Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Denial and Hope in the Mideast

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came to America to stick his thumb in our eye and deliver a sanitized version of "Death to America!" and "The Holocaust Never Occurred." ." Lee Bollinger, the Columbia University president, described this as "astonishingly uneducated." True, but Ahmadinejad's use of the Goebbels technique of the Big Lie has a purpose: to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel. It is of a piece with the refusal of Palestinians to this day to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist, even though some acknowledge the fact that Israel does exist. It is also one of the main reasons that efforts to broker a peaceful outcome in the Middle East have thus far been futile. And it will likely overhang the newest peace initiative, which the Bush administration hopes to launch this fall.
This campaign of repudiation cuts deeply into the Israeli psyche. The Israelis know that the Jews have lived in the land of Israel without interruption for nearly 4,000 years. They know that, except for a short Crusader kingdom, they are the only people who have had independent sovereignty on this land. And they are the only people for whom Jerusalem has been their capital.
They are not a foreign occupier because the State of Israel is the child not of European colonialism but rather of Ottoman decolonialization. It was that Jewish historical bond that led the League of Nations 85 years ago to establish the right of the Jewish people to reconstitute a Jewish homeland on all the territories west of the Jordan River, all the way to the Mediterranean. That same right to a national home was sanctioned again 59 years ago by the new United Nations. After an Arab invasion 40 years ago, the U.N. passed a resolution affirming Israel's right to "secure and recognized boundaries." As Winston Churchill noted in 1922, "The Jews are in Palestine by right, not sufferance." The refusal of the Palestinians and of Ahmadinejad to recognize this has, for decades, undercut Israeli confidence in their true motives.
Subtle untruths. And when Yasser Arafat said there was no First or Second Temple in Jerusalem but only "an obelisk," he, too, was trying to deny the history of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. But this is the site of the binding of Isaac by Abraham, the place where David built the altar on the threshing floor of Aravna to halt the plague. The Temple Mount was where Jesus was brought as an infant and where he later chased away the money-changers. Mentioned 20 times in the New Testament, the Temple Mount is one of the cornerstones of the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition of the West. Yet it is all denied by the Palestinians. This obduracy, combined with waves of terrorism, has shattered the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.
The Bush administration, with the help of Tony Blair, is seeking to build a partnership by convening a meeting between the Palestinians and Israelis this fall, tentatively in November and most likely in the United States. It is hoped that this meeting will be joined by other Arab countries. What can be expected from it?
One reason for caution about it is that there has been a shift in Palestinian society from the focus on nationalism to a focus on religion—an Arafat legacy. It was Arafat who invoked the Islamic terms of jihad and shahada; it was Arafat who described "all of Palestine," which includes all of Israel, as a "holy wakf," i.e., an Islamic trust that cannot be given away; it was Arafat who introduced children to radical Islamic thinking so that they could become terrorists and suicide bombers. The name that Arafat gave to the violence that began in the year 2000 was not the "West Bank intifada" but the "al-Aqsa intifada," making it clear that religion was an integral part of the struggle. When suicide bombers blow up Israelis, they don't yell, "Free Nablus!" They yell, "Allahu Akbar!" The backdrop is Islamic and not territorial.
That is why the Middle East is so different from Northern Ireland, which is sometimes falsely used as a comparison. The basic goal of the Irish Republican Army was to create a united Ireland, to bring Ireland to Ulster, not to London. Their goal was never to replace England with Ireland, unlike the Palestinians who wish to rule not just in the West Bank and Gaza but in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. The IRA struggle was primarily a political one, its violence not supported by the Roman Catholic Church. At its core the conflict was over borders, whereas in the Middle East the conflict has become not just a territorial conflict but much more of a religious one.
