What is it about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that compels intelligent and sensitive analysts to persist in believing—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary— that a solution will emerge top-down, from leaders, rather than from demands made by civil society? And why, rather than drawing attention to the many initiatives to mitigate the suffering of the people on the ground in the absence of a comprehensive peace deal—ending the siege of Gaza, supporting nonviolent activists in the West Bank, etc.— do commentators instead continue to focus on prescriptions to end the conflict as a whole, thereby reinforcing the myth that it is the solution itself—as opposed to the political will to enforce a solution—that remains elusive?
Consider Bernard Avishai’s article in the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday. While the whole world has just witnessed the sudden eclipse of realpolitik in the Middle East by will of the people, the NYT runs a long cover article focus exclusively on the same figures that were shell-shocked by developments in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. A reader of Avishai’s article is led to believe that the same characters who have perpetuated the violent status quo in the Middle East have all along been harboring the intention to deliver peace to the region. According to Avishai, all that is essentially needed is an opportunity for these leaders to capitalize on their diplomatic wisdom, to exercise the better angels of their nature, and at that point, peace will reign. It is worth examining some of the subtle, and misleading, ways that Avishai attempts to demonstrate this.
1) “President Obama has signaled his determination to support democratization in the region, as promised in his 2009 Cairo speech, and not to remain tied to authoritarian regimes.” This sentence is found in the opening paragraph, and establishes a key premise of the article: that the words of leaders—whether American, Israeli or Palestinian—are to be taken at face value. Here, Obama’s reaction to the recent events in Egypt is linked to the promises made in his speech in Cairo in 2009. To many others—including the Egyptian people, who observed at close range that the tear-gas canisters fired at them by Mubarak’s henchmen were embossed with the words “Made In U.S.A.”—the reaction of the U.S. to the Egyptian uprising confirmed that there is an obvious gulf between Obama’s rhetorical gestures and the policies of his administration. Of course, the Obama administration changed its position over the course of the past weeks, but only because it was compelled to change by the tide of events.
2) “Israelis understand that their occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza are sources of rage in the Arab street, but many have come to believe that the peace process is futile—especially since President Obama seems to have despaired of meaningful negotiations…” This establishes another main premise of the article: that it is necessary for Obama to restart negotiations. Avishai is hardly unusual in emphasizing the perennial value of peace talks; taken as a whole, however, this sentence is rather remarkable. Obama’s alleged “despair” is the main reason that Israelis have lost faith in the peace process? Recall that when Obama was seemingly more optimistic—that is to say, when he maintained an interest in bribing Israel to take the most minor and inconsequential steps toward peace (the “settlement freeze”)—many Israelis, Rashomon-like, interpreted Obama’s desperate bribes as in fact exerting an unreasonable amount of “pressure” on Israel. While Netanyahu has a shrewder understanding of American politics than most Israelis—he knows that Washington’s “demands” hardly constituted a different, hard-line approach towards Israel—he nonetheless refused to go along, thus helping to derail talks already underway. Surely the actions of their own government, then, rather than Obama’s attitude, have aptly demonstrated the “futility” of the “peace process” to Israelis, and given everyone—perhaps including Obama—ample reason to “despair” of “meaningful negotiations.”
Furthermore, Avishai, who is clearly against the occupation, creates the impression here that the occupation will necessarily continue in the absence of a “peace process.” Yet it is precisely the same “peace process” that has provided the crucial diplomatic cover for the persistence of the occupation. As Avishai must know, it was during the Oslo years, under the auspices of the peacemaker Rabin, when settlements in the West Bank expanded at a greater rate than other time in history.
