Peace May Be Possible In the Post-Bush Middle East
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
March 11, 2008
The Middle East is undergoing yet another paroxysm of violence. An
attack from one side or the other, be it Israeli or Palestinian in
origin, leads to reprisal attacks, which leads to -- well, we all
understand the vortex that both sides continue to fall into.
This state of warfare has been going on for at least 60 years, since the
founding of the State of Israel, and, in a sense, much much longer than
that. And the situation is getting worse.
Those on the extremes in both Israel and Palestine (including those
inside the governing entities on both sides) are attempting to make sure
there will never be a peace settlement. And, by and large, both both
sides' leaders allow that interference in the peace process to rule
their responses, even though polls in both Israel and Palestine indicate
most citizens would prefer a peaceful two-state solution.
The Israel/Palestine situation is so seemingly intractable in how to get
to that solution that it leads to regional, indeed almost universal,
despair and depression. Without much energy or hope for progress, the
status quo of low-level violence persists and constantly threatens to
break out into full-scale warfare.
Every so often, maybe every five or ten years, the ongoing slaughter
pushes the two battle-weary sides to come close enough to inspire hope
that a solution can be devised -- not a perfect solution, not one that
guarantees peace, but one leading in that direction. And just as
usually, those potential "solutions" tend to fall apart, usually after
an act of violence from a crazed individual or an over-reacting Israeli
government or from Hamas or other militant groups in Palestine.
DOES ANYBODY REALLY WANT PEACE?
One can't help but conclude that neither side really wants peace; they
seem to feel more comfortable playing the victim role. Each side uses
its distressing history and a belief that God is on its side. Each would
feel supreme joy if the other side simply vanished. Each convinces
itself that with just a little more effort -- just another major attack
or two, another bit of pressure tactics -- the other side will
disappear, will see that it cannot win and will capitulate to its
Yes, of course, that type of thinking makes no rational sense, but the
Middle East puzzle, it's clear, operates mainly out of emotion,
hypernationalism, overweening ethnic and religious pride, the ongoing
rituals of conflict, and thoroughgoing contempt and fear of The Other.
The two sides, given the mutual hatred and massacres and suspicions,
seem incapable of creatively making a peace on their own, though on
occasion temporary and informal cease-fires do manage to occur. Outside
mediators, be they Arab organizations or the superpower U.S., then have
a go at trying to lead the two warring sides into meaningful
Various American presidents have put their reputations and energies on
the line to try to bring about a settlement that can last (Clinton and
Carter were the most successful), only to see the spiral of mistrust and
suspicion and violence rise to the fore yet again. Totally ignored is
the role-model of how Northern Ireland moved away from its seemingly
intractable violence to a tenuous but growing peace.
MIDDLE EAST SPIN AND PHOTO-OPS
George W. Bush occasionally makes some sort of diplomatic move in the
Middle East, usually right before a major domestic election. Now, just
before another presidential balloting and as his eight-year tenure is
coming to a close and he's thinking about his legacy, Bush initiates yet
another feint. The White House P.R. machine beats the drum that the U.S.
is trying hard to arrange a Mideast peace settlement, but nobody
believes that anymore, since it's clear Bush doesn't believe it either.
Since he's tied U.S. policy so tightly to Israeli policy -- Israel being
America's only dependable ally in the region -- it's all spin and photo
ops, lots of sound bites signifying nothing, really.
Indeed, it may well be that the war Bush&Co. care about is not the
Israel/Palestinian one, but the ones about to come, perhaps as early as
this summer: U.S./Israel against Iran and Israel vs. Hezbollah in
Lebanon (as proxy for Syria).
Clearly, there will be no real chance for a movement toward peace in the
Middle East until the new American regime takes over, if then.
CheneyBush were happy to let the Israelis handle the Palestinian in
their own fashion, including further humiliation and brutalization.
Bush&Co. admired and saw their own aggressive policies mirrored by the
All three of the major-party contenders for the presidency profess to be
staunchly pro-Israeli, so it's unclear whether anything major will
change if McCain or Clinton or Obama were to become the new resident in
the White House. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, continues to
cow many legislators into silence, though they do not represent the wide
variety of opinion, much of it sympathetic to Palestinian cries for
justice and an end to the occupation, in the American Jewish community.
