF, but skeptical of annexation of occupied territory. It is comparatively highly educated and instinctively cosmopolitan, vaguely committed to democratic norms—or at least to a “Jewish majority”—and therefore to a peace process. It can imagine a Palestinian state alongside.

But this same Israel is not at all sure its own one-fifth Arab minority will ever accept a “Jewish state” or is even sure what this means. And since 1967, its anachronistic “Zionist” settlement policies, and laws privileging orthodoxy, have engendered a huge Judean state-within-a-state, centered on Jerusalem, largely theocratic, and deeply implicated in West Bank settlements. Judea is less educated than the rest of Israel and instinctively more tribalist. “Judeans” are largely wards of the state: most disdain peace (that is, a return of a couple of million of Palestinian refugees to Greater Jerusalem) as the end of their way of life. Diaspora Jewish big-shots are mostly smitten by Judeans, whose religious and survivalist rhetoric they understand much better Tel-Aviv’s eclectic Hebrew culture.

And here is the trap. West Bank elites may want to see Hamas undermined, but they will not fight Hamas supporters for the sake of Israel. Secular Israelis, meanwhile, will not fight Judeans for the sake of Palestine. All fear the loss of social solidarity. Moderate leaders on both sides are particularly stuck: on both sides, the years of vendetta make cynicism about peace sound smart and brave; deterrence by intimidation—that is, the killing of each other’s civilians to discredit the other side’s policies—seems the only way to get “quiet.” But when you consider that one quarter of Israeli first graders are Arabs, and another quarter are ultraOrthodox of various kinds, it is easier to anticipate a future of ethnic cleansing than quiet.

(Part Two, which considers what steps the Obama administration might take, will be posted on Sunday.)