Arafat personified the Palestinian problem of leadership, and for a long time the current president, Mahmoud Abbas, has been weak and ineffective. As David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy put it, "The people who are moderate are not effective. And the people who are effective are not moderate." Today, the impossible Arafat has been replaced by an impotent Abbas, but the new figure of Salaam Fayed as prime minister may change the equation. He is the most talented Palestinian to emerge at the leadership level. He recognizes that rather than continually presenting themselves as victims, Palestinians must work to build a credible and honest institution of government, beginning with reforming their security services.
Absent these reforms, the Palestinians will be unable to confront and subdue Hamas, the jihadists, and the various warlords of the local militias in the West Bank.
The Israelis are naturally leery of Abbas because they witnessed how Hamas so humiliatingly chased his men out of Gaza. They remember that Hamas beat Fatah to win a plurality of the vote in the West Bank during the last election; they have been warned by their security services that Hamas could take over the West Bank if the Israeli Defense Forces weren't there. The Israelis will be reluctant to fund, arm, and embrace a new Palestinian leadership that has yet to tackle terrorism, yet to stop instilling hate in the young, yet to stop printing maps without Israel, and yet to confront their own people with the clear message that the end of terrorism is a precondition to progress. Had there been a peace education in the West Bank parallel to that in Israel after Oslo, no one would have joined Arafat's calls for war. Without such a program, signing a piece of paper with the Palestinians is meaningless.
Honest government. Fayed knows that Fatah must win popular support by focusing on health, education, law, and order to improve the lives of the Palestinians; he knows this means establishing an honest administration and a civil society that can develop a functioning economy and middle class, rather than support a corrupt, rich elite. (No wonder the Palestinians refer to Abbas's government as the government of salaries.) He knows that the Israelis will be unable to pull out of large sectors of the West Bank while they fear a Gaza-like repetition of rockets raining on Ben-Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv.
The Israelis fear that even if a Palestinian state is officially demilitarized on paper, it could accumulate within a few years a vast arsenal of weapons that could kill thousands of Israelis. Gaza has shown that a security fence cannot prevent missiles from flying over and killing and wounding Israelis. Then there is the fact that Palestinians in the West Bank would control 60 percent of Israel's water. The Israeli defense minister put it squarely: In those circumstances, Israel could not leave the West Bank until it develops a defensive system against rocket attacks.
Expectations about the forthcoming meeting should not be high, for high expectations risk a disappointment that would result in negative consequences, such as those that followed Camp David under President Clinton. Of course the Palestinians support the meeting, and yes, Abbas's words about a peaceful resolution of conflict are music to the West. But he has an incentive to talk softly, because apparent moderation might bring money and economic support for his administration. Of course the Palestinians want concrete, fundamental political agreements to help rebuild their political credibility. The question that will haunt the negotiation is whether they will be able to implement the agreements they do make, given the hostility of Hamas and their own record of nonperformance. And given the current status of the Palestinian government and its impotence, a far-reaching agreement could cause the breakup of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition in Israel. Meanwhile, Hamas lies in wait to sabotage the dialogue, either by portraying Abbas as a servant of the United States and Israel or by resorting to terrorism. There already has been a noticeable rise in violence from the Gaza Strip and an average of 63 threat alerts a day in the West Bank.
The Israelis will be cautious about the specifics of their proposals, knowing that when something is on the table it is always on the table, and they do not want commitments made now to be used as a point of departure, should the current Palestinian leadership collapse or be replaced. They fear that neither Abbas nor Fayed is a man of the sword: Both lack the muscle of effective intelligence services and security organizations in a culture where men are willing to kill and be killed. That is why they worry, as one Israeli put it, that these negotiations will be a "soufflé"—a lot of hot air and very little substance.
This meeting then should be seen not as a climax but as just the beginning of a process. Nevertheless, the emergence of Fayed on the Palestinian side and the modest strengthening of Olmert on the Israeli side do provide an opportunity to have a constructive dialogue and to support moderate forces in the Palestinian world in their conflict with violent Islamism. As the Israeli prime minister said, "It is always possible to say no," but given indications of a new constructive partner with whom the Israelis can talk, he added, "we must look for opportunities to say yes."

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