It is easy to blame Benyamin Netanyahu's right of center coalition for the failure of the American peace initiative. Examined in isolation, it seems clear that five parties with 61 seats in the 120 member Knesset are standing in the way of that 90 day extension of the building freeze, and every other concession holding up a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conundrum. Within the coalition, but somewhat to the left of center, is the Labor Party, with another 13 seats in the Knesset. Some of those 13 MKs are far to the left, and a constant irritant to the Prime Minister and the head of the Labor Party. Labor Party head Ehud Barak is nothing like an ideological leftist or peacenik. As Defense Minister, he may be Netanyahu's closest partner in making policy for defense and foreign affairs.
Only a bit beneath the surface one can find the reason for Israel's right of center government. Here the picture is nothing like the portrayal convenient to many outsiders, and some Israelis, who like to think as simply as possible. Frustration at Palestinian refusal to compromise is the core of the right wing appeal to many Israelis. There is also an infrastructure of distrust of Arabs among substantial sectors of the population. One can find that among religious Israelis, those who came in the most recent 20 years from the former Soviet Union, and those whose roots are in Muslim countries of the Middle East. All told those may amount to a majority of the population. Yet polls typically show a majority of Israelis willing to compromise. To understand the puzzle, one should focus on Israelis willing to compromise, but not finding that Palestinians share their willingness. The Palestinian narrative that grants themselves a monopoly of suffering and justice does not wash with people who have lived with a more balanced history from 1948 onward, and whose governments have offered a great deal in efforts to get Palestinians to say something other than No.
Anyone familiar with the story of David and Goliath can appreciate the Palestinian appeal to communities that have not lived Israel's history. Israelis who insist on continuing to build beyond the security barrier that can mark a reasonable national boundary add to the view that it is grasping Jews who are at the heart of the problem. Perhaps Netanyahu's own inner feelings, and those of coalition partners further to the right make it difficult to restrain actions that do not play well in international media. Yet no democracy attains absolute harmony or control. Germany has its skin heads, the United States its Tea Parties, and Israel its religious nationalists. Without firmer signs of Palestinian willingness to achieve less than its full narrative, no Israeli government from 1967 onward has been willing to act with a strong hand on those committed to expanding the settlements.
For those wanting to find blame on the Israeli side of things, there it is. But it is only part of the story.
The Israel-Palestinian conundrum is just that: a problem without an apparent solution. It has been around, with variations in details, since that decision of the British government in 1917:
"His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
Squaring a "national home for the Jewish people" without prejudicing the "rights of existing non-Jewish communities" has foiled solution-seekers for close to a century. The Obama administration has yet to find the magic that eluded several previous efforts of British, American, and Israeli peace-seekers.
Those who refuse to give up may start with a bit of modesty as they approach a task others have not dealt with successfully. Anyone who can find modesty in the current occupants of the White House or its underlings in the State Department should send an immediate note to my in-box.
An article in the most recent Economist includes a few nasty swipes at the Israeli coalition, but also describes developments in the West Bank that justify patience. Economic development, improved security, and a concern to sit on Palestinians prone to violence has been helpful for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.
"Come back later" is the Economist's headline for its article on Israel and the Palestinians. It implies that leaving things alone is wiser than pushing for a grand resolution that has evaded a century of work.. http://www.economist.com/node/17680686
Another story in the same issue of Economist describes a weightier problem on the Obama agenda. China is more likely to be the gorilla in the living room than these tiny specks in the Middle East. http://www.economist.com/node/17601453
Other items in the Economist and just about every other newspaper of renown describes the Wikileaks as telling a story of an American foreign policy machine that is anything but smooth running. The same material provides ample testimony that Iran and Sunni-Shiite tensions are every bit as threatening to the Middle East, oil, and all the rest as the unresolved aspirations of the Palestinians. American efforts to claim that Israel must give more to the Palestinians in order to ransom world peace are naive or disingenuous. The muddles over implementation of that 2,000 page health reform suggest that the administration also has something to learn about domestic politics.
What Obama, Clinton and associates need--at least for a policy toward Israel and Palestine--is best supplied by German. Sitzfleisch is a capacity to sit still and think, without being constantly on the move. Valium might help, or some more up to date remedy for hyper-activity.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem