Groucho Marx, one of America’s pre-eminent philosophers, once quipped, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes.”
I thought of Groucho the other day, while ruminating about President Barack Obama and the crisis after Israeli commandos boarded a ship ostensibly carrying human-rights activists and aid supplies headed for Gaza in defiance of Israel’s blockade.
This crisis will pass, but the problems that caused it will not end so easily. And because of that reality, there is a need now, particularly for a war-time president with a Nobel Peace Prize who’s got galactic aspirations on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, to see the world as it is, not just the way he wants it to be. Instead, America must look directly without illusion and with the cold analyst’s eye at the two on-the-ground realities that now make Israeli-Palestinian peace so elusive.
Back in the day, we had Yasser Arafat. He was a walking conundrum. We couldn’t get to an agreement with him and we had no chance without him. But at least he had the authority and the legitimacy to control the West Bank and Gaza when he wanted.
Today we have a Palestinian Humpty Dumpty; and that’s why we have a crisis in Gaza.
To be sure, the Israelis helped. Their unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 opened the door to a Hamas takeover two years later. At the time though, who would have discouraged Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from dismantling settlements and withdrawing from Palestinian territory. Still, combined with Fatah’s corruption and mismanagement, the withdrawal weakened the Palestinian authority, emboldened Hamas, and effectively split the Palestinian national movement.
Now we have the story of Noah’s Ark in Palestine: two separate, detached Palestinian governments; two separate leaderships; two different security and police organizations; two sets of funding streams; and two different patrons. Worse still, this division isn’t over seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council or dollars from donors. It’s a fundamental split over which vision of Palestinian national aspirations should be realized -- and what kind of polity, secular or religious, Palestine should be.
We can blame the Israelis all day long for the Gaza siege, the blockade, and the recent commando operation gone tragically wrong; but their tactics and strategy toward Gaza flow from a central premise: Hamas needs to be contained and beaten back and its acquisition of high-trajectory weapons -- now with even greater precision and lethality -- blocked.
This problem -- that no single Palestinian partner controls and can silence the vast majority of the guns of Palestine -- is the single greatest obstacle on the Palestinian side to an agreement.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are good, practical men who genuinely have abandoned the armed struggle in favor of a negotiated solution; yet without Palestinians regaining a monopoly over the forces of violence in their society, no lasting Israeli-Palestinian agreement is imaginable. Hamas is at the root of the current Gaza crisis, but the problem is that Hamas can’t be broken or bought.
A clear-eyed, honest assessment would also see a more organized form of dysfunction on the Israeli side. The age of heroic politics in Israel seems very distant at the moment. The Ben Gurions, Meirs, Begins, Rabins and Sharons are gone. In their wake, we have younger, less experienced, politicians -- Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu -- all of whom have stumbled badly in matters of peace and war.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s priorities at the moment don’t lie in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Instead, his vision focuses on leading Israel out of the shadow of an Iranian nuclear bomb. For him, Hezbollah, Hamas and, of course, Gaza, represent extensions of Iran’s influence and reach. There is little sentimentality here and no inclination to give Palestinians or the international community the benefit of the doubt.
The commando operation to stop the flotilla was a natural and logical extension of the prime minister’s worldview. And, I might add, he isn’t alone. Defense Minister Barak’s strong public support of the operation suggests that it may well have been his idea. Setting a precedent by allowing ships to deliver aid, even if that assistance is non-lethal, would have provided support for Hamas and later opened up an uncontrolled conduit for weapons. As Barak said recently, there’s no mercy for the weak in the Middle East.
The Israeli realities on the peacemaking front are equally sobering. Netanyahu is the latest in a series of tough-minded Israeli prime ministers who have the potential to be transformative hawks. That’s the story of Begin, Rabin, and Sharon -- tough guys who alone could withdraw from territory and dismantle settlements.
The problem with Netanyahu, unlike the others, is that he’s under pressure, less confident, and weaker politically. To a large extent, he’s a prisoner of his coalition, his ideology, and an Israeli public that would like a peace agreement but increasingly doesn’t believe in one.
This lack of authority limits what Netanyahu can do. Menachem Begin controlled his party; Sharon was willing to destroy his by withdrawing from Gaza. It’s a real stretch to imagine an uncertain hawk like Netanyahu acting boldly to return to June 1967 borders, even with adjustments, and parting with East Jerusalem.
The factors that sustain the Gaza crisis are almost identical to those that make Israeli-Palestinian peace so difficult. Blaming the lack of progress on America is absurd. Where Obama is at fault is in raising expectations and putting the U.S. on the high wire without an effective strategy or net.
If Obama has a strategy, it’s not readily apparent. Other than throwing the talented and tenacious George Mitchell at the problem, there doesn’t appear to be much of a plan. Assuming U.S. mediation can narrow the gaps on an issue like defining the borders of a Palestinian state, perhaps the administration might make some headway.
But a conflict-ending Israeli-Palestinian peace isn’t likely any time soon, especially when neither Netanyahu nor Abbas own the negotiations.
In the fall of 2001, I was asked by Secretary of State Colin Powell to serve as an adviser to General Anthony Zinni, who had just been appointed as the secretary’s Middle East envoy. I liked Zinni immediately and jokingly asked him during our first meeting why he wanted to risk ruining a brilliant career by taking on the Arab-Israeli issue. Zinni replied that he liked hopeless causes. In that case, I told him he’d come to the right place.
It may well be that Obama has now come there too.
(Aaron David Miller, author of the forthcoming book, “Can America Have Another Great President?,” is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and has served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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