Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Totten On Dealing With The Intractable Problem Of Peace In The Middle East (Updated)

I recall many years ago, while watching "This Week With David Brinkley," hearing George Will give his spin on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

In essence, he said that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs was not a problem! After all, problems have solutions. This conflict was not a problem--it was a mess.

I remembered that interpretation when I read Michael Totten's article, The Mother of All Quagmires. One of the points he raises is that Americans have difficulty understanding the idea of an 'intractable problem'--something that Israelis are only know beginning to fully grasp:
The American Jewish Committee brought me and seven of my colleagues to Israel and set up interviews with Israeli military officers, politicians, academics, and journalists on the far-left, the far-right and at every point in between. One of my colleagues asked the eternal question during one of our meetings. “What is the solution to this problem?” He meant the Arab-Israeli conflict, of course, and the answer from our Israeli host was revealing in more ways than one. “You Americans are always asking us that,” he said and laughed darkly.

Americans aren't the only ones who have a hard time grasping the idea of an intractable problem. “Unfortunately we Westerners are impatient,” said an Israeli politician who preferred not to be named. “We want fast food and peace now. But it won't happen. We need a long strategy.” “Most of Israel's serious problems don't have a solution,” said Dr. Dan Schueftan, Director of National Security Studies at the University of Haifa. “Israelis have only recently understood this, and most foreign analysts still don't understand it.”
Of course you can add to Americans and Israelis who cannot deal with the concept of problems with no readily available solution--newly elected presidents who are looking to prove themselves. The problems with politicians though is that--like George Mitchell--they tend to prefer the even-handed approach when trying to resolve a conflict. Totten doesn't see that approach as being successful.
A clear majority of Israelis would instantly hand over the West Bank and its settlements along with Gaza for a real shot at peace with the Arabs, but that’s not an option. Most Arab governments at least implicitly say they will recognize Israel's right to exist inside its pre-1967 borders, but far too many Palestinians still won’t recognize Israel's right to exist even in its 1948 borders. Hamas doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist inside any borders at all.

“We will never recognize Israel,” senior Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan said before he was killed by an air strike in Gaza during the recent fighting. “There is nothing called Israel, neither in reality nor in the imagination.”

Hamas does not speak for all Palestinians. I’ve met Palestinians who sincerely despise Hamas and everything it stands for. But let’s not kid ourselves here. Hamas speaks for a genuinely enormous number of Palestinians, and peace is impossible as long as that’s true. An-Najah University conducted a poll of Palestinian public opinion a few months ago and found that 53.4 percent persist in their rejection of a two-state solution.
Part of the problem is the issue of projection--not merely the question of understanding the general Middle Eastern approach to things, but understanding the narrative and vocabulary as well.
Far too many Westerners make the mistake of projecting their own views onto Palestinians without really understanding the Palestinian narrative. The “occupation” doesn’t refer to the West Bank and Gaza, and it never has. The “occupation” refers to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. A kibbutz in the center of Israel is “occupied Palestine” according to most. “It makes no sense to a Palestinian to think about a Palestinian state alongside Israel,” Martin Kramer from the Shalem Center in Jerusalem said to me a few days ago. “From the Palestinian perspective, Israel will always exist inside Palestine.”
Read the whole thing.

Totten does see this conflict coming to an end at some point, but not until the Middle East as a whole undergoes a change--the nature of which Totten does not detail. Which is just as well, since the solution, when it comes, will have to come from within and not as something imposed from the outside.

As George Mitchell will be learning again shortly.

UPDATE: Contentions highlights a particular comment in rebuttal to Totten:
Tagraffiti, on Michael Totten:
I appreciate what Michael Totten is trying to say here, but he should probably change the title to “The Mood in Tel Aviv.” As an Israeli who does live within rocket range, I don’t think “relief” is exactly what most of us are feeling. More accurate would be:
1. Outrage that Olmert stopped the operation not based on the military achievements or the fact that Hamas was defeated but because of Obama’s inauguration. And what’s worse, only gave Hamas time to regroup, rebuild and be even more dangerous to Israeli soldiers next time around.
2. Dread - we know the rockets are coming back, it’s just a matter of when and if we can trust a post-election government to be as brave as proactive as a pre-election government (answer: no).
3. Terrified for all of us by the worldwide displays of wanton antisemitism (which pass as “peace demonstrations”) in Europe and North America.
Yes there were a lot of problems with the Hizbala war, but let’s face it - when you’re still making speeches via satellite from a basement two years later, you didn’t win the war and everyone knows it. I don’t think that Israelis lost faith in the IDF in 2006.

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