Monday, January 26, 2009

George Mitchell & Israel

Monday - Why Israelis worry


George Mitchell drew a few laughs Thursday at the State Department. After being introduced by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the person she and President Barack Obama wanted as their Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, Mitchell remarked on how the Irish troubles had dragged on for 800 years.

"Just recently," he said, "I spoke in Jerusalem and I mentioned the 800 years. And afterward, an elderly gentleman came up to me and he said, 'Did you say 800 years?' And I said, 'Yes, 800.' He repeated the number again - I repeated it again. He said, 'Uh, such a recent argument. No wonder you settled it.'"

Obama says his administration "will make a sustained push" and work "actively and aggressively" for a lasting peace so that Israel and a Palestinian state can live side by side in peace and security. Mitchell, who is due to arrive here on Wednesday, is primarily tasked with reinvigorating negotiations and developing an integrated strategy to resolve the conflict.

One might expect the Israeli reaction to such a commitment to be: Thank you, Mr. President.

Instead, it's one of trepidation. Mitchell is coming to "pressure Israel," the Hebrew tabloids have chorused.

One reason for this anxiety is that those gloating over Mitchell's appointment - the Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now, J Street, Prof. Stephen ("The Israel Lobby") Walt, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) - either don't seem to "get" what this conflict is all about; or are outright champions of the Arab cause.

Take New York Times star columnist Tom Friedman. He'd have Obama draw a false parallel between "Hamas in Gaza and the fanatical Jewish settlers in the West Bank." Friedman knows that only a splinter group of settlers can reasonably be labeled fanatics. What he should be telling Obama is that the surest way of closing Israeli minds is to adopt this revolting moral equivalence.

AMERICAN policy since 1967, from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama, has consistently called for an Israeli withdrawal from territories - not all territories - captured in the Six Day War, on the theory that one day the Arabs would be willing to trade land for peace.

Few Israelis today would countenance a total withdrawal to the boundaries Israel found itself in when the Six Day War erupted. But offer us "1967-plus," an end to Arab violence, an explicit commitment to resettle refugees and their descendants in the Palestinian territories - not in Israel - and a recognition of the right of the Jewish people to a national homeland within agreed borders, and you'd be surprised how rapidly most every other obstacle to a deal would vanish.

No one has to pressure Israel into making peace - because no one wants peace more than Israel. Yasser Arafat rejected Ehud Barak's ideas for peace in 2000; similarly, Mahmoud Abbas has rejected Ehud Olmert's apparent offer to remove most Jewish communities over the Green Line.

What is holding up a deal? The chronically fragmented Palestinian polity is in no position to make one. This week's Economist claims to see "hints" that Hamas is moderating. It would be a pity if Obama shared this delusion and, like the Bush administration, tried to paper over the chasm between Fatah, which at least professes to want a negotiated peace with Israel, and Hamas, which adamantly pursues a zero-sum struggle.

There would be virtually no support among Israelis for concessions to a Palestinian unity government in which an unreformed Hamas plays any role. Conversely, if the Obama administration could devise a strategy of sidelining the radicals and defanging their chief backer and the most destabilizing force in the region - Iran, the prospects for a sustainable peace would improve dramatically.

What about the illegal settlement "outposts" Israel committed to dismantling? They should have been taken down as part of Israel's road map commitments. But eight years of unremitting enemy violence - intifada, Kassams, Gilad Schalit's post-disengagement kidnapping - robbed our politicians of the domestic support for such a move.

It is legitimate for friends of Israel to differ over West Bank settlements. But anyone who calls themselves "pro-Israel," while demanding a withdrawal to the perilous 1949 Armistice Lines in an environment where that would represent national suicide, needs to do some serious soul-searching.

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