Saturday, April 18, 2009

Breathless Report About... What, Exactly?

In Israel, the most important day of the week for newspapers is Friday. So yesterday (Friday) Haaretz had this headline, top of the front page, large letters:
Obama wants Israel to hold parallel talks with Palestinians and Syria
(The Hebrew was more dramatic). As a general rule, Haaretz isn't too good at separating news from comment, but then who is these days? So this news item, put together by a group of their reporters, starts with a breathless report by Akiva Eldar, an old-timer who really knows his beat, but can't separate what he knows from what he preaches.
The Obama administration is preparing a Middle East peace process that will include simultaneous bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and Syria. The plan is based on the Arab peace initiative that offers establishing normal relations between Israel and Arab League states in exchange for withdrawing from the occupied territories and establishing a Palestinian state.

The United States will put together a "security package," including demilitarization of the territories from which Israel will withdraw and the option of stationing a multinational force in them for years.

The Obama administration believes that a breakthrough in the peace process between Israel and the Arab states would restrain Tehran's influence and contribute to the diplomatic effort to block Iran's nuclearization.
The questions are
1. Is this news?
2. Is it the full story?
3. Is it important?

First, is it news. Not really. American policy since the summer of 2000, or December that year at the very latest, has officially been something like this; unofficially it has been so for far longer. Israel needs to retreat from just about all the territories taken in 1967, those territories will be demilitarized, there will be an independent Palestinian state, and peace will reign forever after. There's a slight twist in Eldar's report in that someone thinks once this happens the Iranians will also join the swords-into-plowshares brigade, but he doesn't give a source for this so let's let it pass. Actually, this is more or less the position of most Israelis, too - assuming, of course, that moving out of those territories can bring all that bounty. It can't.

Which brings us to the second question, is it the full story? At this stage of the game I'm still giving the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt, and that includes the assumption their experts are serious people, not bloggers or journalists. In which case they recognize some of the pieces Eldar left out of the picture. Right of Return, for example, meaning what happens to lots of ethnic Palestinians who are never going to move back to what is now Israel, no matter that their grandparents left here, and the fact this presents a wee stumbling block (in the Saudi plan, too). Or the fact that the elected majority of Palestinian lawmakers come from a party that wants a world without Jews, and so far that group is unable to reach an agreement with the other large Palestinian party. There's the small question of Jerusalem, the one about Israel's defining itself a Jewish state (with legal equality for minorities), the issue of how Syria defines peace, and various other nit-picking matters. I'm not saying peace is a theoretical impossibility - that would be depressing - but I haven't yet seen an indication the Obama administration knows how to create it any more than anyone else.

Is any of this important? No, not really. Even if it really and truly were soon to be the official Obama policy, and included suggestions also about all those other matters, reality has this nasty propensity of not reading newspapers (or blogs, or official memorandums, or diplomatic non-papers and all that stuff). Reality is extremely complex and ultimately unpredictable, it certainly isn't anything that can be neatly planned by some new folks at Foggy Bottom or even at the White House. As (Bill) Clinton once learned, the most powerful man in the world can glower at an unshaven old revolutionary with shifty eyes, and the unshaven fellow can pretend to be looking out the window and hum, and there's nothing the President of the United States of American can do about it. And even if he could, and the unshaven fellow had decided to humor him, it wouldn't make much difference if enough young men back at home were to feel they'd been sold down the river - which is why the unshaven one didn't cave in in the first place.

My point being that some day, I hope, the Israelis and the Arabs will be willing to live in peace, but it won't happen because someone declares it to be a fine idea or a rational thing to do.

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