Wild Cards in the Peace Process
Fresh from his triumphs in bringing
peace to Northern Ireland or at least the pretense of peace for
a few weeks or months former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, as head
of the new U.S.-led commission formed after the abortive Sharm al
Sheik meeting a couple of months ago, is trotting around the Middle
East pretending to revive the putative peace process. Itís something
of an Alice-in-Wonderland exercise to begin with, what with the
violence that has marred Israeli-Palestinian relations since President
Clinton, in search of a legacy, unwisely pushed the envelope at
Camp David and pushed peoplesí noses in the difficulties inherent
in a final agreement.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has thrown a monkey wrench or
two into the works, announcing his own resignation and a new election
for prime minister. This prompted Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
to declare the peace process even deader than before (although he
agreed to meet with Mitchell). Yet the "international community"
continues the play-acting, making believe the peace process is alive
and vital, that those in the region need just a little nudging from
wise outside statesmen to put down their rocks, helicopters and
automatic weapons and settle down around a negotiating table.
not that most decent people donít wish Sen. Mitchell and his panel
well and hope against hope that he succeeds in spite of the circumstances.
But a peace based on wishful thinking and postponement of the difficult
issues is not likely to last very long.
Israeli political developments made it seem that much more otherworldly
that the good Senator and his minions would be holding meetings
and issuing statements on the same day the Israeli political class
was paying no attention as it scrambled to read the tea leaves Barak
had swirled around in the tempestuous cup.
itís Florida envy. Just when matters seemed about as unsettled as
possible and marred by death and violence to boot in the Middle
East, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak shook the situation up a
little more. In the wake of the violence that has led to more than
300 deaths in the last 60 days or so, Mr. Barak had spoken of dissolving
the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and calling new elections.
Then on Sunday he announced he was resigning as prime minister and
that a new election for that office would be held in the next 60
this a slick maneuver to keep former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,
who has been trouncing Mr. Barak in the polls, from running? As
of Monday afternoon the supposed experts I could reach, in the Los
Angeles Israeli consulate and elsewhere, were still trying to figure
it out. There are almost as many possibilities as in the aftermath
of the U.S. election.
little background might be in order. Israel, which has had a fairly
standard parliamentary system in which the party that gets a majority
or can stitch together a majority parliamentary coalition gets to
choose the prime minister, recently changed its laws so the prime
minister can be (but doesnít necessarily have to be) elected separately
from the parliament.
resignation would set up an election for prime minister, but as
of now Netanyahu, who has been more or less retired from politics
since Barak beat him in a May 1999 election, is not eligible to
run for prime minister since he is not a member of or a candidate
for the Knesset.
Knesset has taken a preliminary step toward dissolving itself and
setting up new parliamentary elections, which would allow Netanyahu
to run for a seat in the Knesset and for prime minister. It is also
considering a law to allow any citizen, not just a member of or
candidate for parliament, to run for prime minister when that post
is contested separately. It is uncertain, however, whether the Knesset
will accommodate Netanyahu. He may poll well against Barak right
now, but when he was in power he rubbed lots of people the wrong
way and heís hardly the most popular figure among Knesset members.
addition, it is far from certain that Netanyahu will be able to
wrest leadership of the Likud Party from former defense minister
Ariel Sharon, who heads the party now and is running about neck-and-neck
with Barak in opinion polls. And as Leon Hadar, former United Nations
bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post, mentioned, many Knesset members,
especially members of smaller parties and Labor and Likud backbenchers,
would not relish a new parliamentary election in an unsettled time.
They are piquantly aware that they could easily lose their seats,
and they had rather expected to have their little pittance of power
for longer than 20 months or so.
Yasser Arafat says an Israeli election marks an end at least to
this phase of the eternal peace process (full employment for deluded
diplomats) and looks like a cynical delaying tactic to him. And
the violence between Israelis and Palestinians, if anything, escalated
somewhat over the last week, with extreme factions on both sides
speaking darkly of war as a live option, perhaps preferable to the
relatively low-level sniping and shooting that have marked the last
couple of months.
to make matters more interesting, an increasing number of Israelis
are less than enthusiastic about the choices the political system
offers them. "Many Israelis now feel the same way some Americans
did during the recent election," Leon Hadar suggested to me.
"With all the talent and ability in Israel, couldnít the system
offer somebody better than the three leading candidates?"
one option that seems unlikely is that any candidate will offer
a dramatic but realistic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
But even that is a possibility.
POSSIBLE WAY OUT?
in all and we have barely begun to explore the complexities prospects
for peace in the Middle East appear less than bright. All parties
to the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio seem to be hardening their
rhetoric and their positions. When Israeli diplomats visited our
newspaper a few months ago some talked, with regret but with some
resignation, of the possibility of barbed-wire fences throughout
the area to separate Israelis from Palestinians. All the e-mails
I get from the Council on American-Islamic Relations speak of Israeli
outrages and war crimes.
yet Ö and yet. When I spoke to Israeli second-and third-level consular
officials this week they insisted that at some very deep level most
Israelis want peace and are resigned to the idea that sooner or
later there will be a Palestinian state as a neighbor, though there
is substantial and continuing disagreement over its extent, over
whether Israeli settlements will be allowed to remain in certain
areas, and over what kind of security arrangements will be necessary.
And while Palestinian militants and certain titular Palestinian
leaders are encouraging or acquiescing in violence, some reports
from the area suggest that substantial numbers of Palestinians long
for peace and have no desire to push Israel into the sea.
Hadar, who for more than a year has encouraging people to see the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a local ethnic or tribal dispute
that with the decline of the superpower conflict neither requires
nor would benefit by intervention from the "international community"
has a few suggestions. "Think about Southeast Asia," he
suggested to me. "Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam,
Thailand and other countries are side by side, some of them Muslim,
some poor, some wealthy, some authoritarian, some fairly capitalist,
one outright communist. Yet they have found ways to avoid trespassing
on one another, with little if any help from outside."
time, the best approach or the least-worst if you prefer might be
to return the West Bank to Jordan and the Gaza Strip to Egypt. Given
agreements about borders, mutually agreeable security arrangements
and reasonably firm promises that a future authority or state will
respect security arrangements hardly easy goals but not necessarily
impossible -- that would cede the ongoing Palestinian arrangements
to those Arab countries. Israel would be smaller than some Israelis
might prefer, but probably safer than it is now.
everybody I talked to spoke of the collapse of leadership and authority
on both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides. Whether Arafat is
egging on those in love with violence or has lost control of them,
he has no more moral authority and not much political authority.
In Israel, Leon Hadar suggested, itís a bit like France during the
Algerian crisis, just before De Gaulle came back to power in the
late 1950s. The public is deeply divided, the current political
leadership is confused and incompetent, and everybody is waiting
for some new figure with ideas that can capture the imagination
while seeming to be practical to emerge and take charge.
figures may never emerge either in the Palestinian territory or
in Israel. The situation could deteriorate into more-or-less constant
low-level violence. Or various people might come to the belief I
have held for some time that the fundamental mistake was to try
to establish European-style nation-states in regions where the culture
wasnít friendly to such institutions and move toward alternative
forms of governance or coexistence.
any rate, the most useful thing the United States and other members
of the vaunted "international community" of free-floating
diplomats can do is not to flail about in search of an ephemeral
solution but to stay out of it for a long time to come.