3) “In his pivotal Bar Ilan University speech of June 14, 2009, Olmert’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, finally promised to work toward a Palestinian state…” Many NYT readers probably recall the celebrations in the American press attending Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan, a university known for right-wing sentiment, where Netanyahu indeed pledged to work towards a Palestinian state. As is often the case, Israeli critics knew better, perceiving the speech merely as a rhetorical ploy meant to fend off challenges from Netanyahu’s centrist critics, who never tired in repeating that Netanyahu’s formal rejection of a Palestinian state was a death knell for democratic Israel. In any event, it has been a year and a half since Netanyahu’s speech. Is Avishai’s use of word “pivotal” to describe the speech at all warranted? “Pivotal” is defined as “vitally important, especially in determining the outcome, progress, or success of something” (emphasis mine). As Avishai knows, Netanyahu has gone on from his famous speech to do everything in his power to undo the prospects for Palestinian statehood. Furthermore, as Avishai acknowledges, in the speech itself “Netanyahu made much of his demand that Palestine be demilitarized.” In fact, as many commentators pointed out at the time, Netanyahu’s vision of a Palestinian “state” is one entirely without sovereignty—in other words, a state that no Palestinian leader could accept. The proper way to describe Netanyahu’s speech, then, is “cynical”, not “pivotal”.
4) “A viable plan exists: it is waiting to be forged from the far-reaching proposals that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority made to each other in 2008. We had a glimpse in mid-January of these negotiations—the ‘Palestine Papers’, leaked by Al Jazeera; and then excerpts from Ehud Olmert’s memoir, published in Israel. But the picture that emerges from these accounts is unfocused and confusing…” Is it reasonable to conflate the revelations of the “Palestine Papers” with Olmert’s memoirs? The former have given us an unprecedented opportunity be privy to secret talks; the latter are the personal recollections of a man noted, even by the standards of Israeli leaders, for corruption and mendacity—no small feat. Of course, since Avishai’s article privileges Olmert’s own perspective above all others, it is necessary for Avishai to downplay what many see as the central revelation of the “Palestine Papers”: that similar Israeli leaders have had no interest in pursuing a negotiated settlement to the conflict, spurning even the most generous concessions from Palestinian leaders (“we are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history”, etc.). Indeed, Avishai is unique, as far as I know, in seeing the picture emerging from the “Palestine Papers” as somehow “unfocused and confusing”; to everyone else the lessons to be drawn from them—at least from those that we have seen thus far— have been rather clear and straightforward.
5) “Over the course of almost two years, from December 2006 to mid-September 2008, Olmert and Abbas met 36 times. Lower-level talks were also going on…the top-level talks were considerably more important.” While the remainder of Avishai’s article elaborates on the contents of these “top level talks”, impressing upon the reader how narrow the differences between Olmert and Abbas became over time, this does not explain why these talks are “considerably more important” than the lower-level ones, whose contents were revealed by the “Palestine Papers”. In fact, the importance of the talks between Olmert and Abbas is taken as a given throughout Avishai’s article, and never proven. Yet it is a curious feature of the article that running alongside it, at least in the print version, is a brief commentary by James Traub, showing precisely why these “considerably important” talks— dissected so earnestly by Avishai—will likely remain a template for nothing. Paraphrasing Joe Biden, Traub writes that “[Biden] sees no sign that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been deeply troubled by the attacks on the regime of President of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, is prepared to take greater risks now then he was before.” This is also the view of Aaron David Miller and David Makovsky, two old Israel hands in Washington. “Both men”, according to Traub, “say they believe that the Netanyahu government will conclude that the world, for now, is yet more dangerous for Israel, and thus it will be even more loath to make painful concessions on borders and security arrangements.” Of course, this is the lesson that Israeli leaders have always drawn from any perceived changes to the status quo, regardless of whether those changes signify a rising authoritarianism or rising democratization in the region. As former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir once said, “the Arabs are the same Arabs, and the sea is the same sea.”
I have chosen to focus here on a few of the disingenuous—some might say merely naive— arguments that Avishai makes to frame his article; others may have found fault with more of the details. In the end, however, I find it difficult to comprehend why a sophisticated thinker like Avishai would have chosen to write such a piece in the first place, given the array of human struggles in the Middle East that are deserving of attention (how many NYT readers have heard of Breaking the Silence?). In any event, if the past few weeks haven’t convinced us of the futility of relying upon leaders to deliver us from conflict and injustice, nothing will.