Rice’s Folly
11/09/07
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Sadly, diplomatic amnesia has descended on Washington once again.  And while I, of course, favor a two-state peace solution between Israel and the Palestinians, for now I find myself agreeing more with Hamas than with Condoleezza Rice — at least in believing that the planned peace conference set for Annapolis in the near future is a waste of time, and could lead to more bloodshed. The notion of the U.S. sponsoring peace talks to hammer out a settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis by smoothing over their deep differences with carefully chosen phrases rather than smartly crafted solutions, and pushing off the toughest decisions for the end of the talks, should have ended with the failure of Oslo. At the outset of that painful process, in the summer of 1993, when President Clinton engineered the handshake on the White House lawn between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat, there was a naïve sense that Arafat really wanted peace more than he wanted to see, and oversee, the destruction of the Jewish state. But the sad fact, as we came to learn after a period of bloody suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli women and children, was that Arafat was a liar and calculated murderer who was not prepared to take even the most basic steps toward fulfilling the promises he made — namely to seek to stop the violence against Israel. I recall hearing Shimon Peres dismissing Arafat’s two-faced behavior of calling for peace in English to the Western world and preaching jihad in Arabic to the Arab world by insisting, “give the man his rhetoric.” And some us took Peres’ advice, leading with our hearts rather than our heads, wanting so much to believe that peace was possible that we denied the realities around us, like the constant demonization of Jews in the Palestinian press and textbooks as well as on television and by the imams in the mosques. In the end, reality caught up to fantasy, and when Arafat was caught trying to smuggle arms in by sea, and openly lying about it, even official Washington had to acknowledge that the game was up. Now we hear that of course Oslo was doomed because Arafat was a thug, but that things are different because Mahmoud Abbas, his successor as Palestinian Authority president, is a reasonable and civilized man who speaks out against terror. That may be true, but he is also a weak leader who has been unable or unwilling to take on the more militant factions of Fatah, which he heads, not to mention his failure in confronting Hamas, which now controls Gaza. And while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has endorsed fully the planned peace talks set for Annapolis in the near future, he, too, is a weak leader at home. At least part of the reason why there have not been more loud reservations expressed in Israel about tackling the final-status issues of Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees is that few take the Annapolis talks seriously enough at this point. A leading Israeli official told me recently that “Annapolis can’t succeed,” but he shrugged his shoulders when asked why the Olmert government would proceed if that was the case. “If the U.S. wants it, what can we do?” But the underlying message seemed to be that nothing would come of it, so why work ourselves up? The planned conference is Secretary Rice’s brainchild and she says she is well aware of past U.S. diplomatic failures but that “with all due respect, I’ll do it my way.” So far, though, her way seems a repeat of the mistakes of her predecessors in trying to deal with the obvious and major political and security problems rather than the underlying history and emotions behind them. “When you are dealing with deep reservoirs of hatred,” says Hillel Levine, an expert on international conciliation, “you can’t settle disputes purely on present matters of interest. First you have to establish relationships” and confront the reasons for failure based on “pained memory and distorted history.” Levine, a professor of sociology and religion at Boston University, is president of the International Center for Conciliation, with successes in dealing with conflicts in India, Cambodia, Europe and in neighboring Jewish and Arab villages in the Galilee. His approach is not to choose between or ignore differing historical narratives but to get the parties to address the past, acknowledge the other’s grievances, and establish some degree of trust. “It’s a Jewish perspective in that we deal with memory,” says Levine. “We say, ‘tell us about your father and grandfather,’ but we’re not about forgiveness, we’re about conciliation.” For decades, the mantra about Mideast peace was that it will only happen when the parties themselves want it to happen, and that the American role is to be the honest broker. Now we hear that Mideast peace will only happen when Washington is willing to flex its muscle enough to get the reluctant parties to make necessary compromises. But those compromises tend to translate into Israeli sacrifices in land and security in return for Palestinian verbal promises that are soon broken. You don’t have to be a right-winger to have deep reservations about putting together a Mideast conference now that can only increase expectation levels on the Palestinian side and foster bitter resentment if it fails, setting off a new round of violence like the second intifada did after Camp David in 2000. We all want peace, but we should have learned by now that it can’t be imposed from outside, no matter how powerful or well-intentioned the U.S. is. And there are no quick fixes in Mideast diplomacy. What Washington can do best is help build trust, not twist arms. E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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10/09/2009 - 10:09

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