For those of us more interested in world affairs than sport, "The Great Game" was the competition between British and Czarist Empires for Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia, with implications for India and access to the sea, that prevailed through much of the 19th and into the 20th centuries.
Israel now has its Great Game. It consists of responding to international and domestic demands for "solution" and "peace" with respect to the century-long conflicts over Israel's place in the region.
Any optimism apparent in Israel is microscopic compared to the rhetoric currently fashionable in the White House and among those who follow its lead. Since the mighty efforts of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton in 2000, and more recently the fragmentation of the Palestine National Authority, it appears that Israeli officials are going through the motions because they must. While some Israeli politicians accuse their colleagues of being short sighted or stingy, the louder clamor, coming from politicians and commentators across the political spectrum is "Impossible."
What makes it impossible?
Rivalry among the Palestinians, with extremists encouraged by Iran against the background of radical Islam, with the loud cooperation of Syria and the lesser noise of Turkey, as well as other occasional participants. All this makes it impossible for any Palestinian leaders to face their people directly and explain the need for compromise.
As far as we can tell from reports coming out of negotiations in 2000, and the efforts of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, Palestinian leaders are unable to accept anything less than their expansive demands of a state with the borders of 1967, plus a capital in Jerusalem, and the rights of refugees to return to what is now Israel.
Israel has developed since 1967, and some 50,000 Israeli Jews are living in settlements scattered throughout the West Bank, beyond the line of the security barrier. More than 200,000 others live in areas of Jerusalem and major settlements close to, but east of the 1967 borders.
Palestinians have rejected Israeli offers to provide them with territory equivalent to size of the pre-1967 area of the West Bank, with parts of pre-1967 Israel making up for what Palestinians would lose to the large Israeli settlements, plus a place for their capital in Jerusalem and a partial solution for the refugees.
There is good reason to believe, based on the comments of prominent Hamas figures, as well as frequent speeches from Iranians and others, that Fatah's mantra of 1967 borders, Jerusalem, and refugees is a fiction for a party that could not survive if--Allah forbid--the Israelis agreed to all of its demands.
So Tom Friedman, Barack Obama and many others are right in saying that Israeli settlements are an obstacle to peace. But they miss the larger point when they claim that the settlements are the major obstacle, or even a significant obstacle.
As far as we know about the negotiations of 2000 and 2008, they never got to the issue of settlements beyond those close to the 1967 borders. Would they be abandoned? That is no longer likely, due to the reception Palestinians gave to the abandonment of settlements in Gaza. Would they be granted something like ex-territorial status, with the residents granted rights as Israelis while living in Palestine? Would they be islands of Israel within Palestine, protected by Israeli security personnel? Or would Israel's refusal to withdraw 50,000 Jews, or abandon them, make it impossible to reach any agreement?
Roger Cohen is right when he says that Israeli angst is one of the obstacles to peace. But he misses the point in claiming it an important obstacle, given the nay sayers who speak for so much of the Arab and Muslim communities, and the failure of any Palestinian leaders to say anything that suggests flexibility.
Israel itself is the principal obstacle for Islamic theologians and Arab ideologues who are guarding the flank of Palestine, and have a following among Palestinians who others call "moderate."
So Israel's Great Game is largely pretense. Currently the conversation between Jerusalem and Washington is about more goods allowed into Gaza, the release of some Palestinian prisoners, and the removal of some check points in the West Bank, as inducements for some kind of negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian (Fatah) officials.
The game being played by Palestinian moderates is also a shame. Mahmoud Abbas spends his time in conferences, many of them in the capitals of Muslim and Western governments, marked by handshakes, photos, and the platitudes of peace and justice. Another one of those meetings is scheduled for the White House.
If words meaning "flexibility" or "compromise" figure in those meetings, they have eluded the media reports.
Will negotiations occur? Will the participants show any flexibility? Will they get to issues of water, sewage treatment, and other knotty issues that never seem to have been the subject of previous negotiations?
And what about the 250,000 or so Palestinians living in East Jerusalem? The assumption is that they will become Palestinians. But no one to my knowledge has raised the issue of a referendum. Maybe the people would prefer their status quo, with assured access to employment in Israel, as well as Israeli health insurance and social services.
In short, if anyone is really serious about ending this game, there is a great deal of work to do.
So far, we have not gotten beyond opening gambits, Obama rhetoric, and all those who sign on to his slogans.
The White House demands Israeli flexibility, so Israeli officials scurry hither and yon among themselves to produce yet another list of concessions, while holding to what they are not ready--or not yet ready--to concede.
Instead of any effort to educate his people about the essence of give as well as take, Mahmoud Abbas, the aging leader of Fatah, still in office 15 months beyond the end of his term, has asked President Obama to impose a solution on Israel.
The Great Game of Russia and Great Britain petered out without clear resolution with the end of the Czars and the weakening of Great Britain in The Great War.
Israel's Great Game is puttering along on an appropriately low flame, waiting for the end of the Obama presidency.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem