The impossible breakthrough: a long road from swords to ploughshares

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Everyone everywhere these days is decidedly glum that the Middle East isn’t closer to an outbreak of peace.  Unlike, say, any other time in the past 50 years.  No, make that 5,000.

Americans were dismayed by the violence and death in Gaza, and one poll showed a close divide amongst Americans over whether Israel should have pursued further diplomatic channels rather than taking military action.  But even as this poll, like all others, showed Americans overwhelmingly blaming Hamas for provoking the carnage and sympathizing with Israel rather than the Palestinians, there are growing suggestions in opinion-leader circles that the US should be less reflexively supportive of and closely identified with the Jewish state.  Where the new Obama Administration stands in all this is now a popular guessing game.  Some believe that Obama will simply continue long-standing American policy toward Israel, while others speculate that the appointment of officials with long records of supporting Israel – particularly Hillary Clinton at the State Department – is intended to provide the necessary “cover” for the Administration to twist Israeli arms harder to achieve a peace breakthrough.

Many Americans in fact dream of “peace” bursting forth in some kind of Big Bang – a breakthrough, an agreement, a handshake.  And while Israelis and Palestinians alike may nurture the conceit that they have much longer-term perspectives than the short-on-history, hurry-up Americans, the recent history of their dealings has been one of short-term tactical parrying that ultimately hasn’t worked out very well for either:  Yassar Arafat’s record in this regard is well known; as Abba Eban famously quipped, the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.  But remember when it once made sense for Israel to bolster Hamas in order to undermine Fatah? 

Not now.  Israel’s Gaza invasion aimed to reduce both Hamas’ offensive capabilities and its political support.  Mission accomplished:  A Palestinian Center for Public Opinion poll indicates that political support for Hamas in Gaza has plummeted and the public has rallied behind the more moderate Fatah.  Nonetheless, this does not seem to have made the Palestinians more amenable to peace and, as elsewhere, the attacks may simply have radicalized more youths and recruited more terrorists.  The war has made Arab opinion generally less accepting of a two-state solution, just as Israelis, recognizing that, demographic trends show Israel becoming increasingly non-Jewish, gave the most votes (barely) to the moderate Tzipi Livni, the current prime minister, who, like President Shimon Peres, openly argues that Israel must accept a two-state solution now in order to preserve its Jewish identity in the long-term.  Talk about missing opportunities.

Instead of a continued focus all-around on achieving short-term objectives, perhaps a longer view better befits the Middle East.  Yitzhak Rabin, a general turned politician, concluded after Saddam Hussein’s scud missile attacks on Israel during the 1991 Gulf War that Israel’s physical security ultimately would depend very little on the physical.  When a country 1,000 miles away could bomb Israeli civilians with relative accuracy, the day was not far off when territory and weaponry, essential as they are, would no longer prove sufficient to maintain Israel’s safety.  Only a prosperous and democratic Middle East would do so.  Of course, that won’t happen overnight.  It won’t happen in a breakthrough.  And it won’t be glamorous work – any more than slowly building Israel’s own economic miracle has been.  But it is something on which outsiders could actually make a difference.

Some researchers argue that increased aid to the Palestinian Authority has resulted only in increased Palestinian violence – presumably, as this aid money, or the arms it buys, gets funneled from the Authority to militants and terrorists.  But that’s an argument against government-to-“government” aid that could be similarly compelling as to many undesirable regimes.  Economic development needn’t – in fact, clearly can’t – mean simply channeling more money to the PA:  The West needs to take the lead in incentivizing foreign direct investment in Palestine – in private projects, in public infrastructure, and, as anti-American and anti-Israel Islamists long have done, in education. 

Despite the gloomy recent turn of events – or, perhaps, because of it – there is also opportunity, at least of this more patient kind.  The resurgent Israeli right’s leader, Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, is a uniquely Nixonian character – steadfastly conservative in economics and hard-line in foreign affairs, driven from office in an ethics scandal, written off as politically dead only to make his inexorable return.  It is said that, this time around, he craves international approval and moral vindication.  He says he supports economic development for Palestinians.  Here’s his chance.  Sorely overwork references to “Nixon going to China” may actually be applicable here. 

Even more so, Anwar Sadat going to Jerusalem.  Sadat made peace with Israel – but only after launching the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Egypt’s answer to its devastating defeat in 1967’s Six-Day War.  Sadat realized that continued hostilities are untenable in the long-term, detrimental to economic advance, and ironically subversive of internal stability.  But to do a “Nixon Goes to China,” Sadat needed to reverse – or at least alleviate – the humiliation of 1967.  The 1973 war in fact did not turn out exceptionally well for Egypt – but it was enough to give Sadat bragging rights.  Gaza was in many ways Ehud Olmert’s similar answer to the 2006 Lebanon debacle, intended not just to achieve strategic ends in undermining Hamas but also to bolster Israel’s own bruised self-confidence. 

Will that prove enough to allow whoever ends up leading Israel to take a significantly new course?  If so, over a generation, or maybe longer, Palestinians – with a little help – eventually perhaps will build an economy and a society like the one Israelis built in the past half-century, making the same desert bloom and turning the same sand into silicon chips.  Only when they do, when Israel and Palestine look a lot more alike, will the age-old enmities perhaps start to fade away.  Unfortunately for the politicians on all sides, ultimately, this may be how ancient hatreds really die peacefully – not with a bang but a whimper.