Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 108 (December 2000): 7-9.
It seems that Bill Clinton won’t get that Nobel Peace Prize after all. On no issue of foreign policy has he expended more time and energy than settlement of the Israeli–Arab conflict, and after almost eight years of effort he has precisely nothing to show for it. Indeed, worse than nothing. As I write, the President has just returned from the mini–summit at Sharm el Sheik in Egypt. He may have managed to get the worst of the fighting in the region over—although the situation remains unsettled and edgy at this point—but relations between the parties in the Middle East are not just worse than they were when he took office, they are about as bad as they can be short of war. Just weeks ago, the President appeared tantalizingly close to achieving the “comprehensive settlement” of the Middle Eastern conflict that has beguiled American diplomats for decades. Now, everything is in shambles. What went wrong?
The simplest answer is that Clinton pushed the “peace process” beyond its capacity to respond. Reliable reports indicate that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat urged the U.S. not to insist on the Camp David summit in July. He anticipated, it seems clear, that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak would make enough concessions on disputed issues that the Palestinians would find themselves under pressure to make reciprocal gestures that they were unwilling or unable to offer. That, in fact, is how things turned out. A reluctant Arafat, pressured by the U.S., showed up for the summit, but resisted Clinton’s insistent cajoling that he respond in kind to Barak’s expansive compromises. And in the aftermath of the summit’s failure, the “Arab street” exploded, the Israelis responded with their usual firmness, and the region reverted to its normal condition of smoldering bitterness.
But it was not simply Clinton who had “peace is at hand” delusions. Prime Minister Barak was as eager for Camp David as Arafat was reluctant, and he apparently persuaded himself that he had proposals for a settlement so forthcoming that they would constitute an offer the Palestinians could not refuse. He would grant statehood, make concessions on territory in the West Bank and on the right of return for refugees, and even—something no Israeli government had ever before considered—put up for negotiation the status of Jerusalem as his nation’s united and undivided capital. But the Palestinians—supported by the major Arab powers—would not take yes for an answer and refused a deal, even a deal that would accept a number of Israeli concessions and leave other matters open for further discussion.
Barak’s proffered concessions were so unprece dented—especially in light of his earlier offers to Syria to surrender Israeli control of the Golan Heights—that some observers saw in them a cunning plot. The Prime Minister, in this reading, meant to reveal to his fellow countrymen—especially those on the left—the depth of Arab obduracy and thus rid them of their illusions that a peace that does not rob Israel of its security, indeed of its very existence, can be had. In so doing he would recall his nation to the recognition that it can rely for survival not on the good will of its neighbors but only on its own will and determination.
That reading seems to me too clever by half—it attributes to Barak a Machiavellian imagination he has not otherwise displayed—but it does obliquely suggest a quite different, and more plausible, interpretation of the Prime Minister’s behavior. Barak, it appears, has concluded that his nation lacks the heart to continue indefinitely in the cold peace—interrupted sporadically by nation–threatening wars—that has marked its existence from the beginning.
Israel wants to be an ordinary nation. It is no longer the utopian society of its founding. The radically egalitarian kibbutzim that were to be the justification of its being are now mostly museum pieces. Its people are prosperous and—their relation to their neighbors always emphatically aside—comfortable in their bourgeois situation. They are weary of eternal vigilance and of the perennial danger of losing their children to war or terrorism. They do not want to become a callous people, and they are, to their credit, morally uneasy with the prospect of maintaining indefinite control over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank. They desire, above all, to rid themselves of the condition of being forever on the brink of mobilization for war.
That, at least, is my reading of Barak’s reading of the Israeli situation. And it suggests grave danger. Israel desperately seeks peace—and in its desperation is its weakness. The Machiavellian interpretation of Barak’s policy is depressingly correct in one instance: its calculation of Arab attitudes toward Israel. Israel wants coexistence with its neighbors. Its neighbors want Israel not to be there. They may, with enormous grudging, recognize the brute fact of Israel’s existence. But the evidence is overwhelming that they do not—and in the foreseeable future will not—accept the legitimacy of its existence.
The incapacity of otherwise sensible people—including, unfortunately, not a few people in Israel—to understand this fundamental discrepancy between Arabs and Israelis never ceases to amaze. One reads of Israeli leftists being surprised and disappointed by Arafat’s manifest unwillingness to seek peace and one wonders: from what distant planet have they recently returned? There continues to exist, to borrow Peter Berger’s nice phrase, a demented evenhandedness with which observers describe the Middle Eastern situation. They typically picture rivals equally drenched in primal hatreds, equally obsessed with the intolerable presence of the other. But this is simply not so.
Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general see themselves as victims of a monstrous Zionism with which they have not come to terms and do not want to come to terms. The Israelis, by contrast, are so anxious for a normal existence that they will do virtually anything, short of committing national suicide, to find agreement with their antagonists. This is not to suggest that they are suffused with good feelings toward the Arabs. They aren’t—but neither are they consumed by hatred of them. One needn’t ascribe this difference in attitudes to higher moral sensibilities on the part of the Israelis—they are, after all, the winners in the region and not the losers—but it utterly confuses clear thinking about the situation to pretend that the difference is not there.
It is often suggested that the difference is not so great as it appears on the surface. Whatever the views of the Arab street, it is said, Arab leaders know full well that they must, in some sense and at some time, make their peace with Israel. But the fact is that those leaders, in disseminating vicious anti–Israel propa ganda in their state–run media, keep the hatreds of the street alive—and then point to the hatreds they have so carefully nourished to explain why their options in making peace with the Jewish state are so limited. The proof of the Arab leaders’ true attitudes is in their behavior, and their behavior to date gives us no reason to believe that they do not mean what they say when they routinely insist that the existence of “the Zionist entity” is an intolerable affront to Arab honor.
That, at least, is what any prudent leader of Israel surely must take to be the case. Ehud Barak’s insouciant assurance that he can procure an acceptable peace with the Arabs on his own terms has shown itself, at least to date, to be a most imprudent policy—which is why his position as leader of the nation is, as I write, seriously in question. The melancholy reality is that a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East remains a project for the long haul—perhaps the very long haul. That being the case, it is the duty of Israeli leaders to steel their people to avoid illusions of an easy peace and to summon them to the continuing sacrifices and frustrations that are the price of their survival. Shimon Peres may dream all he wants of “a new Middle East,” but for the foreseeable future it remains just that—a poignant but perilous dream.
As for American leaders, on this point, at least, George W. Bush has it right. They should forsake Wilsonian grandiosities, and accept the fact that if there is to be a timetable for peace in the region, it must be drawn up by those who live there and not by outsiders beguiled by visions of a nice little capstone to their political careers. Stockholm will have to wait.