It is hard to know if this is a time to cry, laugh, or more simply to recognize the intractable nature of Israel''s problems in the Middle East.

I''m not about to go back to Fall River, and certainly not to my grandparents'' home town of Bialystok.

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I''ve gotten used to the stalemate surrounding me, and see it as damn near permanent, or at least outlasting me. And maybe outlasting my children and grandchildren.

The latest signs reinforcing my ennui are the mornings news from Ramallah and Tehran.

Neither show any signs of anyone being able to resolve our problems with the Palestinians or the Iranians.

The first problem is both a lot closer and a lot simpler.

Mahmoud Abbas, the continuing President of the Palestinian Authority despite his term of office ending in January, 2009 has defined his conditions for resuming negotiations with Israel.

"there would be no resumption of the peace talks unless Israel halted settlement activities in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, accepted the June 4, 1967 lines as the future borders of a Palestinian state and released Palestinian prisoners."
Abbas is threatening to return to the United Nations if Israel does not agree, and ask for membership in that body for Palestine even if it remains without statehood.

More positively, he swore himself as loyal to peaceful politics, without violence.

It is easy to say that Israel will not bow to Abbas'' demands. It is harder to decide why he bothers making them. Among the alternatives:

  • He''s dumb, and hasn''t gotten the message
  • He''s trying for a Hail Mary, hoping the support expressed time and again by many countries for Palestine will spread to the American government, and let him score a victory at the United Nations
  • He''s trapped in his own impossible political situation, unable to move toward an accommodation that Israel will accept on account of a subset of Palestinian conditions that include:
    • Hamas and other movements not able to accept Israel''s existence, much less its presence in the boundaries of 1967
    • Elements in his own political party and government--and perhaps in himself--not able to challenge the Muslim ethos that the Middle East (perhaps extending from Spain north to Central Europe and on to Indonesia) is Muslim by heritage, with no Muslim daring to surrender any of it to non-Muslims
Abbas conveyed his conditions in a meeting with Yossi Beilin and other activitists of the "Geneva Initiative." This is an effort of unofficial Israeli and Palestinians going back to 2003, and bankrolled since then by international worthies and some European governments. Beilin is a PhD in political science who gave up the prospects for an academic career to work as an aide to Shimon Peres. He served at various times as Cabinet Secretary, Director General of the Foreign Ministry, Justice Minister and Deputy Foreign Minister, had several years as a Knesset Member, first with the Labor Party and then with Meretz, including a term as Meretz party chair. Peres'' rival, Yitzhak Rabin, referred to Beilin as "Peres'' poodle."

Beilin was instrumental in creating the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO in 1993, but currently seems ill suited to any established political entity.

Currently he is doing what he can to nuture Palestine from the extreme left of the Israeli spectrum, He has condemned the Netanyahu government for ignoring any prospects of accommodation. He urged the Palestinians to abandon the Oslo Accords and their national authority with its opportunities for political autonomy, and "give back the keys to the West Bank" so that Israel would be faced with all the messy details of traffic control, welfare, education, and health.

Beilin''s latest posture has proved too extreme for the Palestinians, who were quick to reject it. According to unnamed Palestinians termed "senior officials," the dissolution of the Palestine Authority would be "political suicide."

It is better to head a mini-non-state than to operate a failed political movement, with no semblance of authority other than to issue declarations and promote demonstrations.

Palestinians, Yossi Beilin, and a few like-thinking Israelis are in the same corner. They are frustrated and angry, but with few alternatives other than one or another set of demands likely to go nowhere.

The chances of significant movement on the Palestinian front is minimal in the extreme. Never say never in politics, but "not likely" is an acceptable alternative.

Iran is a tougher nut to ponder. It, too, has an easy part. The postures offered by the US leadership of international negotiations about Iran''s nuclear future have been rejected by Iran before negotiations get underway.

"Ahead of negotiations with world powers, Iranian president says Iran will continue on its nuclear path even if the whole world stands up to it, will not give up dignity under enemy pressure."

There is nothing new here. Western governments have long offered support for a nuclear program limited to civilian uses which the Iranians time and again have rejected, squirmed out of, or subjected to endless negotiations going nowhere.

Israeli commentators range from those saying that Israel and the United States cooperated in defining the demands being made of Iran, to those saying that demands coming out of Washington fall short of those expressed by Israel''s Prime Minister and/or Defense Minister. Some express the hope that  American and Iranian proclamations of conflicting demands are only the opening gambits of long negotiations, and not signs of Iranian intransigence and certain stalemate.

The difference between our Iranian problem and our Palestinian problem is that Iran concerns nuclear weapons and often repeated hatred of us. While Palestinians also express intense antipathy toward our existence, their weapons are rocks, slingshots, knives, pistols, rifles, and homemade missiles that are as likely to fall on Palestinians as Israelis. They have acquired and used missiles of medium range and power that can damage us, but are likely to invite Israeli responses sufficiently disproportionate to postpone the next round of violence.

The imponderable is having to guess if Israel can undertake a political effort that will lead the US and other Western powers to do what is necessary to force limitations on Iran''s nuclear program. Or, if Israeli leaders will decide that Americans and other Westerners are unreliable, and undertake their own attack. That can either drag other countries into a military confrontation with Iran, or lead Israel to even greater political isolation and condemnation by governments we like to think of as friendly.

It''s easy to decide that it is worthwhile to devote only 10 percent of whatever brainpower I can allocate to such things worrying about Palestine, and the rest worrying about Iran.

However, I don''t aspire to come up with a solution for Iran, or even to know with any certainty what Israel or our allies is likely to do.

In this setting of total unpredictability about one problem of modest weight and another much heavier, the best use of my brainpower is to ponder things that I can control. Like what to have for dinner. Or what clothes to buy for Tamar''s upcoming wedding.

My residual problem is worrying if I am giving up on my responsibilities as citizen and political scientist, or acknowledging the limits of both citizenship and political science.

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