MJ Rosenberg: Why Not Seize Every Possibility?

reprinted with permission from the Israel Policy Forum Abba Eban famously said that the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Like most bons mots, Eban’s was clever without saying very much. The Palestinians, of course, have missed one opportunity after another (most notably when they rejected the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947) but, contrary to Eban’s implication, the Israeli record on seizing opportunities is not much better. The most egregious example of Israel not answering when opportunity knocked came in January 2000 when it became clear that Syrian President Hafez Assad was ready to sign a peace treaty with Israel. At the urging of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, President Bill Clinton convened an Israeli-Syrian summit in Shepherdstown, West Virginia where the peace deal was to be wrapped up. Israel would surrender the Golan Heights in exchange for early warning systems on Syrian territory, an end to Syrian backing of Hamas and Hezbollah, and termination of the Iranian-Syrian anti-Israel alliance. In his memoirs, Clinton described what happened next. “The Syrians came to Shepherdstown in a positive and flexible frame of mind, eager to make an agreement. By contrast, Barak, who had pushed hard for these talks, decided, apparently on the basis of polling data, that he needed to slow-walk the process for a few days in order to convince the Israeli public that he was being a tough negotiator. . . . I was, to put it mildly, disappointed. . . . Barak had not been in politics long, and I thought he had gotten some very bad advice. In foreign affairs, polls are often useless; people hire leaders to win for them, and it’s the results that matter.” The Barak “slow-walk” killed the negotiations. It is now clear that had Barak followed Menachem Begin’s 1979 example and ignored the polls, the last seven years of Middle East history would likely have been entirely different to the huge benefit of Israel, Syria, the Palestinians, Lebanon, and the United States. Similarly, had the Palestinians handled Ehud Barak’s tentative offer at Camp David in the summer of 2000 (imperfect as it was) in a more positive manner—rather than letting the summit collapse—a Palestinian state would perhaps already exist. One would think that following those experiences Arabs and Israelis would now seize any opportunity that arises. Not so. The Israeli media is reporting that the Israeli government is trying to prevent the follow-up to Annapolis conference that is slated for early 2008 in Moscow. According to Ben Caspit, writing in Ma’ariv, the effort to thwart Moscow is being “spearheaded” by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who says that “we have no intention of going to Moscow and there is no need for such a conference.” Not surprisingly, the usual suspects in Washington are trying to sabotage the Moscow summit by lobbying Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to stay home. Why? Caspit says that Israeli officials don’t like Russia’s position on Iran, Syria, and Hamas and that there is “no reason for us to reward Russia by attending the conference. . . .” Reward Russia? Actually the people rewarded by any peace conference at this point are Israelis and Palestinians. Viewing a Moscow peace conference simply as a gift to Russia is the kind of shortsightedness that has led to the deadly status quo. It is similar to the notion, all too common in right-wing circles in both Washington and Jerusalem, that negotiating with Palestinians is bestowing a gift upon them. It isn’t. Israelis need a negotiated end to the conflict at least as much as Palestinians do. Given the strategic dynamic in the region, Israelis may even need it more. That is why the momentum created by the Annapolis meeting—and by the upcoming Bush visit to Israel and Palestine—needs to be exploited and deepened rather than deterred. Every opportunity to advance negotiations has to be seized. Israel cannot afford to reject possible progress toward an agreement simply because it does not like the Putin government’s policies. (Who does? Certainly not the Bush administration.) And hard-line pro-Israel forces in the United States need to stop viewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiation as something to be feared rather than embraced. Prime Minister Olmert understands that. It is telling that some of his supposed allies in Washington do not. Along similar lines is the matter of Hamas and its latest cease-fire overtures. According to media reports, and confirmed by Israeli and Egyptian officials, Hamas has proposed stopping all Kassam rocket attacks in exchange for a halt to Israeli military operations in Gaza. Hamas would impose the truce not only on its own people but also on the militants who are firing the rockets—Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees. Yedioth Achronoth calls the Hamas offer evidence that Israeli attacks on Hamas are having the intended effect. “This only proves that Israeli policy is beginning to show signs of succeeding. Hamas is under pressure and searching a way out of the situation it has gotten itself into.” Israeli officialdom is divided on how to respond. Shaul Mofaz, the hawkish minister of transportation —and former defense minister and IDF chief-of-staff—is inclined to go for it. According to Ma’ariv, he would not rule out indirect negotiations with Hamas to reach a “mutual cease-fire.” He says Israel “would not hold direct dialogue with Hamas as long as they do not recognize Israel’s right to exist but mediation is something we can think about.” Ami Ayalon, minister without portfolio and former head of the Shin Bet, said “I would . . . talk to anyone if the objective is stopping the Kassam rocket fire.” Other Israelis point out that there are other vital issues, which Israel should explore with Hamas in the