"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

"Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβʊμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος."
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis

Monday, April 21, 2008

Frustration in the Middle East (part one): Israel

To say that the Middle East is a frustrating place would be an understatement. But last week, we may have witnessed a new low in the pathetic way the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflict are being managed, which signaled that perhaps neither side really wants the conflict to end. Either everyone seems to think that time is on their side or they are too busy worrying about staying in power to do anything to change the situation.

It all began with a visit to the region by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, which stirred up so much angst in Israel’s leadership that one would think that the Nobel Peace Laureate was what the security services in Israel euphemistically refer to as a ‘ticking bomb’ – an imminent terrorist attack. Not only was Carter shunned by anyone in Israel's political leadership that counts – first and foremost Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – but he was also ridiculed, insulted and treated in a way that should embarrass every Israeli. Carter’s latest crime against Israel: he wants to talk to Hamas.

It is no secret that many Israelis and friends of Israel abroad consider Carter to be, at best, antagonistic to Israel; some would even go as far as to call him anti-Semitic. Most think he is a do-gooder Israel does not need; a straight shooter who shoots mostly at Israel; a fanatic for peace and dialogue that is willing even to talk to Satan himself, if he thought it would bring peace. His book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, sealed Carter’s fate in the minds of many Israelis and supporters abroad. Anytime you put the words ‘Palestine’ and ‘Apartheid’ within several miles of each other, Israel’s air defenses go on high alert looking for Carter, slicing through the ether in his cape of peace.

Whether Carter is a crackpot or not, he deserves the respect a former U.S. President who has done a great deal to bring peace to the Middle East, warrants. This means that Olmert, whose behavior toward Carter was unbecoming a Prime Minister, should have received him, nodded politely, and if he wished, forget what he had been told as soon as his octogenarian visitor stepped out. Carter is the perfect interlocutor with organizations like Hamas, and regimes like that of Iran. He is a former U.S. President, which means he has both no official role, but nonetheless his former status and Secret Service detail means he is no lightweight. In other words, he serves everyone’s purpose, without strings attached. Which makes the arguments of some of Olmert’s aides, who argued that meeting with Carter would ‘legitimize’ the idea of talks with Hamas, ludicrous.

Every single day Israeli generals, former generals, generals who want to be politicians, and politicians who want to be generals, get on the air and remind us that the only solution to the situation in the Gaza Strip is a ‘deep,’ ‘thorough,’ ‘crushing’ blow against Hamas. This would, of course, require a massive ground incursion into the Gaza Strip, which every one knows is something the Israeli leadership will agree to do only if domestic pressure becomes impossible to bear (i.e. the kind of pressure that threatens the prime minister’s hold on his post). The irony of this is that those same advocates of the kind of ‘offensive’ that persons like Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz called for on Israel Radio this morning, know that not only will the cost in Israeli lives be terrible, but that it will return Israel to the same Gaza Strip it left in 2005 – in other words, to reoccupying at least 1.5 million Palestinian civilians and assuming direct responsibility for their welfare.

It is an unfortunate fact that the current Israeli government, and probably subsequent governments, will not be able to offer a solution to the Gaza Strip conundrum. This is so for two reasons: Hamas is perceived by Israel to be both a regional and a domestic problem; and Israel is unwilling to achieve real progress with the Palestinian Authority, for domestic reasons, but also because it recognizes that without Hamas there can be no real two state solution.

If it is impossible to move forward and offer a practical solution to the Gaza Strip, either because Israel and the current U.S. administration are unwilling to talk with Hamas (in great part with the blessing of PA’s Mahmoud Abbas), or because Israel is unwilling to reoccupy the territory, then it is high time to listen to those who have called for a long-term cease-fire with Hamas. This would entail a prisoner exchange and a series of other agreements that would regulate and supervise the use of the crossing points on the borders of the Gaza Strip with Egypt and with Israel. Possibly it would also require the deployment of an international force, although Israel is reluctant. In any case, the cease fire would serve to buy time for genuine progress in Israel-PA and PA-Hamas talks. Hopefully this will also allow sufficient time to bolster PA security, economic and political organs that would allow a properly working state mechanism to take root.

In the mean time, it is worthwhile to comprehend that people like Jimmy Carter are not the problem. Track II talks have been around for a while and they have been important in some breakthroughs in the conflict in the Middle East (Oslo comes to mind), but have also contributed to open dialogue and encouraged the development of civil society in the region. Whether or not Carter’s drive and conviction annoys many friends of Israel, he is no anti-Semite, and he is also no fool. He knows precisely who the dictators he so often meets with are (something commentators have recently slammed him on) and he is no pacifist. As for the bit about apartheid, here is a recent statement made by Ehud Olmert, in an interview to Haaretz the day after the Annapolis summit (Nov. 2007): "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished." Maybe apartheid is an overly loaded term – but if Olmert can see what is on the horizon, many others for whom Israel is dear can too.
Michalis Firillas
21 April, 2008


conefor4200 said...

Carter is still a saint.
His support for the oppressed Russian people will go down in history.

Current application of his old concept would be to support the oppressed Palestinian, Iranian, Saudi people against their home grown oppressors.

My feeling is that the conventional Palestinian heroes are all wrong.

Armed resistance is the false rescue plan, and the strict struggle for an internal decency should be the new way to end the misery.

Of course, secular concepts do not sell well yet.

Jonathan said...

You definitely make a good point about talking to Hamas. Maybe this is the best approach, even though Abu Mazen and Co. would not want this. But the problem is that Carter is unquestionably hostile toward Israel, which makes Israelis and others think twice about his motives for "helping" in this conflict.

It is for this reason that Olmert owes him nothing. Being an honest broker is paramount in mediation and the second one party suspects the broker he/she must go.

By titling his book "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid", Carter demonstrates he IS and idiot because he is taking sides. It's as if Clinton would write a book with the title: "Palestinians: Some of them are not terrorists". You think Palestinians would accept him as a peace mediator?

I would find Carter, the BBC, Guardian, etc, much more believable if they displayed the same amount of hostility to the Palestinians and Arab world as they do to Israel.

Carter can take some solace with the fact that useful idiots don't die--they just replace themselves.