The Israeli-Palestinian Chimera

Middle East diplomacy is a chimera, brimming with illusion and fabrication. The motives of all concerned, too nasty and self-serving to publicly proclaim, create this unreality.

The dominant player in the Middle East is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He is not a negotiator. He is a warrior -- a pure unilateralist who relies on force to get what he wants. And what he wants is a greater Israel and a lesser Palestine, a Palestine that is small, weak, dependent and integrated into the Arab world.

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Sharon has been a warrior all his adult life. He has fought or commanded in all of Israel's four wars, including leading a brutal 1953 guerrilla raid into Jordan, directing the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that involved the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps and provoking the current intifada with his armed visit to the Temple Mount in 2000. He has never wavered in his opposition to the 1993 Oslo peace process.

Sharon's policy of force employs a four-part strategy:

Expand settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). This creates facts on the ground, swells the settler lobby and shrinks the land available to the Palestinians. Sharon has vowed to never abandon the settlements. He will, of course, abandon some to create the illusion of compromise, but the more settlements that exist, the less the negative effect of giving up a few marginal ones. But that is well into the future. The more time that elapses before the distant endgame, the greater Israeli control on the ground. The Palestinian Authority now controls less than 20 percent of the West Bank.

Make life miserable for the Palestinians. This has two functions. The first is to ensure that radical, pro-terrorist, anti-diplomacy Palestinians dominate their movement. From his provocative visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000, to his assassinations of Palestinians, his incursions, curfews and mass arrests, his assaults on Arafat and finally his destruction of the Palestinian economy, Sharon has produced the Palestinian reaction he sought. A radicalized Palestine will not allow compromises for a negotiated settlement with Israel. Arafat's diplomatic incompetence, therefore, is allowed free rein. In addition, when a more skillful Palestinian leader emerged, notably Marwan Barghouti, Sharon had him abducted and put on trial. The second function of repressing the Palestinians is to finally convince them that living under and with the Israelis is no life at all. Palestinian per capita income has dropped over 50 percent during the current intifada; unemployment varies by area from 25 percent to 75 percent; and 700,000 Palestinians remain under curfew. Sharon wants them to leave, which, so far, Palestinians have recognized as Sharon's strategy, and have not done. Eventually, Sharon believes, they will have no choice. It is called "transfer," a more humane term than ethnic cleansing or deportation.

Sustain strong support in the United States. By defining the conflict as one endangering the very survival of Israel when faced with unremitting terrorism (like that facing the United States after Sept. 11), Sharon has won overwhelming and active support from: government officials (notably U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and security adviser Richard Perle); members of the U.S. Congress (the entire leadership of both parties); the media (virtually all the pundits writing in The Washington Post and The New York Times, with Thomas Friedman being the major exception); and pro-Israeli voters and campaign contributors. In effect, as President George W. Bush's could-have-been-written-by-Israel speech of June 24 indicated, Sharon commands U.S. policy in the Middle East. This is essential for the fourth part of the strategy.

Avoid "plans," "timetables" or "endgames" for resolving the Palestinian question in the foreseeable future. Sharon needs time for the first two parts of his strategy. He told members of Congress during a June visit to Washington that there will be no deal with the Palestinians for 10 years. He even talked about a 100-year struggle with the Arabs. As long as Washington backs him, conflict resolution remains a chimera.

One would think Sharon's four-part strategy would present Bush with difficult choices. It does not. Bush has developed a two-part strategy in light of what he sees as obvious facts -- and to serve his own political aspirations.

Back Sharon. Bush, of course, cannot explicitly declare this as his policy, but he acts as a champion of Sharon. Bush welcomes Sharon to the White House (five times so far). He has never invited Arafat and never will. Instead, he has explicitly called for Arafat's ouster as head of the Palestinian Authority. He has demanded Palestinian political reforms that, to say the least, will be impossible to establish. It is wise to remember that Bush is a tough competitor. He hates to lose, and he knows that his father made a huge mistake in 1991-92 by forcing the Madrid process on Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and then opposing Shamir's re-election (by denying Israel $10 billion in housing loan guarantees). Pro-Israeli voters, unhappy with the president's action, overwhelmingly cast ballots for Bill Clinton in key states. Bush is not stupid. He will not buck Congress, his own policy advisers, the media, the Israeli lobby (now bolstered by the Christian Republican right) and public opinion. And anyway, his heart wouldn't be in it. Bush has a strong affinity with Israel and Sharon. Sharon was his host on his visit to Israel over a decade ago. Principles of freedom and democracy, so important to Bush, are embodied by Israel and not the Arab world. The president is comfortable with a policy that is at once politically rewarding and in line with virtues he admires. Necessity agrees with choice. But some cover is needed.

Pretend to work for a Palestinian state. In September 2001, Bush became the first U.S. president to publicly favor a state for the Palestinians. In his June 24 address, he repeated this position. These words, and they are just words, are designed to assuage Arab leaders in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Actions reinforce this illusion. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is working with the "quartet," which includes the European Union, United Nations and Russia, in an attempt to resurrect a peace process. Powell plays the good cop, although when he goes too far, such as by advocating an international peace conference, his advice vanishes from policy pronouncements (nothing on a conference appeared in the June 24 address). The pretense on the Palestinian state question emerges when Bush demands reforms that the Palestinians must implement before U.S. diplomacy will be activated. Even when and if Arafat is re-elected, this also would not satisfy Washington's pre-conditions for restarting diplomacy.

Bush believes -- and not without good reason -- that conditions are not ripe for a negotiated settlement. Sharon will not allow it. The Palestinians cannot negotiate it. Better to let Sharon and his successors impose a settlement, sweetened by U.S. cash for the losers. The Israeli and Arab governments will eventually accept an imposed settlement giving the Palestinians half a loaf because it would reflect the reality on the ground. The Palestinians, isolated, abandoned, weak and with few options, might then fade to little consequence.

My conclusion is far more pessimistic. Bush's strategy won't work, at least over the long haul. Israelis will likely tire of repressing the Palestinians and suffering their reprisals. Sharon, now 75 and obese, will leave the scene. No warrior with his prestige is in the wings. The Palestinians will likely alter policy, shifting their attacks away from Israel proper to target settlers and their army protectors and even making credible negotiating points. Arafat, now 72, will leave the scene. No one of his incompetence is in the wings. Arab leaders will likely continue to press Bush to rein in Israel and establish some hope of settlement. The EU will back the Arab leaders.

In the short run, that is, until 2004, maybe Bush can buy sufficient time with his strategy. That's OK with him.



Nicholas Berry, director of ForeignPolicyForum.com in Washington, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.