NEW YORK, May 10, 2002 — Intractable. Quagmire. Abyss. Insoluble. When even the best journalists apply words like this to a problem as if they were facts, you know the politicians have won. Despite the litany of hopelessness, the real fact is that the Middle East conflict can be solved. Those on both sides who would like us to believe otherwise simply are not willing to risk their political lives to make it happen.
FOR NEARLY 20 years now, the basic outlines of a solution to the radioactive Arab-Israeli conflict and its Israeli-Palestinian nucleus has been widely understood by all but the most unreasonable players. Negotiations, behind closed doors and more recently out in the open, have danced around these facts again and again, in the end finding them just too hard to swallow. But the solution is there, and it is as plain as the stubble on Arafat’s face:
Israel would return to some modified version of its pre-1967 borders, returning the Golan Heights to Syria and allowing a Palestinian state to develop on the West Bank and Gaza.
Israeli settlers would be asked to return to Israel proper, and with few exceptions, the settlements built in the West Bank and Gaza would be offered up as the one-time compensation payment to those millions of Palestinians who still cling to colonial-era land titles in what is now the Jewish state.
Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem would be ceded to the new Palestinian entity, Israel would retain the lion’s share of the city as well as the sprawling settlements that ring it (in what is technically part of the West Bank).
Israel recognizes Palestine, and the Arab world, en masse, returns the favor.
That’s it. The checkpoints disappear. Incursions by either side would now be acts of war. “Suicide bombings” and “assassinations” would then become what they, in truth, always were: murders and crimes.
YES, BUT ...
I can hear the howls already. By now the zealots already have stopped reading and are pumping up their vitriol. And let’s concede a few things right here: Zealots and hate-mongers on both sides will try to prevent anything resembling the solution above from happening. In the crudest sense, they will do it with bombs, or with spiteful acts that make normal life impossible during the transition from the state of madness to the state of peace. They will attack any such deal as a sell-out and demand more. They will predict violence, as if that needs predicting, and then seize upon that violence as proof that no deal made with “those people” can ever be trusted.
It should also be conceded that the two men who purport to lead Israel and the Palestinians at the moment are completely incapable of anything but war. For Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, power flows from bloodshed. Beyond violence lie only hard choices, compromises and the political wilderness (if not the hail of bullets that have claimed the lives of men of far greater vision).
Nothing scares the far right in Israel or the lunatic murderers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad like a reasonable deal. It is no coincidence that Hamas launched its first sustained suicide bombing campaign just as the election to choose the murdered Yitzhak Rabin’s successor was coming to a climax. They got the result they wanted, too: the Israeli right, in the form of Benjamin Netanyahu.
A similar dynamic drove Arafat to unleash an intifada just 30 days after he rejected the closest thing yet to a reasonable solution: Ehud Barak’s proposals at Camp David in 2000.* Indeed, and ironically complicit in this was Ariel Sharon, then campaigning to undermine both Barak and the peace process.
NEW BLOOD, NOT MORE BLOOD
So how do we leapfrog over these issues, taking the Middle East from its current state of despair, past the twin obstacles of Arafat and Sharon, and toward the solution described above?
The first step involves the United States. Political bravery is often too much to ask of a politician, but a president with “favorable” ratings in the 80 percent range should be an exception. (The corollary to this: the one-sided and politically safe pro-Israel resolution passed by the pandering politicians of the U.S. House of Representatives last week).
InsertArt(1913382)What Bush must do is move beyond demands to threats. Tell Arafat that the United States will officially add the Palestinian Authority to its list of terrorist states if Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not dismantled piece-by-piece. Tell Sharon that another nail pounded into a new settlement on the West Bank will result in immediate suspension of all American aid to Israel. Tell both of them that their national aspirations and security are of major interest to the United States, but that when their mishandling of these issues begins to threaten America’s national interests, our own interests take precedence.
These two men do not respond to incentives or international pressure. They only understand one language: power.
CALL THEIR BLUFF
Bush should then call the bluff of the bleating European powers and ask them to create a 40,000-strong force to deploy along the 1967 borders of Israel. These troops should primarily be drawn from the two European powers who did most to turn the Holy Land into the bloody mess it is today: Britain, which made conflicting promises to Arabs and Jews about that territory in World War I, and Germany, whose sins against Jews created the tidal wave of immigration to Israel and the sense among Jews that only in their own land could they truly be safe. Turkey might want to step up to the plate, as well, owning up to its own role during Ottoman times in misruling the Holy Land.
American troops should not participate for the simple reason that the Bush administration has so thoroughly mishandled its Middle East policies that U.S. forces would immediately be regarded as Israel’s stooges by the worst elements among the Palestinians — opening them to the kinds of attacks that would quickly make their mission politically untenable.
Finally, the Bush administration needs to put forth a comprehensive plan that would involve not only some version of the compromise sketched out above, but also the requirement that it be submitted to Israeli and Palestinian voters to prove once and for all whether the bloody-minded men who have been wielding power in the region speak for their people, or simply for the most Darwinistically accomplished faction of their political class.
It’s that simple.
*An earlier version of the column described the Camp David II meetings as occuring in 1999. Obviously, that is incorrect. They took place in 2000. My thanks to readers who pointed out the error.
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Copyright MSNBC 2002