context of mediation, starting with the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit. The Israelis are running out of answers to the problems posed by Hamas’s control of Gaza. Punishing the local population through a continued blockade and power blackouts is both inhumane and ineffective. (Last week’s page one Washington Post story on the children in Gaza, who are now unable to get batteries for their hearing aids, did considerably more damage to Israel than banning the batteries does to Hamas.) Targeted assassinations certainly put some terrorists out of business but others take their place and the rocket attacks continue. A military invasion of Gaza would take innocent lives on both sides in a scene likely to be more Mogadishu than Six Day War. What’s left? The one choice that has not been considered: finding out if some sort of deal can be reached. Will Olmert do it? Who knows? But lately he has demonstrated an instinctive understanding of Bill Clinton’s maxim about leadership. “Polls are often useless; people hire leaders to win for them, and it’s the results that matter.” Olmert knows that without exploring possibilities, there can be no results. Can he win for Israel and for the rest of us too? I’m betting that he can. ******************** More Cracks in the Glacier: Dodd Calls on the United States to Push Peace Hard Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) has written a letter to Secretary Rice endorsing U.S. peace efforts which he is circulating among his colleagues for support. It will be sent next month. The letter states that it is of “paramount importance that the United States continue to work with all parties involved to bring about a comprehensive final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people.” Dodd’s letter concludes: “As the only democracy in the Middle East, the United States must remain a steadfast supporter of Israel and its right to defend itself from terrorist threats. However, as the negotiations toward a final status agreement begin, we also feel it is crucial that Israel take steps to ease the living conditions of the Palestinian people as a symbol of its commitment to a final settlement. “We urge you to call upon the government of Prime Minister Olmert to abide by Israel’s commitments to the 2002 Roadmap to Peace, including a freeze on the construction of new settlements beyond Israel’s 1967 borders, the dismantling of illegal West Bank settlements and ‘outposts,’ and a reduction of roadblocks and checkpoints in the Palestinian territories to allow increased movement for the Palestinian people. “We recognize the many challenges that lie ahead, and that, ultimately, it is the Israeli and Palestinian people themselves who must find the strength to commit to peace; but we also recognize that U.S. leadership and mediation have led to some of the greatest breakthroughs in Israeli-Arab relations. We encourage you to remain actively involved in the peace process and press both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to honor their commitments to finding an acceptable compromise and agreeing on a final status accord.” Due to the relative weekly renaming cycle used by the IPForum.org website, JSPAN reprints the IPF Friday in its entirety on its website for the purpose of having an unchanging URL by which to link to.
Responses from JSPAN Board Members "I generally agree with the piece. I do not accept, and I think it would be wrong for JSPAN to not disavow, Rosenberg's assurances that the pro-Israel zealots do so for the high of self-aggrandizement and the influence they wield, rather than out of any true concern for Israel. I don't accept that to be universally true; I don't believe that even Rosenberg believes that to be universally true, and if he does, he is an idiot. It's a nasty rhetorical point that I don't want to have anything to do with. Otherwise, I agree wholeheartedly with the piece." - Marshall Dayan I think we should not be posting this on our web site. While Rosenbergs conclusions may be consistent with JSPAN policy, I don't think that loshon hora is. - Lazar Kleit A very long and somewhat rambling article, some of it a cogent critique of an extremist view. However, there is a troubling tone at the end of the piece. "...a conflict that not only threatens Israel's surival but has harmed American interests throughout the world." It should be stated clearly that the conflict has been manipulated by Israel's rivals (dare we say enemies?) in the Middle East to the harm and detriment of US interests, in order to erode US support for a neighbor state they would like make Poof! Go away. In addition, very importantly, the impulse to orchestrate in advance a solution is foolhardy. That is precisely what our incumbent President did in prematurely pushing for elections in Palestine instead of shoring up the then incumbent government. The result of course is the rule by Hamas, its encouragement and use of violence, and the continuing poverty of the visible Gazans, No one ever talks of those who are well-positioned and affluent. Bottom line: Wisdom often requires a paucity of words. - Adena Potok MJ uses a number of nouns and adjectives to describe his target: “Zealots”, “zealous single-issue voters”, “ideological zealots and bigots”, “single issue crowd”. It’s not easy to make the point MJ is making – that it’s those folks who make it almost impossible for any candidate to enter into any serious discussion about the peace process without risking being slammed by them. I would have been happier if MJ had said (in the 9th paragraph), “For some of them, certainly not all”, it’s not about Israel. It’s just fun and games……….”, and I suppose Ruth could say that. But I , for one, would not insist upon it. I think MJ is making an important point, one that all of us – including Marshall – agree with and which describes our position more fully than we previously have done. - Ted Mann