To: Robert Keeley
Cc: John Whitbeck , William PFAFF
The Next Middle East Mission
There is good news for the Middle East: Barack Hussein Obama is using all three of his names. The new president's first television interview was a warm message to the Islamic world via the Al 'Arabiyya satellite television network. Obama ordered the closure of the detention camp at Guantanamo. Word went out that the "war on terrorism" is no longer what official Washington thinks it is fighting. And distinguished former Senator George Mitchell was sent to prop up the fragile calm with another round of listening to Middle Eastern leaders.
Is the name "Barack," which means "blessing," be enough to erase from Arab memories Obama's silence regarding the latest crop of dead children in Gaza? Of course not. But perhaps the Mitchell mission can be a first step in the direction of transforming Israeli and Palestinian understanding of the strategic environment is which they operate.
Israel/Palestine is a small, hard-edged country with too little water, arable land, or mineral resources to sustain the life and dignity of the millions of people with little choice but to live there. Middle Eastern society has always been organized on the basis of tribal competition. In less crowded times, one tribe could prosper by plundering its neighbors. Modern prosperity also requires a steady flow of resources from the rest of the world.
To that end, the marketing of Zionism, first to a diverse Jewish diaspora and more recently to selfish secular governments, has been a remarkable success. For fundamentalists, Israel was a country of holy men carrying out God's purpose by repopulating Judea and Samaria with His chosen people. For secular Jews, Israel offered an intensity of cultural and scientific expression that validated a sense of superiority. For idealists, the kibbutz movement was welcome evidence of the viability of socialist self-management. All these groups donated money, knowledge and political backing to help Israel flourish.
Europe's guilt for past anti-Semitism left a moral obligation to be generous to Israel. For the Chinese and other less sentimental governments, Israel's military industries dangled a smorgasbord of U.S.-origin high-tech wizardry, elegantly customized and with fewer political/humanitarian strings attached. American gentiles were assured the Israel Defense Forces were their loyal comrade in arms, that Israel was not the fiercely independent country it is, but instead an unsinkable U.S. aircraft carrier. The United States still happily pays more than $3 billion per year to console Israel for the shacks that were bulldozed in the Sinai desert when President Carter brokered peace with Egypt three decades ago.
Within the favorable international environment they shaped, Israelis have reaped the reward of hard work and sense of national purpose: an enviable lifestyle defended by a world-class, nuclear-armed military. As evolutionary adaptation, this has been brilliant.
The truncated Palestinian state is far more dependent on the kindness of strangers than Israel. Donor fatigue since 1948 is a dire problem, more so in today's global economic downturn. The Palestinians have proved less gifted at projecting different facets of their composite identity to different audiences. Shimon Peres could charm the U.S. and USSR simultaneously. Arafat managed to antagonize both. Christian Palestinians are excluded from the club of "Judeo-Christian civilization" while the militant piety of Palestinian Islamists makes neighboring Arab governments nervous rather than sympathetic. Thousands of articulate Palestinian engineers, doctors, and professors have remained politically almost irrelevant in exile. At home, rockets and suicide bombers have been worse than useless as politics by other means.
The evolutionary adaptation the Palestinians have made with proven effectiveness for attracting money and support is the steady supply of young children. International support, however, is not a child's reward for being born but instead for dying.
In December, Israeli politicians accepted the risk of strengthening the Palestinian cause through a slaughter of innocents. The invasion of Gaza was a desperate, perhaps futile attempt to redraw the domestic political map before the February 10 Israeli national elections.
Israel's ugly electoral arithmetic make the extortion talents of Greek farmers seem Scandinavian in comparison. No politician can build a working majority in the Knesset without selling his or her soul to bigots from the single-issue parties. Even to discuss a viable Palestinian state is to destroy that coalition. Ehud Olmert talks sensibly about meaningful concessions only now that he has been exiled permanently from electoral politics.
Per the opinion polls, Bibi Netanyahu of Likud looks likely to take back the prime ministry. His main platform plank is a promise to kill the thousands of Hamas members his political rivals had left alive. Kadima's Tzipi Livni, his chief rival, promises to kill more as well, but her true passion is bombing Iran.
These are not genocidal psychopaths, simply ambitious politicians bent on manipulating a flawed and cynical political system. They have seen ample evidence that most voters are tribal creatures with a tribal version of justice. Wanton slaughter is evil in Israel and everywhere else. Still, our tribal God smiles serenely on the targeted killing of a few hundred terrorists from the neighboring trib, provided our tribe's self-interest is not harmed thereby.
Enter Senator Mitchell. Ten years ago he convinced extremists on both sides of the Northern Ireland issue that he was a man of common sense and absolute integrity. He knows the Middle East already, and is thus an excellent choice to persuade the government of Israel that 1300 dead Palestinians cannot be written off as targeted killings. Killing more will harm Israel's self-interest and thus be an offense to God.
Mitchell's first message to the next Israeli coalition should be a selfish and thus believable one: the death of innocent Palestinian children harms U.S. national interests and the political standing of President Obama and his European colleagues. Should they persist, Israeli politicians risk equivalent harm in retaliation.
Mitchell can then make clear the following:
· Efforts to delegitimize Hamas in the eyes of Gazans have failed. It is preferable to talk to Hamas now, reaping some credit for magnanimity.
· Hamas will keep the peace provided that peace is crafted to serve the interests of its leaders. Their interests are no more theological and unknowable than those of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis Israeli politicians cut deals with every day.
· Israeli efforts to starve Gaza are a political gift to Hamas. Once the Gaza port and airport are rebuilt and operational under strict EU control, the porous land border can be closed as tight as Israel and Egypt decide.
· Preparing for the ultimate success of the peace process, the U.S. will place all future assistance to Israel in an escrow account to fund compensation for Israeli settlers removed from the West Bank.
Obama is a rare politician with the rhetorical power to give meaning to tragedy. He should use the blood of these children in Gaza to sanctify a political process aimed at making the desert bloom for Palestinians as well as Israelis. International generosity will be required, perhaps forever. Europe and the United States must be indivisible partners for either promises or threats to have any meaning to the warring tribes.
Athens News of February 6, 2009
Athens News of February 6, 2009