Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cut 'em off

An all-star conglomeration of diplomats, heads of state and miscellaneous power brokers is descending on Annapolis, Maryland for a Mideast peace conference sponsored by the Bush administration. In addition to the the headliners, the Israelis and the Palestinians, a supporting cast including the Syrians, the Saudis and the Egyptians will be there. Just about everyone with a stake in the region will have a representative in Annapolis, all hoping to bash out some kind of agreement that will put an end to the festering conflict at the heart of the turmoil in the Middle East.

What are the chances? Hard to say. The problems in the Middle East go beyond Israel and the Palestinians. But it’s a starting point, so let’s look at it: the implantation of what is arguably a European state in the Arab territory of Palestine following the Second World War was, from the Arab point of view, a colonial invasion at a time when most Arab countries were freeing themselves from imperial masters. Whether the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in the wake of the establishment of Israel was a cold-blooded crime or an unintended consequence of a war provoked by Arab intransigence, it’s asking a lot of a Palestinian in a Lebanese refugee camp to embrace the state of Israel as a benign neighbor.

The trouble is, there’s a lot to like about Israel. In a region whose political culture is characterized by autocracy, obscurantism, hysteria and brutality, Israel is a functioning democracy with a free press, a lively opposition and a strong strain of the kind of masochistic internal dissent that is found only in the truly open society. Granted, its forty-year occupation and partial colonization of territory taken in war has placed that democracy under intense stress and led to abuses that no nation can be proud of. But for a country like Syria, whose unelected ruler in 1982 largely obliterated one of his own cities when provoked by rebellion, to criticize Israel for its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories is, to say the least, a touch hypocritical.

The truth is that much Israeli brutality has been a direct response to outrageous provocation. The slaughter of schoolchildren and the suicide bombing of Passover dinners is not best calculated to win the high moral ground. The Palestinians could have been the poster child for persecuted minorities, and instead they turned themselves into the bogeyman of the 20th century. They needed a Gandhi and they got Arafat.

The state of Israel was midwifed by the United Nations, and insofar as nations recognize the legitimacy of the U.N., it is incumbent on them to recognize the existence of Israel. The United States has no need to apologize for its support of Israel, and it should be noted that the greatest gains achieved by Arab polities, the Camp David accord which returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1977 and the Oslo accords of 1993 which created the Palestinian Authority, were achieved under American sponsorship. Is defending Israel a legitimate American interest? Only insofar as defending a democracy is a legitimate interest of other democracies. It should be regarded as an international interest.

None of which, of course, means that the Palestinian grievance is illegitimate. There is little dispute that there ought to be a functioning Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. The question is how to get there.

A viable Palestinian state will require Israel to relinquish much of the territory it has colonized in the past forty years, which will entail a searing internal conflict in Israel, including possible civil strife. The sooner this conflict gets underway and is resolved, the better for the long-term health of Israel. The occupation is simply unsustainable. It has corroded and corrupted Israel. Details of borders and territorial swaps are trivial compared with the fundamental conflict between those who favor territorial concession and those who think that Israel can hold onto the West Bank forever. I believe the latter position is folly, and the greatest long-term threat to Israel, but it is the Israelis who must decide.

Relinquishing territory, however, will undoubtedly bring a whole new set of security problems, as demonstrated by the chaos in Gaza since Israel withdrew from the strip in 2005. It is sadly predictable that sizable Palestinian factions will insist on exploiting any Israeli withdrawal to step up attacks on Israel. Extremism is endemic in Arab political culture, and Palestinian irredentism will not disappear with the establishment of a functioning Palestinian state. And on past form, the Palestinian government, whoever ends up constituting it, will be unable to restrain it, even if willing. (If not willing, they should not be allowed to form a government.)

That’s why any solution will require a sizable presence of foreign troops in the new Palestine to guarantee Israel’s security. It would be best if these troops did not come from the United States. However, they must come from some country that is willing to devote blood and treasure to policing the peace, whose military is willing to pull the trigger. Israel will not accept a token force that winks at rocket attacks and cross-border incursions. Serious military repression of insurgent Palestinians unreconciled to the peace will be essential. Just as Israel must deal with its internal conflicts, so must Palestine. And should serious Israeli irredentism lead to violence, that also will need to be suppressed, by international forces if necessary. What nobody wants to say aloud at the conference table is that peace is going to mean pain, on both sides. But somebody has to say it.

No solution is possible without a security guarantee that the Israelis will accept. This guarantee should be international, not American. Perhaps the countries of the European Union, traditionally better viewed by the Palestinians, could muster enough firepower and resolve to shoulder the burden of policing the peace. It would be an indication that Europe is serious about being a world power.

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians, of course, would not magically make problems in the wider Mideast go away. The region is a briar patch of oppressed minorities, suppressed dissent, unmet needs, unbalanced economies and sheer reactionary bloody-mindedness. And the situation has been enormously complicated by our clumsy destruction of Iraq. Even before the invasion, however, the fundamental problem in the region was social and political stagnation, as indicated in the U.N.’s 2002 Arab Human Development Report, which pointed out the fundamentally closed and illiberal nature of most Arab societies.

There is little the West can do to change this except to exert leverage where it exists. We could start by refusing to send any more money to autocracies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt until they consent to significant reform and liberalization. We could take the next step by refusing to send any more money to anybody in the region. Declare a five-year phaseout of all military aid to all countries in the region and see how minds get concentrated. This does not mean abandoning Israel. It means internationalizing the security of Israel. We should not foot the bill alone.

There are, of course, no guarantees that anybody can bring peace to the Middle East. But if we can’t solve all the problems, we can at least refuse to pay for the wars.

Sam Reaves

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