December 7, 2008.
I’ve seen this movie before: A new administration is about to take office and a
prestigious think tank issues a report saying that nothing is more important than
trying to put the pieces together in the Mideast, especially on the Arab-Israeli
dispute. There’s a window of opportunity, Mr. President-elect, take advantage
Sorry, but this time around I’m skeptical.
On Tuesday, two of the nation’s most-respected think tanks, the Council on
Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution, published “Restoring the
Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President.” They call it a
nonpartisan blueprint for the Obama administration’s policy toward the most
turbulent part of the world. The two officials behind the report, Richard Haass
of the council and Martin Indyk of Brookings, are experienced, thoughtful and
fair-minded in their approach. Indyk served in the Clinton administration, Haass
in both Bush administrations.
They argue the next administration should be paying more attention to the
Arab-Israeli dispute and halting the spread of nuclear weapons, instead of just
focusing on the war in Iraq. That’s hard to argue with and is clearly what
President-elect Barack Obama would like to do.
Where I become doubtful is when the report says there’s a unique chance to
engineer an agreement between Syria and Israel, which, if it could be done,
would alter the strategic balance in the region. Ever since I first started to cover
these topics in the mid-1970s, I’ve heard that the Syria track is ripe for an
agreement with Israel. First it was when Hafez Assad was the strongman in
Damascus, and more recently it has been with his son, Bashir, somewhat less
than a strongman but still in charge.
The report says “the difference between the parties appear to be bridgeable.”
That may be the case, but it is precisely what was being said in 1977, and
periodically after that. The problem is that neither the older Assad nor the
younger one has been willing to actually make a deal with Israel when push
came to shove. Why is this time different from all other times?
The report also says that after seven years on the back burner, the
Israeli-Palestinian dispute needs to become a priority for the new administration.
It says that Washington should promote conciliation between Fatah and Hamas
as a way to diminish the Islamists’ incentive to undermine negotiation. As the
saying goes, from their lips to God’s ears.
Watching the Mideast dispute all these years has been like watching a
Shakespearean play in which one party walks in the door just as the other party
walks out. In the past seven years, there has been a significant change in the
Israeli approach. Some of the hardest of the hard-liners – such as former Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon or outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – have come to
the realization that there’s no future for Israel if it tries to control the West Bank
and Gaza Strip, the territories it captured in the 1967 war.
But just as these former Likudniks morphed into negotiators, the rejectionist
Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian elections. So much for a peace
I recently read “1948” by Israeli historian Benny Morris, a review of the events
that led to the formation of Israel and what happened in the first war. Morris is
called a revisionist historian because he punctures myths Israelis and
Palestinians have promoted about what happened in this conflict.
But the point for me was that a significant segment of the Palestinian
population and larger Arab leadership has never accepted Israel or believed in a
two-state solution. That Hamas, an organization that rejects Israel, did so well
in elections is consistent with Palestinian and Arab attitudes for decades, well
before even 1948.
So I’m a skeptic. Maybe there’s a way this new administration can break a
60-year logjam. But until there’s somebody for Israel to negotiate with, the
“peace process” is likely a dead end.