Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Thomas Friedman Pulls His Asbestos Undershorts Out of Storage

In simple terms, following the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, three positions emerged on what should happen in the Palestinian lands Israel captured during the war:
  1. "Get Out Now" - the position taken by then-M.K. Uri Avnery, that Israel should resist the temptation to try to significantly adjust its borders and settle the territories, and end its occupation as quickly as possible, lest it be drawn into a long-term occupation from which it would become increasingly difficult to extract itself.

  2. "We All Know What Will Happen" - the position taken by much of the world, that the length of the occupation was a distraction and that eventually the two sides would reach an agreement creating a Palestinian state on most or all of the occupied territories, with some amount of border adjustment and land swapping.

  3. "Dig In" - the position taken by certain Israeli politicians and generals, that they should set up a context for annexation of great swaths of the occupied territories, and to make it politically difficult for future leaders to agree to any borders approximating the Green Line, or perhaps to any concession of land at all.

During the years leading up to the second Intifada with its associated rash of Palestinian suicide bombings, Thomas Friedman fell into camp #2. He had a tendency to lecture both sides about the outcome that he viewed as inevitable, while hewing to a form of centrism that both sides in the conflict seemed to view as insufficiently sensitive to their concerns. It was a big picture view, one that avoided the need to address the complexity of actually getting to a final resolution. Following the collapse of peace talks, and more so 9/11, it's not so much that Friedman fell into a different camp, so much as he backed off his prior tendency to lecture Israel.

Prior to his retreat from the issue, Friedman's suggestion that Israel was not offering enough, that trying to change facts on the ground was a fool's errand, that the two sides should put aside feelings and history and accept the invevitable, earned him the enmity of people who disagreed with him. Needless to say, as you move toward people who hold more extremist views the reaction to Friedman became correspondingly shrill and hostile. Over the interim, open hostility toward Friedman seemed to diminish, but his critics have long memories. With this reengagement of the conflict, it's time once again for the asbestos undershorts.

I was thus a bit surprised to see Friedman be this direct:
Israeli friends have been asking me whether a re-elected President Obama will take revenge on Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu for the way he and Sheldon Adelson, his foolhardy financier, openly backed Mitt Romney. My answer to Israelis is this: You should be so lucky.
Ever since Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt, there has been a sense that presidents have an obligation to try to mitigate or end what was once deemed the Middle East crisis, to help Israel maintain its democracy, borders and Jewish character while ending years, turning into decades, of Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands. Friedman correctly states that the American public is demanding that the President focus on domestic concerns, as well as international conflicts that directly involve or threaten the U.S., and correctly states that in this context (as in pretty much any other) negotiations work best when the participants in a negotiation invite a mediator to help them polish off an agreement as opposed to when the mediator is asked to start negotiations by dragging the two sides to the table.

But I think Friedman misses some important components relating to why the issue has diminished in the minds of the U.S. public, and why pressing for negotiations is not a priority for the president. First and foremost, U.S. domestic concern about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was driven in large part by intensive news coverage. During the 1980's, it was not at all atypical for the evening news to sound like this: "Now news from the Middle East. A riot broke out in Ramallah when..." ar "a bomb exploded in a Jerusalem café...." Between Israel's security measures, changes in Palestinian leadership, and the significant number of other Middle East crises, conflicts and wars, that's no longer what Americans hear. Israel-Palestine has dropped considerably from the top spot of Middle East crises that the Americans want to resolve.1

On the other side of the equation, a persistent effort to depict Muslims as irrational actors with whom you cannot negotiate, and who can't be trusted to follow a deal to which they agree, has eroded support for negotiations among factions that might otherwise press the President to become more involved. If, as certain Israeli leaders have argued, there's no one to talk to and no way to reach a meaningful agreement, why go there? Some raise similar arguments about Israel and leaders like Netanyahu - if there's no reason to believe that Netanyahu has the will or that he could get the authority to carry out an agreement involving the evacuation of Israeli settlements, why pretend that there can be a real negotiation - the gulf between what he can offer and what a Palestinian leader might accept may be too broad to bridge. Also, while Clinton might have been persuaded to provide funds to help Israel compensate Israeli settlers who had to leave their homes as part of a final deal, the present economic situation makes it highly unlikely that Congress would presently provide such a subsidy.

The conflict has reached a point at which there's little upside for a President in seriously engaging settlement. George W. Bush created a model of non-serious engagement, window dressing, and President Obama was not helped by his early effort to restart negotiations. If I were Obama and Netanyahu proposed that I attempt to mediate the conflict, and invitation I doubt Netanyahu is at all inclined to offer, and Abbas was willing to participate, my response would be simple. "No problem. Send me your maps of your proposed final borders and we'll start from there." Negotiations with no maps? What do they say about trying the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different result?
1. David Ignatius wrote a recent column outlining what he sees as the President's foreign policy priorities - China, Iran, Afghanistan, then "the Middle East" which he subdivides into "the metastasizing Syrian civil war, solidifying democracy in Egypt and rehabilitating a broken Israeli-Palestinian peace process". I'll grant that Afghanistan is in South Asia, albeit bordering the Middle East, but last I checked Iran was part of the Middle East. By Ignatius's measure, that would make Israel... a distant number four on the list of Middle East priorities, and number six on his global list?

Ignatius suggests that in the Israel-Palestinian conflict Obama should engage in "a round of secret contacts to build up the local players who can be America’s partners for peace". Putting aside for the moment that if Ignatius knew about them, they wouldn't be secret, is he serious? These secret contacts would presumably be on the Palestinian side, so... is he talking about Hamas? Is Ignatius offering a plan or a fantasy?

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