Major events in Lebanon,Tunis and Egypt, along with lesser noises from Yemen and Jordan have excited the Israeli and international peace camps to insist on greater efforts by Israel, the United States and others. If not, Israel will pay a heavy price in inevitable violence, and the rest of the world will suffer for having failed to solve the gnawing problem of Palestine.

The web site of the Geneva Initiative is highlighting a speech by President Shimon Peres and a New York Times article by Thomas Friedman making the points that an Israeli-Palestinian peace is urgent.

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Already circulating is a New York Times article with the date of next Sunday that rests upon an optimistic reading of reports about previous Israel-Palestinian negotiations, as well as a confident projection of what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere.


The kernel of Bernard Avishai''s long article is:

"To this day, Abbas still expects America to put the deal over. The gaps appear so pitifully small: Ariel and a couple of other settlements, the question of whether parts of Silwan would be a part of the holy basin, a compromise number on refugees? “We still want bridging proposals,” Abbas told me, adding, “we want America to be a strong broker.”

Without a deal, Jerusalem and the West Bank will almost certainly explode again, this time perhaps igniting the kind of local war we saw in Bosnia: violence spreading to Israeli Arab towns and drawing in both Syrian-backed Hezbollahfrom Lebanon and Hamas from Gaza, each armed with thousands of missiles. “Jerusalem is becoming a tinderbox; it could explode any minute,” the Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki told me recently. “We now see the collapse of the nonviolent vision but not the replacement. . . . Any unilateral Palestinian step [to statehood] will be meaningless — no one is fooled by this. There is fatigue. They don’t want to go back to the days of bloodshed. I think when they reach the conclusion, ‘The hell with it,’ we’ll go back to that dark period, then all hell will break loose.”

There are three issues that demand exploration.

1. Are the gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians really small enough to be dealt with by more effort by the parties, perhaps with urging and incentives by the United States?
2. Do the events in Egypt and elsewhere foretell changes in the region that will increase the threat on Israel?
3. And if Israel manages to satisfy the Palestinians and signs an agreement with those currently in charge of the West Bank, will it deal effectively with those increased threats?

Admitting that modesty is as essential as it is elusive in the case of future oriented political commentaries, there are reasons to question the views that gaps are small, and that a formal Israel-Palestine peace is essential.

As far as we know from al-Jazeeraleaks and Olmert''s memoirs, the gaps between the parties were not so small as to be trivial. They included Palestinian refusals to concede to Israel the settlements of Ariel and Ma''ale Adumim, and the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa. Latest figures available show them with a total of about 60,000 residents.

The gap in the case of Palestinian refugees was no smaller. Olmert offered a thousand a year for five years, and Abbas demanded at least ten thousand a year for ten years. That amounts to a difference between an offer of 5,000 and a demand of 100,000.

Not clear from my reading of the sources available is what Olmert offered with respect to somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 other Israeli Jews living in what the Palestinians claim as their territory. Did Olmert offer to withdraw them immediately, or over time? Would they be able to obtain Palestinian residence? Or did Abbas stick with his demands that Palestine be rid of Israelis or Jews?

Left open is the possibility that both Olmert''s and Abbas''s gestures would be rejected by Israelis and Palestinians with the capacity to do so. Olmert was negotiating under the threat of an indictment on criminal charges, which came soon after those talks. Abbas was negotiating under the shadow of 60 years of promising refugees and their families that they would return home, and potentially violent opposition to his regime in Gaza and Palestinian areas of Lebanon, plus heavily armed non-Palestinian rejectionists in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. 

Events in Lebanon, Tunis, and Egypt are not yet resolved, but do not clearly indicate that Israel must fold, or that the United States has the capacity to insist upon the details of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Hosni Mubarak is still the President of Egypt, his Vice President and military elites may be riding out the protests, and the White House has flipped away from an insistent posture of "Democracy Now."

Currently the Obama White House is a target of ridicule even from Israeli commentators who usually demand  more concessions to the Palestinians, and outside pressure on the Israeli government.

The American Empire will survive its embarrassing efforts to deal with Egyptians. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders will dare insult American intentions or capacity in public, but Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will not emerge from this with enhanced leverage.

If Lebanon, Tunis, Egypt and other commotions indicate anything, it is that Israel and Palestine are not the principal problems of the Middle East. Rather, they principally serve as the efforts of corrupt elites to excite their populations about issues distant from their own governing. Hosni Mubarak said that the Zionists were responsible for the demonstrations in his cities. While some Israelis saw that as further evidence of Arab perfidy, I viewed it as a small price to pay if it helped turned Egyptians away from dismantling a regime that had brought stability to a country light years from western democracy.

Part of the quotation above from Avishai''s article is a not so hidden Palestinian threat of violence if things do not go their way.

The Israeli establishment is not frightened into submission by echoes of that threat from Jewish peace advocates, any more than it is by the ploy of a demographic threat from Palestinian baby-makers. Palestinians have more to lose than Israelis by violence or a growth in their population. Do they really want to risk another destruction of what overseas investors are building throughout the West Bank? And do they aspire to turn back the movement of Arab women to education and reduced birth rates? Israel''s defenses will keep the problems of excess population on the Palestinian side of the security barrier. The  demographic threat that is more apparent to Israel comes from ultra-Orthodox Jews rather than from Palestinians.

Hope must be eternal, but reality is here for the foreseeable future. Gaza, Hizbollah, Syria, and Iran, as well as so-called moderate Muslims who have yet to legitimize their label point to continued uncertainty about Israel''s future. That future is only partly in Israeli hands, no matter what J-Street, Peace Now, assorted liberal Rabbis, Barack Obama, Shimon Peres, and Yosi Beilin try to tell us. There is little more than blind optimism to urge the removal of sixty to two hundred thousand Jews from the West Bank, or the admission of at least 100,000 Palestinians to Israel as ways of assuring our future.


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