Bruce Anderson: Obama has failed to bring peace to the Middle East

When it comes to peace terms, most Israelis are wholly unrealistic

Monday 15 March 2010 01:00

There are worse threats than five more years of Gordon Brown. In the Middle East, tension is growing. In Amman, Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem, anxious voices are prophesying war while the West seems powerless. The UK has no clear position. Neither does the US. There is a general gabbling burble: "These are dangerous times... time for all men of goodwill...important that all sides show restraint". There is nothing with any purchase on the situation; nothing beyond Cathy Ashton's level of competence. She is the EU's foreign minister: a good joke, in circumstances that are beyond a joke.

A year ago, there did seem to be grounds for cautious optimism. Barack Obama had been swept to office on a cloud of liberal afflatus. It had been less of a campaign than an outbreak of religious mania. Even so, despite his inexperience, his naiveté and his left-wing instincts, there was one reason to welcome the new President. His prestige gave him leverage. Outside Iran and North Korea, noone was queuing up to be the first head of government to fall out with him. It did not seem impossible that he could re-animate the Middle East peace process. Although George Bush had talked about a Palestinian state, there had been no progress. Perhaps that would change.

There has been no change, as the Biden visit demonstrated. Intellectually, Joe Biden is unimpressive; just a folksy version of Cathy Ashton, not remotely on a par with Dick Cheney. But the Vice-President of the United States is entitled to diplomatic respect, if only ex officio. Mr Biden arrived in Israel to kick-start the peace process. Instead, his hosts kicked him. By announcing the latest batch of settlements, the Israelis were treating the Americans with contempt. Eighteenth-Century diplomats fought duels over lesser insults. The Palestinians responded by withdrawing from the proposed indirect talks. The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, had no choice. He has one consolation. The Israelis made a bigger fool of the US Vice-President.

It was surprising that the Israelis should have snubbed the Americans quite so brutally. They are normally more circumspect. After all, there are lots of American passport holders in Israel, yet none of their documents was finagled for the Dubai escapade. The Israelis usually know when and at whom they can safely thumb their noses, and super-powers do not like being made fools of. In official Washington, there are a lot of bruised egos with angry owners. One of them is Hillary Clinton, who has a temper on her, as they would say in Ireland. If there were some easy way for this Administration to punish Israel, that would be done. But there is no such option, especially in an election year; especially when the President's prestige has proved so evanescent and most of the levers have broken in his hands.

Over the years, official Israel has developed an acute, subtle and wholly unsentimental insight into American politics. Many senior Israelis have a better grasp of the US system than of their own – hardly surprising, given the fractious complexity of Israeli politics. The lack of sentiment is important. Vis-à-vis the US, Israel is like a pussy-cat with a fond owner, who beams down as the moggy purrs and strokes its fur around his calves. A charming scene for humans, but the cat is thinking that if it knew how to open fridges and tins, it would not need humans. Although it would be absurd to regard Israel as a glove-puppet waiting for a strong American hand, the Israelis know that ultimately, they are dependent on America. Like most dependents, they occasionally resent that status. They have also learned how to organise matters so that the dependency is rarely irksome.

It is the Americans who often feel irked. Back in 1982, when the Israeli campaign in Lebanon was beginning to bog down, Ronald Reagan expressed his concerns to Menachem Begin. It was good advice. Everyone would have been better off if Mr Begin had taken it. He failed to do so. President Reagan warned the Israeli Premier that some Congressmen were becoming uneasy. "Don't worry about the Hill, Ron" said Mr Begin; "I'll take care of that". Mr Reagan was serene by temperament and pro-Israeli by long and deep conviction. But that was too much. Suddenly, he had a temper on him. "Sonofabitch. What's he mean he'll fix the Hill? He's not American". As if that mattered. Last February, just after the God-President's apotheosis, some London liberals were assuming that Mr Obama just had to stretch forth his right arm and there would be a Palestinian state. Philip Bobbitt, the author, has a powerful synoptic intelligence and – remarkable in a life-long Democrat – a profound understanding of America. He urged caution: "Netanyahu has more votes on the Hill than Obama does". Mr Bobbitt was right then, and has become more so since.

A year ago, we were dreaming about a Palestinian state. Now, it is: "Please, Israel, must you build even more settlements – and even if you do, why must you ruin Mr Biden's visit?" It is hard not to admire the Israelis' chutzpah, dealing with the Obama Aministration as if they were flicking a fly off their sleeve. But the outcome could be tragic.

Most Israelis want peace. They long for the day when they would no longer have to worry about their children travelling about the place: the day when military service might become less onerous, and would become less dangerous. But when it comes to the peace terms, most Israelis are wholly unrealistic. They almost want the Palestinians to go under the yoke and to crawl to an attenuated statehood at the price of national humiliation. In large part, this is the Palestinians' fault. Any nation prepared to be led by that corrupt wretch Arafat almost deserves the Palestinians' fate. There were tactics which would have enabled the Palestinians to secure widespread sympathy and to put Israel under pressure. Passive resistance was one, as was an offer to relinquish all Palestinian claims to statehood in exchange for Israeli citizenship. Either of those could have been a route to the moral high ground. But that was never part of Arafat's route-map.

The Palestinians preferred suicide bombers. At moments, the Israelis have been guilty of exploiting the Holocaust for the purposes of emotional blackmail. But one can understand why their reaction to the suicide bombings was Holocaust-conditioned, especially when children were the murderers and Israeli children their victims. There arose an Israeli refrain: "What kind of a people is this who send their children to kill our children"?

As a result of the suicide bombings, a lot of Israelis came to despise Palestinians, and who can blame them? But it is not a helpful reaction. It encourages that chronic Israeli unreality, entirely understandable and equally entirely unreasonable: the desire for a risk-free peace. That cannot be. The Israelis are condemned to live in a dangerous neighbourhood. Even if there is a Palestinian state including almost all of the pre-1967 West Bank, plus a presence in Jerusalem, plus generous support from the US and the EU – a fair number of Palestinians will hate Israel and Israelis. Some individuals will let that hatred consume them, until they become diabolical agents of fire and death. Israelis will always have to live under threat.

There is only one hope of mitigating that threat. Most Palestinians also want to live in peace. If they had a state where they and their children could prosper and in which they could take pride, they would not permit it to become a cockpit of terrorism and war. This does not mean that all terrorism would be instantly eliminated. But it could mean co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian security services, thus reducing the risk. That is the only sane option for Israel. Yet there is little hope that the Israelis will take it.

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