LONDON – The Middle East peace process has always been a fantasyland – a garden of illusions sustained by politicians and myths that by and large the American media have been too timid, too uninformed or too biased to question.
Most American journalists go along with the herd mentality that sustains these myths, and by so doing fail to give their audience and readers a picture of the Middle East as it really is.
President Barack Obama’s effort to broker a comprehensive settlement between Israel and the Palestinians – the latest of a long string of failed American efforts dating back to 1979 – is founded on these myths. Perhaps it is time for the media (who are supposed to help us understand the world around us) to point out that the Emperor has no clothes.
In 50 years of reporting on the Middle East, from both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide, I have heard all the so-called perceived truths about Jews and Arabs and their disputed Holy Land, believed a few of them myself, and eventually realized that almost all of them are simply not true, or only half-true.
The biggest myth is that the United States – or any other power – can broker, negotiate or impose a just and lasting peace between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.
Like most Americans, I once believed that for every territorial problem there is a workable solution – an eight-point Arab-Israel plan, a Kissinger plan, a Camp David agreement, etc. But after covering the 1967 Arab-Israeli war from Cairo and the 1973 war as a resident correspondent in Israel, I saw the obvious.
When two ethnic groups claim to have a God-given right to the same small bit of land and each refuses to give up its own illusions, there is no room for a comprehensive solution. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a problem that can be fought over (as it sometimes is) or postponed (as it usually is) but never fully resolved - at least not in the foreseeable future. At best, it can only be managed.
I admit that the 1994 Oslo Accords in which Yasir Arafat and Yitzak Rabin accepted the principal of exchanging land for peace lulled me into thinking there might be light at the end of the tunnel. But that turned out to be just another illusion.
Many of the myths that sustain the Middle East conflict stem from convenient interpretations of religious beliefs, or of ancient and modern history. For example, that Biblical texts give Jewish immigrants from Russia an immutable right to live in Tel Aviv while that is denied to most Arabs. Or, as Israeli Prime Minister Gold Meir once told me in a 1975 interview, that there was “no such thing” as Palestinian nationality.
Arabs are equally intransigent. They see Jerusalem as sacred to their beliefs and the State of Israel as a sinister form of Western imperialism. Not much enthusiasm for compromise on either side.
As a result, Israeli governments of all political persuasions tend to put off solutions to the conflict, relying instead on military brute force, or the threat of it, to contain their enemies while steadily colonizing the shrinking patches of land left to the Palestinians.
In the long run, this temporizing and encroachment will be self-defeating for the Jewish State since it will eventually rule over a Greater Israel in which Palestinians (who have larger families) will be a majority.
The Palestinians have also followed a dead end road by turning down every compromise including the 1948 United Nations plan to partition Palestine between Jews and Arabs (which would have made the Jewish portion barely tenable). As Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban famously said, “The Palestinians never miss a chance to miss a chance.”
To make matters worse, both Jews and Arabs nurture a deeply felt sense of victimization that stokes anger and mistrust and blinds them to the needs of the other side.
It is hard to overestimate the difficulty of the task Obama has taken on. He has given himself a year to broker an Arab-Israeli agreement, before the approaching presidential election makes it impossible for the administration to put real pressure on Israel.
He already faces a deadline on Sept. 28, when Israel’s 10-month moratorium on building Jewish homes in the occupied Palestinian territories, expires. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes his governing coalition will collapse if he extends the moratorium. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he will quit the talks if he doesn't.
The Obama administration is trying to find a way to fudge the issue, just to keep the talks from collapsing. It may succeed in finding a temporary compromise, but the ingrained bias in American politics and the American media that tends to be more pro-Israel than pro-Arab makes it highly unlikely that Washington will ever be seen as an even handed peace broker.
To make matters worse, the Obama peace effort totally ignores the 1.3 million Palestinians of the Gaza strip who chose an Islamist party, Hamas, to govern them in a 2006 election that Washington promoted and then rejected when it did not like the results. The continuing refusal to talk to a democratically elected Palestinian government makes the Obama peace effort look like a half-hearted effort to deal with half the problem.
Most of the world believes the emperor has no clothes.