You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Unsentimental Education

What has Obama learned about peace?

“The cruel God of the Jews has you beaten too.”--Racine

An interview by Joe Klein in Time magazine is hardly a historical event. But, when the interview is with Barack Obama, it lays claim to some newsworthiness. This is especially true when it is ballyhooed as a firstanniversary event. Since, moreover, (right after awarding himself good grades on Al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia) it’s clear that Obama wanted to make a point: “The other area which I think is worth noting is that the Middle East peace process has not moved forward. And I think it’s fair to say that for all our efforts at early engagement, it is not where I want it to be.”

Klein then throws the president an easy ball, which Obama hits just outside the third baseline. “I’ll be honest with you. ... This is just really hard. Even for a guy like George Mitchell, who helped bring about peace in Northern Ireland. This is as intractable a problem as you get.” I suppose this is an admission of sorts for the president. But, as he goes on, you find that his understanding of “the problem” is not an understanding at all. It is a disposition, and the disposition is his. Not his alone, mind you. Still, it is his, and that’s what counts.

How does one characterize this disposition? Of course, you can read the interview. Or let me quote briefly: “Both sides--the Israelis and the Palestinians--have found the political environment, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. ... Moving forward, though, we are going to continue to work with both parties to recognize what I think is ultimately their deep-seated interest in a two-state solution in which Israel is secure and the Palestinians have sovereignty and can start focusing on developing their economy and improving the lives of their children and grandchildren.” One is tempted to ask what Arab model the Arabs of Palestine will use as a prototype for their own prosperity and freedom. Is there such anywhere in the Arab world? Perhaps the president will himself propose one.

Obama’s confidence in himself on matters that he used to know nothing--or, to be charitable, next to nothing--about leads him astray. But even self-absorbed people tend to have crutches. Frankly, I don’t believe that Rashid Khalidi is his tutor, although he may have lived in his neighborhood. The person he seems to rely on, at least for public fare, is Mitchell. I know that, last month, Mitchell was awarded the ncaa “Teddy” Award, named for Theodore Roosevelt and bestowed on people who played undergraduate athletics, or something like that. Mitchell’s sport was basketball. But even the president’s enchantment with the game can’t explain his enchantment with Mitchell, who, after all, screwed up his own investigation of drug use in the baseball majors.

I am not being cruel to the ex-senator from Maine. Even that faux Harvard scholar, Stephen Walt, co-author of the noxious The Israel Lobby, believes that the president should put him out to pasture. I, myself, don’t think it makes any difference. If the president believes that George is correct in his views, then the president believes it. I do not know how many frequent-flier miles Mitchell has accrued in his travels to the region. But he is becoming desperate.

In only the last fortnight, Mitchell allowed himself to be drawn into preposterous discussions with Mahmoud Abbas that revolved around the rais’s proposal that the Obama administration negotiate with Israel on the final boundaries of the Palestinian state. Presumably, Mitchell was not happy with the idea. Of course, he delivered the message to Washington and discussed it with Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s response to the Mickey Mouse conditions Abbas has set, particularly the first-time demand of a halt to construction any place in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem, can be summarized: “Stop wasting time talking about how to enter the peace process.”

On the other hand, Mitchell was almost delirious with the news he found in Beirut and Damascus. Now “delirium” is a clinical description. But it is, in fact, the only way to explain Mitchell’s reading of the Lebanese and Syrian situations, especially vis-à-vis the United States and Israel, individually or together. The cliché about Lebanon used to be that it would be the second state to make peace with Israel. Quite to the contrary: I believe it will be the last state to make peace with Israel, if it ever will.

Sorry, I don’t know out of which nargileh Mitchell was smoking. But the political alignment in Beirut has never been so hostile to the United States and never been so prepared to make war on Israel. The Saudis--ah, the faithful Saudis who have fooled every single American president since FDR up to the homage-bobbing present one--set upon Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of his assassinated father, Rafik, also prime minister, to make peace with Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad, himself the real killer. These were only formalities. Of course, they despise each other. You have to have sat with enough Arabs swearing their love for brother Arabs to fathom how much they scorn them. If anybody calls me, I’ll give plenty of instances.

The real power in Lebanon, even benefiting from American blandishments like Mitchell’s, is Hezbollah. This well-rearmed fighting force has been allowed by the state to keep its weapons and, thus, to function as a permanent sedition itself. Hezbollah has now moved more of its civvie-clad soldiers and munitions into the south, forbidden by the so-what Security Council Resolution 1701, Condi Rice’s last testament to her term in office. Hassan Nasrallah has established a more secure and very much armed soldiery in the north. The Shia jihad, which is what Hezbollah truly is, has effective veto authority in the civilian government, and it has exercised this aplenty. Syria is much more cut-and-dried: Al Assad rules, and he finds no reason, not a single reason, to wander away from Iran, the alliance with which is all that makes the United States notice him at all. This is a trio centered in Tehran. But, evidently, the president is wary of making its walls shake. He’s leaving that to the students.

Of course, Mitchell is not really the president’s tutor. Mitchell, with congenial opinions, is the president’s errand boy; he has been that for just about a year. And, as Obama allows, this year has, more or less, been a waste. Tiens!