There are strong Jewish pro-peace movements both inside America and
But we do know for sure that as long as Cheney and Bush are in power,
nothing will change and the situation in the Middle East will become
even more explosive and dangerous,
One can hope that the new U.S. Administration in 2009 will recognize its
opportunity to move forcefully and quickly to craft ways out of the
endless Israel/Palestine morass. Indeed, this may be history's final
opportunity to craft a viable two-state solution. For the U.S. to
abdicate its role in helping bring peace to that agonized region would
be shameful and self-defeating.
From now and until the November election, each of the three presidential
contenders should be grilled by the press and public about their plans
for ameliorating the situation in the Middle East. No doubt, they would
fudge and spin their answers, but just forcing them to talk about Israel
and Palestine, and how a solution is tied tightly to America's
well-being, might yield benefits down the line.
SOME FOUNDATIONAL ASSESSMENTS
Here are some possible starting points that the new president might want
to consider about the Middle East dilemma:
1. Working a way to a just and peaceful solution in the Middle East is
of supercharged importance not only to the survival of Israelis and
Palestinians, but also is in the vital national interests of the United
So much of the fervor, passion and anger directed at the U.S., Israel
and the West by Hamas and many other distressed Palestinians and other
Arabs in the Greater Middle East would start to dissipate if the
Palestinians were to achieve a viable, geographically-contiguous state
of their own. To continue to let the current situation stagnate and
fester is to ask for more trouble, big trouble. Doing nothing meaningful
in the Middle East has been the Bush Administration's policy for nearly
eight years, and that's what must be changed, quickly, by whoever
2. Under Bush, the U.S. supposedly was big on helping democracy bloom in
the region. But when a democratic election didn't go the way the Bush
Administration wanted, when Hamas won the approval of the majority of
Palestinian voters in its parliament and both the U.S. and Israel said
it would not recognize that popular electoral result, the hypocrisy of
the American position was plain for all to see.
Hamas is not going to go away. Israeli governments cannot wish it away
and cannot blow it away with missiles and bombs. Hamas is strong among
its people because it stands up against Israel and America. Hamas
therefore will have to be included in any diplomatic discussions leading
to a negotiated solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. No doubt,
this will happen after Fatah and Hamas make their own separate peace
with each other, if such is even possible, so as to negotiate as a
united Palestinian government.
There have been hints that Obama and Clinton are not philosophically
opposed to meeting with those deemed America's "enemies" -- such as
Iran, Syria, North Korea, et al. -- as long as preparations for such
meetings would seem to indicate fruitful avenues for discussion. Is it
too much to hope that the new American president might be consistent and
follow the same approach with Hamas?
NEITHER HAMAS NOR ISRAEL WILL DISAPPEAR
3. Israel is not going to go away. Even if most Arabs in the region
believe that the establishment of Israel in 1948 on land taken from
Palestinian residents was grossly illegal, the practical reality is that
the Israeli state is there to stay. No amount of international pressure
or bullets or suicide bombers is going to alter that reality, though the
permanent borders are still up for discussion. Therefore, all
Palestinian/Arab entities will have to deal with Israel at the
negotiating table. (Hamas has been the most adamant political
organization to oppose Israel's right to exist, but on occasion has
hinted that if Israel made the right concessions, it could possibly bend
even on that hardline position.)
4. Both sides have to realize that each has historical justifications on
its side, and that in their behavior both sides are both right and
wrong. In short, the question of who is the more aggrieved victim, while
important, is not going to get either side anywhere, certainly not to a
just peace. It's long since time to put that history to the side, so
to speak, and just get it done. This doesn't mean Palestinians and
Israelis will, or even should, like each other, or ignore their
suspicions of the other's motives or their own painful histories. It
just means getting the peace made and getting the difficult details
worked out as best as one can.
5. The hope for a potential peace treaty depends on both sides' leaders
(as well as those in the U.S.) being willing to make huge, politically
risky decisions. Everyone knows this.
