It's happened again. Within a day of the Prime Minister Netanyahu talking about pursuing a temporary solution for Israel and Palestine, the leader of the Palestine Authority has rejected the idea.
So much for negotiations.
The history of rejection goes back a long way, with a prominent landmark being the Khartoum Declaration of 1967 by the heads of major Arab states (no recognition of Israel, no conciliation, no negotiation). The Palestinian representative at Khartoum could not bring himself to agree with his allies, perhaps because they had softened their pre-1967 position of urging the destruction of Israel.
Rejections by the Palestinians themselves occurred in 2000 and 2008. The leadership refused to negotiate through almost all of the ten months of a settlement freeze that the present Israeli government accepted in order to facilitate negotiations, and has since rejected the idea of negotiating with any government led by Benyamin Netanyahu.
There are two prominent explanations. One is that the Palestinians recognize (along with many Israelis, but not apparently the Obama administration) that negotiations cannot go anywhere in the presence of extremist demands coming out of Gaza and elsewhere in Palestinian communities. Another is that the Palestinian leadership of the West Bank is holding to postures that it hopes to achieve with international support without compromise: the borders of 1967, a capital in Jerusalem, and the return of refugees from 1948 and perhaps 1967, with their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
There have been occasional reports, usually denied soon after they become public, that the Palestinians are willing to compromise on the details. Israel has signaled its willingness to compromise on all of these items. Each side accuses the other of bad faith and bad intentions.
Now the demonstrations, demands, violence, accomplished or imminent toppling of leaders in various Muslim countries.
What caused themt? What do they mean for Israel and Palestine?
Most can agree that the retarded character of Muslim states on the traits of economic development, living standards, and political liberties have considerable importance. Beyond that is the ease of electronic communication not stoppable by authoritarian regimes that contribute to contagious aspirations. The whole thing may have begun with the problems of a Tunisian who wanted to operate a kiosk in the market. Or Barack Obama may have done it with his Cairo speech of 2009, that provided White House legitimacy to the notion that the regimes of Egypt and other Muslim countries were unacceptable.
An interview with a Harvard professor of history with considerable experience in the Middle East is making the rounds via YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9sMo-LTdSc
Compared to Obama cheerleaders like Thomas Friedman, Professor Niall Ferguson's sense of history goes back beyond yesterday, his knowledge of geography and cultures extends beyond the Washington Beltway, and he speaks with Israelis beyond those of the academic left.
Ferguson notes that neither the President's experience nor the vast intelligence apparatus of the United States kept him from the potential harm of criticizing an Arab regime in a prominent speech delivered in its capital city, did not expect the extent or spread of the protests, and did not keep him and his aides from numerous confusing changes in their public pronouncements once the demonstrations began.
Ferguson accuses Obama of gross inexperience, and doing international politics with a superficial, politically correct, and touchy-feelyness that might work with his domestic constituency, but not in the Middle East. Obama's style differs from the bluster of George W. Bush, but is no wiser. Pity the young men and women sent to die, to enter the torments of physical injury or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), or simply to waste time in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever else becomes stylish for American adventurers.
Pity also Israeli and Palestinian leaders, who cannot afford to ignore the American president, no matter how naive he is.
Richard Nixon may have been the most recent president with a grasp of his country's priorities and capacities in international affairs, but his other problems got in the way of an award from the Nobel Committee. Arguably he should have shared the 1973 prize with Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. More recently the combination of power and parochiality has not served anyone well, inside or outside of the United States.
Currently this is the easy part of Prime Minister Netanyahu's work. He can rely on the Palestinians to reject everything he suggests about their mutual future. Perhaps he can expect that Americans will concentrate on problems more pressing in the area from Morocco to Pakistan than those of this spot of relative quiet.
The prime minister's domestic scene is less placid.
Two groups of religious Jews are the most troubling stains on his table. Religious nationalists settlers and their friends, and the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), each exist in their own worlds with little or no communication.
Settlers are blocking key intersections in protest against about the removal of a settlement built on privately owned Palestinian land and long held to be illegal. The prime minister ordered the action, saying that there was a limit to Israel's capacity to resist demands from Americans and other friends who have their own limits to what they can tolerate from Israelis. A soldier who resided in the settlement proclaimed that he would not accept the IDF's discipline; and is currently serving a 30-day sentence in the stockade for his efforts. Right-wing Knesset members are demanding parliamentary inquiries about the barbarity of the army and police (using non-lethal crowd control) against settlers who were violent in resisting their eviction.
The Haredim's problem is with government inspectors who came to their yeshivot to verify the identity of students whose presence entitles the academies to receive government support. Inflated and fictitious claims about students have been widely known and the subject of several government reports. Now the Haredim are screaming that their students are being kept from the sacred task of Torah study while officials verify their identity.
Netanyahu's government appears secure, but the maximum length of a government's term is about half-over. Israelis are maneuvering for position.
Those wanting his job should know how to cope with several varieties of Jews who cannot be satisfied; Palestinians who want to turn back history by at least seven decades and maybe by ten or more; a troubled region lumped by outsiders under the headings of "Arab" or "Muslim," but with national, tribal, and family histories that defy simple categories or analysis; and American presidents who aspire to direct areas of the world whose histories and cultures they do not comprehend.
Solutions, alas, are not among our options. Not making things worse is the prime rule.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at March 03, 2011 04:23 AM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem