Shlomo Ben-Ami is a former Foreign Minister of Israel and a scholar. Today he spoke on the Upper East side to a crowded hall and said that if Israel does not come up with the general agreement envisioned at Annapolis within the next year, the two-state solution is "doomed." And what will result is "a binational state. In our situation it means a South Africa situation, without a South Africa solution."
I didn't get to ask what this means. Presumably, Ben-Ami is saying Israelis will never give up the Jewish state to a mixed government of Jews and Palestinians, even with 5 million Palestinians living in that state. (I wonder whether South Africans made the same vows, back when.)
The Century Foundation and Israel Policy Forum sponsored the talk. IPF is the post-Oslo group of American Jews (mostly) who see a 2-state solution as urgent. Seated close to Ben-Ami at the head table were the Egyptian Ambassador to the U.N. and the Palestinians' U.N. Observer. Both spoke eloquently. Praise Allah there are Jews who listen to Arabs in my country!
I heard a tremor of crisis in Ben-Ami's voice. The question of the hour was: What is the role of the U.S.? Here too Ben-Ami broke ground. He said that some agreements, like the Quartet's Road Map, which Israel committed itself to following, are mere "shelf agreements." He explained that this means that the Israelis sign agreements and put them on the shelf, with no intention of following through. Dov Weisglass, a former Sharon aide, once said that Israel will begin implementing the Road Map "when the Palestinians become Finns." I.e., Never.
Annapolis is going nowhere fast. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has told Ben-Ami that right now the discussions are purely "academic."
A couple weeks back Brent Scowcroft said to me that Israel is a "weak" state, and Ben-Ami echoed that in his way. He said that Israel's government can be "dysfunctional." A large majority of Israelis want a peace deal, they are willing to sacrifice the hard right to that deal. Still, the Israeli government lacks the ability to move forward. Colonization (settlements) continue. Prime Minister Olmert told Ben-Ami that Barak had tried to broker a deal in which the illegal "outpost" settlements would be dismantled while the existing settlements would be expanded. "The Prime Minister vetoed that, he told me personally." I guess he only wants to expand some settlements.
"But as far as the conditions on the ground, Israel is not being excessively generous," Ben-Ami said.
Ben-Ami and IPF want Americans to put pressure on their government to apply equal pressure to Israel and the Palestinians. Condi Rice wants to make a deal, he said; he has talked to her. "She said... the president is not going to go to Israel more than one more time" in his administration. In May. That will be when he will apply pressure to both sides. His last shot.
So Condi Rice is the only one applying pressure to both sides right now? That's what I took away from Ben-Ami's talk. Is this how a superpower behaves? Do we let Israel nullify our policy--the Road Map, Annapolis--by signing a "shelf deal" and simply ignoring the provisions? Why isn't Barack Obama on this one? Or Hillary, who also blasts "special interests."
The answer is that our politics are dysfunctional too. Look at John McCain's craven statements in Israel today, blaming everything on Hamas--when even Ben-Ami says that Israel must talk to Hamas. Where is the evenhanded leadership by American politicians to help the Israelis and Palestinians out of their cycle of violence? The Israel lobby has turned out foreign policy into a panderfest.
The Egyptian ambassador Maged Abdelaziz was great on this score. "Extreme radicals in the Israeli government" have undermined the peace process by ensuring that Israel has given the Palestinians nothing in the 100 days since Annapolis. "If people say that Hamas is capable of sabotaging the peace by standing against all the forces of Annapolis--that is a farce, a camouflage of the true position of the Israeli radicals who are not interested in peace," he said. Checkpoints have increased, he said. There used to be 548, now there are 580 in the West Bank. The lockdown of Gaza, the continued closure of "institutions" in Jerusalem, the increase in colonization of the Palestinians' 22 percent of Palestine....
Nothing will happen, Abdelaziz said, without "political will" in the U.S.
Yes and where is that will? Is Annapolis a "shelf agreement"? Do little countries boss us around? When will my country take up its own interests here with vigor?