The recent exchange of testy words between Washington and Israel over the approval of new construction in East Jerusalem is ostensibly over the fate of the “peace process” now being shepherded by the US. VOA says that “for decades he United States has tried to act as a bridge between Israelis and Arabs. President Barack Obama, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, is looking for ways to end hostilities and bring about a long-elusive peace.”
The announcement of the East Jerusalem construction was said to have undermined Vice President Joe Biden’s diplomatic efforts. “This was supposed to be a period of heightened U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, with U.S. envoy George Mitchell named as a go-between in indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and Vice President Joe Biden making a high-profile trip this week to Jerusalem.” But what were the odds that Biden’s efforts were actually going anywhere? And if not, then why?
One line of thought is that peace is within reach if only Israel would give way. Andrew Sullivan, for example, lectured Prime Minister Netanyahu about Israel’s aggressive past. Did Netanyahu know, he asks, how much land the Jews have grabbed? Did Netanyahu slaver, he asks, at the prospect of an apartheid state? The Economist points out that Sullivan’s arguments are nonsense, but it too is willing to concede the principle that if Israel gave something back then peace might be attained. Israel must still give; the only question is how much. Tom Friedman also seems to think that Israel has missed the party by “driving around drunk.” Friedman wrote:
I am a big Joe Biden fan. The vice president is an indefatigable defender of U.S. interests abroad. So it pains me to say that on his recent trip to Israel, when Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s government rubbed his nose in some new housing plans for contested East Jerusalem, the vice president missed a chance to send a powerful public signal: He should have snapped his notebook shut, gotten right back on Air Force Two, flown home and left the following scribbled note behind: “Message from America to the Israeli government: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And right now, you’re driving drunk. You think you can embarrass your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political need, with no consequences? You have lost total contact with reality. Call us when you’re serious. We need to focus on building our country.”
But where’s the party? How close was Biden to actually making a breakthrough? If Israel was driving drunk on the highway, what event did it miss? Friedman’s article is accidentally nearer the mark than he imagines when he describes how Biden should have thrown a tantrum, because theater is what it is all about. The “peace process” is really a process: a mime show of appearing to do something. In that context there’s nothing inappropriate about declaring oneself a fan of Joe Biden any more than confessing yourself a die-hard follower of the Red Sox. But it was hardly as if a peace settlement impended or even that there was one in the offing. Given the yawning gap between the existential requirements of Israel and the aspirations of the backers of a Palestinian state, a peace settlement is not happening any time soon. The current problems are too fundamental. The real purpose of the peace process is to keep the non-war alive. As long as the diplomats keep the “peace process” alive their goal will have been fulfilled.
The MidEast Web has long and detailed references to the history of attempts to establishing Jewish and Arab states side by side going back to before World War 2. Every model one can think of has been proposed. A binational state, a two state solution, one Arab State, one Jewish State, the Clinton plan, the probable current Obama plan and everything in between. The wars fought in 1948, 1956, 1965 and 1973 have brought no solution. Neither have the intifdadas. President Bush’s Roadmap Plan didn’t even bother to have a defined endpoint at all: it was “not a final status plan, but a series of steps designed to calm the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, create a provisional Palestinian state and allow for negotiations of a final status agreement … However, the roadmap does not specify the final borders of Palestine and Israel or any other other details of the solution.” In essence the object was to keep the wheels spinning, to keep the parties talking, to distract everyone on the theory that for so long as the palaver lasted the guns would remain silent.
But at the same time the palaver could never be allowed to get too close to an agreement. The other unstated goal of the peace process was probably to keep any of the “solutions” from going forward because the actual establishment of a Hamas-controlled Palestinian state would probably be an immensely destabilizing event. It would create a salient in the Israeli security perimeter which would sooner rather than later become a launching pad for further attacks on the Jews. If Obama actually got what he wanted he probably wouldn’t want it.
The perverse nature of the “peace process” is driven by the unstable strategic environment of the Middle East. The existence of fundamentally undemocratic and aggressive states like Syria and Iran, coupled with the multiplicity of nonstate terrorist actors like Hezbollah and Hamas, is incompatible with the survival of a state like Israel, which for historical reasons is paranoid about its existence. It’s a puzzle in which the pieces won’t fit until they are machined down to slot in. No lines drawn on a map, no handshakes on the White House lawn, no pious statements of goodwill alters the key fact that something has to be the grinder and some parts have to be ground down. To speak of the Palestinian-Israeli process is to look through the wrong end of the telescope. Just as one cannot understand Lebanon without understanding Syria and Iran — and indeed the entire Sunni-Shia schism and its attendant politics — so too is it impossible separate the “Palestinian” problem from its context.
It’s not the settlements that are the problem, it’s the region.
Everyone understands that the problem is structured like this at some level. So the underlying argument for pushing the “peace process” forward is that the establishment of a Palestinian state will facilitate an American solution to the regional security crisis. Because the problem is so large the diplomats have been casting around a long time for a key. President Obama rejected the Bush approach of trying to cut the the Gordian Knot with the Freedom Agenda approach and is attempting the same task by pursuing a Grand Bargain. In this scenario Israel is seen as the bit of protruding string on which diplomats must pull to disentangle the whole convoluted mess. Settlements –> East Jerusalem –> Palestinian State –> Lowered Regional Tensions — > Peace. It’s the Dry Bones theory of diplomacy.
The toe bone connected to the heel bone,
The heel bone connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone,
and the MidEast problem is solved!
Simple, right? But the problem is what if Israel’s not the bitty little key to the huge door? Dry Bones paradigm doesn’t work when the whole skeleton is fractured. That just connects one fracture with another. Maybe the real metric of how well the Peace Process will do is how successful the Obama administration is at dealing with Syria and Iran. Because if he fails at that, the Peace Process is doomed, no matter how many houses are not built in East Jerusalem. Maybe not everyone agrees that is the correct order of the solution. But they can try their own sequence and see if it works. My guess is that the solution to Israeli-Palestinian problem will be the byproduct of, rather than the proximate cause of a broader regional stability. Until then Joe Biden can keep flying a shuttle and opening and slamming shut his notebook.