Frankly, the problem lies with the green line. Lines drawn with crayons have always had a bad life after the fact. Palestine has had many lines drawn for it and through it. The Sykes-Picot lines were finally drawn, after about a year of imperial bargaining, in 1916. They were kept secret, however, for at least a year. Britain appropriated to itself what it called Palestine and fought the Turks so that the land “from Dan to Beersheba,” based on a map of the Holy Land “under David and Solomon,” would be its alone. The “lines” and the references would cause troubles everywhere, including Mosul. In fact, the Sykes-Picot lines still make occasional reference--that is, troubles--in Iraq today. And when, or rather if, Israel and Syria ever come to discuss the hydrologics of a settlement, Sykes-Picot will be studied again.

One could concentrate on the United Nations partition lines of 1947. But, since no Arab country (save now Egypt and Jordan) has ever recognized the legitimacy of the Partition Plan itself, they and the Palestinians, who’d not negotiated with Israel until the early 1990s, and then only in secret, (or, for that matter, with the Zionists before Jewish independence) were stuck with what was called “the green line.” Like the Sykes-Picot lines, the green line was drawn with implements that were, to say the least, imprecise. The fact is that the relevant cartography was charted with the relationship of 1:50,000. It’s just possible that with that ratio, Gilo, which drove Hillary Clinton bananas, would have met the test of the most restrictive maps. But many other settlements would not.

What is the standing of the green line, so called? Actually, it has none, having been violated by the Jordanians, the Egyptians, and the Syrians, most dramatically in the run-up to the Six-Day War. But the appellation “green line,” that very rough marker, is an invention of commentators. In the absence of political realism, it has taken on historical weight. But each of the four armistice agreements signed at Rhodes in early to mid-1949 have specific provisions, inserted at the insistence of the separate Arab delegations with not a single Palestinian in attendance and with not a single allusion to the Arab state envisioned in the Partition Plan, asserting that the documents are without prejudice to future arrangements of boundaries. There is no mystery as to what that means. That is, already, in 1949, the usurping Egyptian state, the Syrian dictatorship, and the Kingdom of Jordan were contemplating what they attempted in 1967 and (with two of the above) again in 1973.

It is true that the manifest desire of the Israeli populace for peace was what pushed the political class into all of the risks they took. First of all, in trusting the table at which Yasir Arafat sat, and in more than trusting the impresario of the celebration on the White House lawn. This was Shimon Peres’s finest hour, his scurvy triumph of pushing Yitzhak Rabin and other Israeli realists into a negotiation they did not seek and which they feared. (For the record, as my writings in The New Republic reflected, I felt like a mourner at the wedding feast.) At the tail end of what a deceitful Ha’aretz columnist, Akiva Eldar, called “Clinton time,” Ehud Barak, a brave man in war and during peace negotiations, was also led down the marital path between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The prime minister had already agreed to a cockamamie division of the Armenian Quarter of the Old City, with decorous signs, when Arafat ran out of the negotiations with poor, panting Madeleine Albright, last year’s recipient of the “Teddy,” actually, running after him. End of parley.

Even the students at Tel Aviv University, the U.C. Berkeley of Israel, are no longer pushing the prime minister to make concessions to what are, really, the president’s fantasies. Now, Netanyahu doesn’t do politics out of caprice. He knows that there will be no “Greater Israel” or anything resembling it. Recall that his mentor, Ariel Sharon, emptied Gaza of all its Jewish settlers and settlements. And then emptied four settlements in Samaria on the West Bank. Nobody sane thinks that these four would suffice, that they were other than the beginnings of a vast and, yes, painful withdrawal from Jewish history. Some of the folk in these communities--and that’s what they really are--happen to be more like homesteaders and pioneers. Everywhere, they are characterized as fanatics. I’d trust the characterizers much more if they could so easily also associate Palestinian true believers with lunacy.

Here are the realities of Israel today. Everybody understands that 1967 really means 1949. They are silly borders--really, tokens of a fictitious past. The Arabs are lucky that perhaps as many as 100,000 Israelis may be dislodged from their homes. That gives them the hugest proportion of the West Bank--more, candidly, than I believe is safe.

In the early days of the Jewish state, its enemies were perceived as armies, with, here and there, a terrorist gang or two. Fair and square, so to speak. Now, the Palestinians do “asymmetrical warfare,” terrorism writ large. If they have sovereignty, they will not repair to armies, at least not in the early stages of “peace.” They will, as they have already more than amply shown in Gaza, wage war by rockets and missiles and other projectiles. I will state it simply: The prospect of irregular war requires Israel to man the borders with Jordan, where about 50 to 70 percent of the population is Palestinian, mostly disloyal to the monarchy, restive, and increasingly drawn by the allure of Hamas. A long time ago, my own ideal of an Israeli politician, Yigal Allon, military hero and social idealist, drew a map that was realistic in that it met all the threats (save the nuclear threat) his country could face. It was called the Allon Plan. Anita Shapira has written a biography of this exemplary man, Yigal Allon, Native Son. He died 30 years ago in February. In any case, he understood.

And, for all my slight disagreements with Bibi (and they are not more than slight), he understands as well. He is stuck trying to teach President Obama the sober facts. Only the sober facts can help him. But he will be angry learning.

Martin Peretz is the editor-in-chief of The New Republic.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.