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The Middle East Muddle: Is Peace Still Possible?

March 14, 2006
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

The run-up to the impending war against Iran - and make no mistake, the foundations are being laid daily by the Bush Administration - bears a remarkable resemblance to the propaganda barrage before the U.S. attacked Iraq: Iran is the repository of all things evil, they will destabilize the region if they get nukes, they support terrorists, the U.N. and international community can't wait until there are mushroom clouds in the sky, etc. etc. All that's missing is an invented tie-in with 9/11.

Because of the thorough botch the Bush Administration has made of the Iraq Occupation, and because there are no extra U.S. troops to go around, it's a reasonable presumption that there will be no ground invasion of Iran. Instead, following passage of some ambiguously-worded U.N. Security Council resolution, there might well be an air assault by U.S./Israeli bombers on that country's nuclear facilities. (The experts tell us that Iran won't have nuclear weapons capability for anywhere from three to 10 years out - in short, there is no imminent threat to the U.S. or anyone else.)

The reaction by Iran and other Islamic countries to such an air assault is likely to be intense, perhaps including retaliatory attacks on Israel, and damaging the American and European economies by withdrawing oil sales to the West or blocking ships from traversing the Straits of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf. And, of course, one can anticipate that the Bush Administration - unless the impending attack can be stopped in its tracks by popular opposition - will be caught flat-footed (again!) by its usual lack of planning for the unforeseen consequences of its wars.

But rather than focus on what is about to go down in Iran, the chaotic disaster that the Bush Administration's attack on and inept occupation of Iraq has led to, or even the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, I'd like to propose an examination of the Middle East situation, since it serves as the kindling for the firestorms that sweep the region.

Hamas is now on the inside of the halls of power, Israel is about to choose its new leaders, and the situation is encouragingly fluid, with a tenuous truce in major fighting between the two sides. Thus, this is an especially propitious time for all parties to reflect and meditate on how, or even whether, a just solution is still possible, and what such a Middle East peace might mean for the entire region.

THE MEDIEVAL ISLAMISTS

A resurrected holy Muslim empire has been the dream for many decades of a segment of the Islamic religion. Or if that is impossible, at least of being left alone, outside the distractions and decadent temptations of the 21st century, to implement their strict version of the Koran.

Regardless of what the U.S. does, that Islamist resurgence is bound to occur, even, or especially, amidst a more widespread Islam that is willing to exist side by side with Western modernity and tolerance.

But certainly in modern times, the harsh treatment of Palestinians by Israel, a nation supported by the U.S. for more than half a century, has been a spur to the growth of that fanatic Islamist movement in the Middle East.

U.S. NEGLECT OF THE REGION

On the surface, American policy in the region appears to make no sense. It seems clear that if the U.S. is after a calmer Arab Middle East, and with it a stable flow of oil to America and Europe, its first order of business, one would think, would be to ensure a just peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, so as to tamp down the fire that endangers so much in that region.

But under both Democratic and Republican presidents, the status quo has been left to fester, partially because intervening in this convoluted, passionate dispute rarely pays off for the U.S. and often leads to embarrassing failures. And so Israel, America's lone dependable ally in the region, is blindly supported by U.S. administrations, no matter what its leaders do. The Palestinians are teased with words about a coming Palestinian state, but nothing much really happens from the U.S. end.

While Carter and Clinton at least tried to bring the parties together, and actually were starting to accomplish something, the Bush Administration promises much and delivers little, and is unwilling to use its leverage to get its ally Israel to make the concessions it will have to make for a lasting peace.

WHY SHOULD THE U.S. WORK FOR PEACE?

The well-armed Israelis feel insecure, the powerless Palestinians feel humiliated and brutalized, thousands die, terrorism grows in this atmosphere - and not much changes, decade after decade. And, from the point of view of America's political leaders, why should it be changed? The oil keeps flowing, so why would any U.S. administration risk touching this dangerous third-rail of international politics?

How about because it's the right thing to do? How about because the Middle East would be stabilized? How about because Islamist terrorism would lose one of its most potent recruiting arguments? How about because the U.S. would regain much of the positive prestige it has lost as a result of Bush's wars against Muslim countries?

Even supposing a just peace could be worked out between the Israelis and Palestinians, Islamist terrorism would still exist, would still be capable of awful acts of mayhem and murder. But much of the passion behind today's terrorism would be diminished or, in some areas, even disappear were the Palestinians to obtain their own viable state. Similarly, there would be a concomitant dimunition of Israeli brutality and murder in the new arrangement.

Which brings us to how we get to that state of peace. Even with the victory of Hamas, an organization dedicated to the elimination of Israel from the map, polls continue to demonstrate that most Palestinians prefer a peaceful, two-state solution. Most Israelis, if their security can be guaranteed by treaty, likewise seem to prefer peace with a Palestinian neighbor-state rather than decades of still more bloodshed and insecurity.

WHAT WILL HAMAS AND ISRAEL DO?

It's not going to be easy. Hamas has been dedicated to the destruction of Israel, so asking them to recognize Israel's right to exist now that they are in charge of the Palestinian Parialment seems to make no sense. Likewise, Ehud Olmert, Israel's acting prime minister, wants to carry on many of the hardline policies of Ariel Sharon, such as completing the Separation (Border) Wall and enlarging key existing settlements in the Occupied West Bank, which antagonizes the Palestinians.

