Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

October 5, 2000

Sad Triumph of Reality

Nobody wants to acknowledge the possibility that the current violence in Jerusalem is not so much an anomaly as something like the release of pent-up hostilities on both sides that have been papered over – that there are simply too many unresolved hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis to make talks of a "peace process" anything other than something of a sad delusion. Yet the possibility, however unpleasant, should be considered. A peace process based on wishful thinking is hardly likely to yield a peace that will last beyond the next provocation, real or imagined.

The desire for peace, even when flavored by something less noble, like a desire for a legacy, is generally commendable. But while I bow to few in my insistence that violence and hostility are no solution to almost any given problem, it also seems to be the case that a peaceful solution to a given problem, like a fine wine, cannot be rushed. To most of us who have paid attention from time the Israeli-Palestinian situation is particularly frustrating.

On any number of issues, almost anybody can see from the outside that insistence on a particular negotiating position by one side or the other is a non-starter. And you just know that, for example, in the old days when Israeli governments refused to negotiate with Yassar Arafat and his minions because the Palestine Liberation Organization was viewed as a "terrorist organization," the stance was taken in part from at least a semiconscious resolution not to go too far down the negotiating path because most Israelis simply weren’t ready yet.

To see the leaders of the two sides dutifully trekking to Paris to visit with the Ambassador Extraordinaire of the imperial power in Washington is particularly disturbing and most unlikely to hasten the day when differences in the area are resolved or at least put to one side for a while.


Over the years the two sides locked in hostile embrace came to know one another’s buttons well enough that they could push them at will while maintaining to the U.S. and other well-meaning busybodies that they were trying – really, really trying – to find a basis for a just and lasting peaceful settlement. I still believe that the potential of the people of the Middle East is so great that peace will ensue eventually as the multifarious costs of war and hatred make themselves more apparent. But conversations with partisans of both sides have made me believe that the time is not this year and probably not next year or the year after.

I would love to be wrong about this. But events of the last week suggest that those who thought peace was at hand, needing only the right combination of nudges and promises to come to fruition, preferably before January when Bill Clinton leaves office, were less realistic.

It is possible, of course, that the current violence will prove so shocking to people in Israel and in the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority, so horrific a reminder of what the alternative to peace entails, that they will redouble the peace efforts and find a way to get to an agreement. Death and violence are often part of the process of inducing enough war-weariness to begin the search for peace in earnest.


Almost everybody from outside the region who pays close attention for any period of time comes away with a deep sense of sadness about the Middle East. To see so many people with so much potential locked in resentment, hatred and struggle induces frustration. Why can’t they get beyond these animosities and develop, for starters, a free-trade region -- which wouldn’t necessarily require people to like one another, merely be willing to make money from them – from which everybody would benefit?

The recent violence suggests that both Israelis and Palestinians have become tired of posturing for the "international community" that floating craps game of professional diplomats and meddlers and (sadly) are taking out resentments on one another. Unfortunately for those who look from outside, the animosities seem real enough – and while political leaders, especially Arafat in my view, no doubt stir them up from time to time, they wouldn’t be able to do so if there weren’t some genuine resentments there.

It might even be the case – although cause-and-effect are difficult to sort out – that recent pushes from the vaunted international community are as much to blame for the recent violence as any other factor. President Clinton and various European leaders pushed Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak beyond where public opinion was willing to go (across a rather wide ideological spectrum) on the matter of the final disposition of Jerusalem and may have created an opening for the more conservative Likud Party. And it might just be that some of the violence was a way of letting various leaders, foreign and domestic, know that resolution will not be as easy as making nice in conferences and taking money from Uncle Sam.

It’s no surprise, then, that most international commentators want to pin the blame on Ariel Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount, or Al Haram As-Sharif, last week. But while Sharon no doubt knew his visit might be provocative, the animosities go deeper and have not been helped by outside pushing to get an evanescent "peace process" moving on a Western timetable rather than in response to facts on the ground.

It might be too late now to try a different approach, but it’s certainly not beyond imagining to wonder whether benign neglect might have brought resolution in the Middle East more quickly than lectures and promises and prodding from Western – mostly US – diplomats and leaders in search of a legacy, from Kissinger through Madame Albright. What if the US had said to both sides, perhaps 20 or even five years ago something like this?

Listen, it’s your problem and you’re the ones who are going to have to resolve it or live with the consequences. We’re cutting off aid to both sides, and promise not to interfere or to try to impose our own preferences. If you’re getting very close and need a neutral place to meet or a neutral ear to listen to both sides and offer constructive advice as to how to get over the last couple of hurdles, fine. We’ll be around. But we’re not interested in anything more intrusive than tying up the last few loose ends on a deal both sides have indicated through consensus, public opinion or whatever guides your politics that they’re ready for.

Is it possible that the situation would have resolved into at least a livable truce more quickly?


Given the likelihood that a better agreement is more likely to flow from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down or from an outside power, then, the decision of Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat to fly to Paris for a little negotiating fling with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is hardly encouraging. It sends the message to all sides that they should look to Big Brother – or is that Little Sister?

for succor in their time of tragedy. It reinforces many of the most destructive impulses in the region – to blame others for every ill, to expect outside help whenever the going gets tough, to look anywhere but inward when problems are stubborn.

The symbolism of the Israeli and the Palestinian leader leaving their countries at a time of maximum crisis and stress to consult with the keeper of the real power in the world in a European capital is also questionable.

To be sure, personal leadership in time of crisis is more than a little overrated – Israel and the Palestinian Authority could no doubt get along just as well (perhaps better) if their top leaders retired to the Riviera. Even so, the symbolism of trekking off to Paris to listen to a lecture from Mama Albright (who is believed to control or at least have some influence over the purse strings of aid) is more than a bit unseemly. It reinforces the image of the Israelis and the Palestinians as a couple of unruly international brats who need a stern talking-to when they get out of line and embarrass all those wise authority figures who have been trying to straighten them out.

Unfortunately, if it is too soon to hope that leaders like Madeleine Albright will forbear from meddling and tinkering, it is probably also too soon to hope that a resolution – growing from war-weariness and some dim understanding that there are better ways to conduct human relations than at the point of a rifle rather than from threats and bribery from the self-proclaimed indispensable nation – is likely in the near future.

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