GETTING FROM HERE TO THERE
A. Israel will have to end its Occupation and return to its pre-1967
borders. It will have to abandon its settlements in the West
Bank/Gaza so that the requisite geographically-contiguous state of
Palestine can be made viable. Maintaining the Occupation of Palestinian
lands is bleeding Israel of treasure and, more importantly, of its moral
sense of itself.
B. The various branches of the Palestine liberation movement will
have to recognize Israel's right to exist within secure borders,
probably based on the pre-1967 map.
C. Even if the above were to occur, there likely would be occasional
acts of violence and terrorism emanating from both sides.
Ultra-Orthodox, fundamentalist Jews (some inside the government),
believing that the Torah supports them in their Greater Israel
territorial claims, may well try to derail any peace negotiations, and
the requisite concessions, by attacking Palestinian targets. Likewise,
ultra-nationalist or militant Islamist groups in Palestine and beyond,
believing history and/or their faith give them justifications for their
policies, may keep up the rocket attacks on Israel and suicide bombings
inside Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere.
Both negotiating sides will have to agree that
they will not permit
the movement toward a peaceful solution to be vetoed by those who would
try to stop that progress through violence. Right now, anytime there
is some hope for the peace process and an incursion or bombing or rocket
attack takes place, the violence veto is allowed to trump the hard work
of the solution-minded diplomats and political leaders. That must stop,
and can be stopped, in effect, by ignoring the terrorism. If the two
viable states are talking to each other and reach significant
agreements, that terrorism eventually will diminish.
D. If (and it's a very big if) the two sides can recognize that The
Other is not going to disappear, no matter how much violence is
employed, and sign a peace treaty, then a wide variety of other vexing
issues can be brought to the forefront and solutions found. Issues
such as: how to deal with the Palestinians' claimed "right of return" to
their ancient lands inside Israel, who will rule Jerusalem, who will
control the water rights in that parched region, how thousands of
Palestinians can move back and forth easily between Gaza and the West
Bank and to their daily jobs inside Israel, etc. etc.
SOME POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
One can see the outlines, if not the details, as to how these problems
might be solved:
A. Once a peace treaty has been signed, some Palestinian families will
be permitted to return to their ancestral lands inside Israel, but
there's no way Israel will permit millions or even hundreds of thousands
of Palestinian refugees to pour into the Jewish State. Equitable
financial compensation will be paid by Israel to those not permitted to
return. (In principle, Palestinian negotiators in the past have
indicated that they'd be willing to entertain discussion along these
B. Jerusalem is holy land for all three major religions in the area.
It would make sense for Jerusalem to become an "international city,"
administered either by a joint Christian/Jewish/Islamic body or by an
already existing international agency, perhaps under United Nations
auspices. (Again, discussions already have taken place on such a
C. Water rights and easy access to and from Israel/Palestine no doubt
can be worked out once the essential compromises have been made and
both sides are working in good faith with each other.
PEACE MAY BE THE ONLY OPTION LEFT
Given the current tense, explosive situation on the ground in Gaza and
throughout the Middle East, is any of what's been discussed above
practical or even possible? Maybe not. Maybe it will take another
decade or two of continued slaughter and occupation before cooler,
probably younger, leaders emerge with the courage to make the deal to
ensure the peaceful future of their children and grandchildren.
But to do nothing, to give into that status quo despair, to surrender to
ongoing violence, to assume that we have to wait decades for the killing
to get so intense, is to give tacit support to Israel's continued
occupation and brutalization and humiliation of Palestinians, to give
tacit encouragement to Palestinian suicide bombers and rocket launchers.
With the departure of CheneyBush in January of 2009 and the possibility
of a new, more intelligent and nuanced Administration in Washington, we
must all try to build up the momentum for peace in the Middle East. To
do nothing, in the mode of the Bush Administration, is self-defeating,
immoral, and can no longer be accepted as an option.
Copyright 2008, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught
government & international relations at universities in California and
Washington, worked as a writer/editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for two
decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).
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