We don't know how the new Hamas leadership will look at the compromises that will have to be made in the movement toward peace. Will it, can it, evolve into a government that accepts a two-state solution? If a geographically and economically viable Palestine state were to be created next door to Israel, would they, could they, accept that neighbor?

We don't know who the new leaders of Israel will be after the upcoming election. If it's the hardline Likudist Benjamin Netanyahu, peace prospects are minimal. But if the new Israeli leaders are open to the idea of an equitable two-state solution, progress can indeed be made. (And, looking at the demographics, as Sharon did, Israel simply has to divest itself of the Occupied Territories, lest the Jewish nature of the State of Israel be placed in jeopardy. The probable outcome is that the bulk of the Palestinians will be on one side of the border in their own state, with the bulk of the Jews on the other side in a smaller, but more religiously homogenous, Israel.

WHAT A SOLUTION MIGHT LOOK LIKE

So, everyone knows, and always has known, what the eventual solution will be, will have to be: A secure Israel, a viable Palestine, an internationalized Jerusalem of some sort. To get there, Israel will have to exit from virtually all of the West Bank, abandoning almost all of the settlements there and agreeing not to attack inside the new Palestine's borders; the Palestinians will have to recognize Israel's right to exist, and refrain from terrorist attacks on their neighbor.

Those Palestinians who would prefer to return to their ancestral homes inside Israel will, for the most part, have to relinquish their claims and agree to accept financial compensation for those properties, money that will help them purchase land and buildings inside the new Palestine state. As Ernest Partridge ingeniously has suggested, only partially tongue in cheek, Jewish settlers in the West Bank would be allowed to remain on condition that they renounce Israeli citizenship and accept Palestinian citizenship. One imagines that the settlers would leave voluntarily.

Those parts of Jerusalem that are regarded as Holy Land by three great religions will have to be administered by an international body of some sort.

Once the peace treaties have been signed and implemented, then the doors will be open for bilateral treaties on water, jobs, environmental protection, etc.

WHAT'S BLOCKING MOVEMENT TOWARD PEACE

I suspect that there will be no significant U.S. movement toward bringing peace to the Middle East while Bush/Cheney are in power. It's simply not a priority for them; indeed, it's possible that they are quite content with keeping the Palestine/Israel dispute on the boil, thus ensuring their superpower hegemony in the region. (Then, too, Bush & Co.'s fundamentalist Christian base requires that Armageddon take place in the Holy Land prior to the Second Coming of Christ, so peace is not what they're after.)

Keeping the parties at war reminds one of the reason why the Reagan Administration supported Iraq's war against Iran in the 1980s, to ensure that the two regional giants would battle and decimate each other. Because of Bush Administration screwups, if current trends hold, Iraq will be ruled by Iran-leaning Shi'ite parties, bringing Iraq and Iran closer together. The irony of history.

In addition, nobody quite knows how to factor in Fatah, Arafat's organization, into the Palestinian equation. Would the more moderate Fatah, defeated in the recent parliamentary elections by Hamas, be willing or able to serve as a mediator between Israel and the new Palestinian rulers (since the Israelis don't want to negotiate with Hamas)? Could Fatah, would it, work out tentative peace proposals with the new Israeli leadership? If so, could they sell it to Hamas?

And will Hamas, now that it is the governing body rather than the secret militant opposition, move somewhat toward the center? In doing so, would they be willing to deal for a geographically/economically viable Palestine by agreeing to recognize Israel's right to exist? Would their fanatic base permit them to do this? (Sort of like the Catholic IRA making peace with the Protestants in Northern Ireland, which spawned "the Real IRA," those extremists eager to continue the violence.)

THE HOPE THE OTHER WOULD VANISH

It seems to me that no progress whatsoever toward peace can be made without a willingness to start at a point "beyond history," as it were. That is, both sides would acknowledge historical grievances going back decades, or in some cases hundreds or even thousands of years - but, in the interest of bringing the conflict to an acceptable close, simply stipulate that each side has its historical grievances and move on. No more "my victimhood was worse than yours, and you owe me for this, that and the other atrocity."

In the past, neither party has wanted to move seriously toward peace because, in truth, each side believed that with just a bit more pressure or violence, the other side would disappear. The Palestinians believed that they could force the Israelis to give in and grant them everything they wanted; the Israelis believed they could force the Palestinians through the brutalities of an Occupation to move to other lands and abandon their desire to push the Jewish state into the sea.

Now, it's possible that both sides, after ceaseless murders and brutalities over the decades, might come to a mutual awareness that enough is enough, that the Other is not going to disappear, that the Israelis can destroy Palestine if they so choose, that the Palestinians can ensure that Israel will never live in peace - but a political accommodation will have to be made, for the sake of the children and grandchildren, and economic viability, of both countries.

Supposing that a peace treaty can be obtained, and implemented properly with great tact and sensitivity, peace and prosperity for both peoples may eventually be achieved.

But, as always, how to get from here to there? Aye, there's the rub. All we can be sure of is that Middle East peace won't be, can't be, accomplished as long as the current U.S. administration is in power.

Bernard Weiner has taught at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers. To comment, write: crisispapers@comcast.net.

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