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Peace May Be Possible in the Post-Bush Middle East

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Message Bernard Weiner
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers The Middle East is undergoing yet another paroxysm of violence. An attack from one side or the other, be it Israeli or Palestinian in origin, leads to reprisal attacks, which leads to -- well, we all understand the vortex that both sides continue to fall into. This state of warfare has been going on for at least 60 years, since the founding of the State of Israel, and, in a sense, much much longer than that. And the situation is getting worse. Those on the extremes in both Israel and Palestine (including those inside the governing entities on both sides) are attempting to make sure there will never be a peace settlement. And, by and large, both both sides' leaders allow that interference in the peace process to rule their responses, even though polls in both Israel and Palestine indicate most citizens would prefer a peaceful two-state solution. The Israel/Palestine situation is so seemingly intractable in how to get to that solution that it leads to regional, indeed almost universal, despair and depression. Without much energy or hope for progress, the status quo of low-level violence persists and constantly threatens to break out into full-scale warfare. Every so often, maybe every five or ten years, the ongoing slaughter pushes the two battle-weary sides to come close enough to inspire hope that a solution can be devised -- not a perfect solution, not one that guarantees peace, but one leading in that direction. And just as usually, those potential "solutions" tend to fall apart, usually after an act of violence from a crazed individual or an over-reacting Israeli government or from Hamas or other militant groups in Palestine. DOES ANYBODY REALLY WANT PEACE? One can't help but conclude that neither side really wants peace; they seem to feel more comfortable playing the victim role. Each side uses its distressing history and a belief that God is on its side. Each would feel supreme joy if the other side simply vanished. Each convinces itself that with just a little more effort -- just another major attack or two, another bit of pressure tactics -- the other side will disappear, will see that it cannot win and will capitulate to its enemy's demands. Yes, of course, that type of thinking makes no rational sense, but the Middle East puzzle, it's clear, operates mainly out of emotion, hypernationalism, overweening ethnic and religious pride, the ongoing rituals of conflict, and thoroughgoing contempt and fear of The Other. The two sides, given the mutual hatred and massacres and suspicions, seem incapable of creatively making a peace on their own, though on occasion temporary and informal cease-fires do manage to occur. Outside mediators, be they Arab organizations or the superpower U.S., then have a go at trying to lead the two warring sides into meaningful negotiations. Various American presidents have put their reputations and energies on the line to try to bring about a settlement that can last (Clinton and Carter were the most successful), only to see the spiral of mistrust and suspicion and violence rise to the fore yet again. Totally ignored is the role-model of how Northern Ireland moved away from its seemingly intractable violence to a tenuous but growing peace. MIDDLE EAST SPIN AND PHOTO-OPS George W. Bush occasionally makes some sort of diplomatic move in the Middle East, usually right before a major domestic election. Now, just before another presidential balloting and as his eight-year tenure is coming to a close and he's thinking about his legacy, Bush initiates yet another feint. The White House P.R. machine beats the drum that the U.S. is trying hard to arrange a Mideast peace settlement, but nobody believes that anymore, since it's clear Bush doesn't believe it either. Since he's tied U.S. policy so tightly to Israeli policy -- Israel being America's only dependable ally in the region -- it's all spin and photo ops, lots of sound bites signifying nothing, really. Indeed, it may well be that the war Bush&Co. care about is not the Israel/Palestinian one, but the ones about to come, perhaps as early as this summer: U.S./Israel against Iran and Israel vs. Hezbollah in Lebanon (as proxy for Syria). Clearly, there will be no real chance for a movement toward peace in the Middle East until the new American regime takes over, if then. CheneyBush were happy to let the Israelis handle the Palestinian in their own fashion, including further humiliation and brutalization. Bush&Co. admired and saw their own aggressive policies mirrored by the "tough" Israelis. All three of the major-party contenders for the presidency profess to be staunchly pro-Israeli, so it's unclear whether anything major will change if McCain or Clinton or Obama were to become the new resident in the White House. