“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
I’m currently conducting a job search, and have finally found the perfect position for someone with my background: if you’re looking for a prognosticator for the latest round of Israeli –Palestinian peace talks that kicks off this week, I’m your man. I don’t need an advanced degree in political science or a crystal ball. Having served as a U.S. diplomat in Israel at a time when leaders were talking and buses were exploding, I need only to apply the central lesson of the failed Oslo peace process: if you don’t have a negotiating partner, you can’t make peace.
I’ve never understood why Israeli and American leaders tried to convert the terrorist Yasser Arafat into a peace partner, let alone a Nobel Prize recipient. As far as I could determine, the only difference between Arafat and Hitler in terms of anti-Semitism was their ability to act on their beliefs. I once served as a note-taker for a senior State Department official during a detailed security briefing by the head of Israeli military intelligence. When the official remarked that what he was hearing caused him to believe that neo-Nazis were heading the Palestinian Authority (PA), the military chief asked him what he thought would happen if the balance of military power were reversed for a week (i.e., if Arafat and the PA had Israel’s military capacity and vice versa). I’ll never forget the State Department diplomat’s answer, delivered after a rather pregnant pause: “I guess there would be 6 million fewer Jews in the world.” There was no good reason to talk peace with Arafat; the Oslo process was stillborn. U.S. Presidents Clinton and Bush, along with Israeli Prime Ministers Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon, all learned the hard way that when you don’t have a partner across the table, you can’t create one.
The current Middle East face-off pits right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu against Mahmoud Abbas, former President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). In order for Israel to make meaningful concessions on the major issues (Jerusalem, borders, refugees) and renew a settlement freeze on the West Bank, Bibi will have to face down prominent members of his governing coalition, including hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Such a fight could possibly bring down Bibi’s government and/or force him to govern with a more liberal coalition partner. Even a cursory analysis of Abbas’s political stability shows that there is no incentive at all for Bibi to risk his political future for someone who can’t deliver for his side.
For one thing, Abbas officially holds no power. His term as President of the PNA officially expired in January of 2009, and he unilaterally awarded himself a one-year extension. After the extension expired, he just decided to stay on without a mandate. That’s right: Abbas has absolutely zero authorization to act as president of anything right now, much less to sign peace treaties with Israel. Even the PLO hasn’t authorized him to represent Palestinians: only 9 of the 18 members of the PLO Executive Committee bothered to show up to vote on Abbas’s participation earlier this month, and the PLO charter clearly requires 12 members to form a quorum for such meetings. Abbas’s capable Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, ran in the 2006 parliamentary elections and won exactly 2 seats (out of 132). His number two abandoned Fayyad’s party, leaving him with one seat. Only enormous pressure from the United States and Europe forced Abbas to appoint Fayyad as PM. Who would sign a treaty with these pretenders?
In addition to his lack of a mandate to negotiate for his people (or, for that matter, to be allowed into his office), it must also be noted that Abbas’s illegitimate rule does not extend to the Gaza Strip, whose 1.5 million residents are led by a group of Hamas leaders who forcibly expelled members of Abbas’s political party – their coalition partners—in 2007, killing more than 100 people in the process. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, refuses to recognize Abbas’s extended term as president, and refuses to allow him to negotiate on its behalf with Israel. Since Abbas obviously can’t deliver on any promise he makes to Israel and the U.S. on behalf of all Palestinians, there is no reason for him to be at the same negotiating table with a democratically-elected Israeli Prime Minister.
Unsurprisingly, Abbas is already looking for a pretext to exit the talks. If Israel doesn’t renew a freeze on settlements later this month, Abbas has threatened to end the talks. While I do think that Israel’s policy on settlements is somewhat schizophrenic, this is an obvious red herring. Unlike the PA, Israel has a track record of making painful sacrifices for the sake of peace, including asking Jewish soldiers to evict fellow Jews from their homes. Israel has evacuated settlements from the Sinai Peninsula (as part of a peace treaty with Egypt), from the Gaza Strip (a unilateral action that seems ill-advised in hindsight), and from the West Bank (sporadic police actions to remove isolated outposts). There is every indication that Israel would act to remove settlers from the West Bank again in order to comply with the terms of a final peace agreement. Refusing to negotiate such an agreement because there are more Jews currently living in the West Bank than one desires is illogical.
Not only was Einstein correct (see above quote), but so was Santayana: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. With the peacemaking circus making a stop in Washington this week, we can expect to see more collective amnesia on display. Jews, Mormons, and other people of goodwill continue to pray for peace in the Middle East and a solution to this decades-old conflict, but this prognosticator is betting that their prayers are not likely to be answered as long as the central lesson of Oslo continues to be ignored.
If you would like to be a guest blogger during my September 10-24 European speaking tour, please send me your submission by September 8, along with a photo (if desired). The topic should be of interest to both Mormons and Jews. I will notify you on September 9 if/when you will be published. Thank you.