Is it possible to find an honest broker in the Middle East?
In one recent newscast it was reported that the Palestinian negotiator criticized Israel for not living up to the spirit of negotiations, and complicating any possibility of agreement, by continuing to build over the 1967 line.
That sounds like the Palestinians trying to increase their conditions for negotiations, in contrast to the terms of reference hammered out by Secretary of State John Kerry.
It was not easy for Prime Minister Netanyahu to accept the Palestinian demand that Israel release prisoners during the process of negotiations. He was able to agree in the context of offering his coalition partners a continuation of building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The same newscast the reported the Palestinian complaint also reported that the American State Department was repeating its posture that settlements over the 1967 line were illegal, and a hindrance to peace.
That does not sound like the contribution of an honest broker.
It is possible that both the Palestinian complaint and the American comment are mild enough to be viewed as if each participant is "covering its backside" with important constituents, but not so strong as to derail negotiations.
The same might be said about Israel''s announcement about the beginning of a process to build 1200 housing units. Many of these are in neighborhoods of Jerusalem, widely viewed as staying within Israel. Moreover, it will take a while to go through all the approvals before construction can start. Continuation from any stage and at any site can become one of the topics for negotiation.
With respect to the comment from the American State Department, however, it would be even more in keeping with a broker''s function to be silent at this point, or at least express some recognition that the character of the area over the 1967 line is in dispute, and not clearly the possession of one side or another.
- Occupied by Jordan without recognition after one war, and then occupied by Israel after another war that was arguably instigated by Jordan and other Arab powers acting in behalf of the Palestinians with the intentions of destroying Israel.
- Subsequent Jewish construction in an expanded Jerusalem, "major settlement blocs" along with other towns, villages, and isolated settlements may not in every case have been wise, but began when the Arab alliance declared, "no recognition, no conciliation nor negotiation."
- Substantial Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza from 1993, but with considerable violence from 2000 along with incursions in Gaza in response to Palestinian aggression, including those that came after a major withdrawal of Jewish settlements.
While Israeli construction may be causing a political problem for the Palestinian leadership, official American and European comments and actions are causing no less of a problem for the Israeli leadership.
It would appear, in light of the complicated history, that outsiders offering themselves as mediators would at least aspire to something closer to neutrality than explicit support of the Palestinian narrative.
In response to the latest EU action, that would leave Israeli institutions outside the possibilities for joint scientific funding, Israeli policymakers are threatening to go elsewhere for scientific and technological cooperation. China is a promising alternative, insofar as it is less hung up on Middle Eastern claims of justice, has lots of money, as well as universities, industries, and laboratories concerned to advance their reputations and capacities.
Israeli academics and scientists fear losing their opportunities to cooperate with European colleagues. Funding is less pressing than participation with scientific and technological leaders, insofar as Israel contributes to the funding to EU programs.
What looks from here like an excessive support for the Palestinian posture by American and Europeans may be vulnerable to the kind of pressure that all those American Jewish Democrats should be able to muster behind their ritual claims of supporting Israel.
If joint loyalties to Israel and the Democratic Party are worth anything, now is one of the times when the pressure should be applied.
It may be too much to expect that American Jews are able to push Barack Obama, who they supported so heavily, and through him the Europeans, to actually sign on to a right of center Israeli narrative, but perhaps they may at least bring the American administration and its allies to pull back from supporting explicitly the Palestinian narrative.
Something closer to neutrality by those anxious for peace may be necessary for both sides in the negotiations to give as well as take, to define mutually the lines that will separate what is touted to become two states, as well as who will be entitled to live where, pray where, and all the other issues begging resolution.
Palestinians also claim that Americans and others are too friendly to Israel.
Is this simple propaganda, meant to deal with the Israeli claim that Americans and Europeans are hostile to the Israeli position, or a genuine feeling that the relative deprivation of Palestinians reflects a history of western prejudice, colonialism, and discrimination?
Palestinian and Israeli claims of the great powers tilted against them may best be viewed as political static, expressed and ignored.
Just this weekend we have seen indications of Israeli-Arab cooperation against Islamic extremism. Egyptian intelligence warned Israel about impending attacks against Eilat, which led the Israelis to increase their own alert, and close the city''s airport for several hours. Later there was even closer cooperation with Israeli drones liquidating a cadre from Gaza that was preparing to fire rockets toward Israel from Egyptian territory. That was too much for the Egyptians to admit, insofar as shortly after was an official denial of the report that had originated from Egyptian news sources, and a claim that it was Egyptian forces that carried out the operation. Both incidents occurred against the background of substantial Egyptian actions against Gazans and Bedouins in the Sinai, which reflected an Israeli agreement that Egypt increase its forces allowed in the Sinai.
We are also seeing an increase in American aggression against Islamists, most prominently in Yemen, as well as some indications that the United States may be accepting the need to live with the anti-Islamic military government in Egypt.
Does the most recent anti-settlement comments coming out of the US State Department reflect a bizarre calculation that it is appropriate to tip in the Palestinian direction, given everything else that is happening?
Or could they just be more of the American bumbling that led Barack Obama to speak as he did in Cairo, which won for him a Nobel Peace Prize for doing anything but?
Relevant is a passage in a recent book, Lawrence in Arabia, where the author comments about an American official operating at that time. “He was establishing a tradition of fundamentally misreading the situation in the Middle East that his successors in the American intelligence community would rigorously maintain for the next 95 years.”
There are lots of impediments to an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. It may help to avoid explicit tilts toward one side or the other. More than silence would be appropriate. Mediating or brokering whatever happens is likely to require frequent assertions of neutrality by any who aspire to help.