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, continues to cow many legislators into silence, though it does not represent the wide variety of opinion, much of it sympathetic to Palestinian cries for justice and an end to the occupation, in the American Jewish community. There are strong Jewish pro-peace movements both inside America and inside Israel. But we do know for sure that as long as Cheney and Bush are in power, nothing will change and the situation in the Middle East will become even more explosive and dangerous, One can hope that the new U.S. Administration in 2009 will recognize its opportunity to move forcefully and quickly to craft ways out of the endless Israel/Palestine morass. Indeed, this may be history's final opportunity to craft a viable two-state solution. For the U.S. to abdicate its role in helping bring peace to that agonized region would be shameful and self-defeating. From now and until the November election, each of the three presidential contenders should be grilled by the press and public about their plans for ameliorating the situation in the Middle East. No doubt, they would fudge and spin their answers, but just forcing them to talk about Israel and Palestine, and how a solution is tied tightly to America's well-being, might yield benefits down the line. SOME FOUNDATIONAL ASSESSMENTS Here are some possible starting points that the new president might want to consider about the Middle East dilemma: 1. Working a way to a just and peaceful solution in the Middle East is of supercharged importance not only to the survival of Israelis and Palestinians, but also is in the vital national interests of the United States. So much of the fervor, passion and anger directed at the U.S., Israel and the West by Hamas and many other distressed Palestinians and other Arabs in the Greater Middle East would start to dissipate if the Palestinians were to achieve a viable, geographically-contiguous state of their own. To continue to let the current situation stagnate and fester is to ask for more trouble, big trouble. Doing nothing meaningful in the Middle East has been the Bush Administration's policy for nearly eight years, and that's what must be changed, quickly, by whoever becomes President. 2. Under Bush, the U.S. supposedly was big on helping democracy bloom in the region. But when a democratic election didn't go the way the Bush Administration wanted, when Hamas won the approval of the majority of Palestinian voters in its parliament and both the U.S. and Israel said it would not recognize that popular electoral result, the hypocrisy of the American position was plain for all to see. Hamas is not going to go away. Israeli governments cannot wish it away and cannot blow it away with missiles and bombs. Hamas is strong among its people because it stands up against Israel and America. Hamas therefore will have to be included in any diplomatic discussions leading to a negotiated solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. No doubt, this will happen after Fatah and Hamas make their own separate peace with each other, if such is even possible, so as to negotiate as a united Palestinian government. There have been hints that Obama and Clinton are not philosophically opposed to meeting with those deemed America's "enemies" -- such as Iran, Syria, North Korea, et al. -- as long as preparations for such meetings would seem to indicate fruitful avenues for discussion. Is it too much to hope that the new American president might be consistent and follow the same approach with Hamas? NEITHER HAMAS NOR ISRAEL WILL DISAPPEAR 3. Israel is not going to go away. Even if most Arabs in the region believe that the establishment of Israel in 1948 on land taken from Palestinian residents was grossly illegal, the practical reality is that the Israeli state is there to stay. No amount of international pressure or bullets or suicide bombers is going to alter that reality, though the permanent borders are still up for discussion. Therefore, all Palestinian/Arab entities will have to deal with Israel at the negotiating table. (Hamas has been the most adamant political organization to oppose Israel's right to exist, but on occasion has hinted that if Israel made the right concessions, it could possibly bend even on that hardline position.) 4. Both sides have to realize that each has historical justifications on its side, and that in their behavior both sides are both right and wrong. In short, the question of who is the more aggrieved victim, while important, is not going to get either side anywhere, certainly not to a just peace. It's long since time to put that history to the side, so to speak, and just get it done. This doesn't mean Palestinians and Israelis will, or even should, like each other, or ignore their suspicions of the other's motives or their own painful histories. It just means getting the peace made and getting the difficult details worked out as best as one can. 5. The hope for a potential peace treaty depends on both sides' leaders (as well as those in the U.S.) being willing to make huge, politically risky decisions. Everyone knows this. GETTING FROM HERE TO THERE A. Israel will have to end its Occupation and return to its pre-1967 borders. It will have to abandon its settlements in the West Bank/Gaza so that the requisite geographically-contiguous state of Palestine can be made viable. Maintaining the Occupation of Palestinian lands is bleeding Israel of treasure and, more importantly, of its moral sense of itself. B. The various branches of the Palestine liberation movement will have to recognize Israel's right to exist within secure borders, probably based on the pre-1967 map. C. Even if the above were to occur, there likely would be occasional acts of violence and terrorism emanating from both sides. Ultra-Orthodox, fundamentalist Jews (some inside the government), believing that the Torah supports them in their Greater Israel territorial claims, may well try to derail any peace negotiations, and the requisite concessions, by attacking Palestinian targets. Likewise, ultra-nationalist or militant Islamist groups in Palestine and beyond, believing history and/or their faith give them justifications for their policies, may keep up the rocket attacks on Israel and suicide bombings inside Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere. Both negotiating sides will have to agree that they will not permit the movement toward a peaceful solution to be vetoed by those who would try to stop that progress through violence. Right now, anytime there is some hope for the peace process and an incursion or bombing or rocket attack takes place, the violence veto is allowed to trump the hard work of the solution-minded diplomats and political leaders. That must stop, and can be stopped, in effect, by ignoring the terrorism. If the two viable states are talking to each other and reach significant agreements, that terrorism eventually will diminish. D. If (and it's a very big if) the two sides can recognize that The Other is not going to disappear, no matter how much violence is employed, and sign a peace treaty, then a wide variety of other vexing issues can be brought to the forefront and solutions found. Issues such as: how to deal with the Palestinians' claimed "right of return" to their ancient lands inside Israel, who will rule Jerusalem, who will control the water rights in that parched region, how thousands of Palestinians can move back and forth easily between Gaza and the West Bank and to their daily jobs inside Israel, etc. etc. SOME POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS One can see the outlines, if not the details, as to how these problems might be solved: A. Once a peace treaty has been signed, some Palestinian families will be permitted to return to their ancestral lands inside Israel, but there's no way Israel will permit millions or even hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees to pour into the Jewish State. Equitable financial compensation will be paid by Israel to those not permitted to return. (In principle, Palestinian negotiators in the past have indicated that they'd be willing to entertain discussion along these lines.) B. Jerusalem is holy land for all three major religions in the area. It would make sense for Jersualem to become an "international city," administered either by a joint Christian/Jewish/Islamic body or by an already existing international agency, perhaps under United Nations auspices. (Again, discussions already have taken place on such a potential arrangement.) C. Water rights and easy access to and from Israel/Palestine no doubt can be worked out once the essential compromises have been made and both sides are working in good faith with each other. PEACE MAY BE THE ONLY OPTION LEFT Given the current tense, explosive situation on the ground in Gaza and throughout the Middle East, is any of what's been discussed above practical or even possible? Maybe not. Maybe it will take another decade or two of continued slaughter and occupation before cooler, probably younger, leaders emerge with the courage to make the deal to ensure the peaceful future of their children and grandchildren. But to do nothing, to give into that status quo despair, to surrender to ongoing violence, to assume that we have to wait decades for the killing to get so intense, is to give tacit support to Israel's continued occupation and brutalization and humiliation of Palestinians, to give tacit encouragement to Palestinian suicide bombers and rocket launchers. With the departure of CheneyBush in January of 2009 and the possibility of a new, more intelligent and nuanced Administration in Washington, we must all try to build up the momentum for peace in the Middle East. To do nothing, in the mode of the Bush Adminstration, is self-defeating, immoral, and can no longer be accepted as an option.# Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has written extensively on the Middle East condundrum; he has taught an universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers ( To comment: . First published by The Crisis Papers and Democratic Underground 3/11/08. Copyright 2008 by Bernard Weiner.
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Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer-editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (more...)
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