America, i.e., the United States, is a different land. It is a world leader in science, technology, medicine and several varieties of music, art, and theater, along with a military capacity that can overwhelm most others and a great deal of wealth. It is also different from virtually every other country in the ways is writes times and dates, measures temperature and distance, provides electricity and sells men''s jackets with zipper tabs on the right railing. And it is a marked laggard--closer to the Third World than the First-- in the diets followed by a large part of its population, their medical ignorance or apathy, a shameful delivery of the medical care potentially available, early death for a substantial number of people, an unawareness about putting electric lines underground, and long power outages resulting from some of the world''s worst weather.
It also differs from just about every other democracy in the character of its government and politics. All democracies have some variety of a separation of powers. That may be the basic essence of democracy, owing as much to what the English began with their Magna Carta, or perhaps the Hebrews with their reverence shown for prophets unrestrained in their criticism of elites. America is distinctive among the moderns for the degree of independence shown by its legislatures. What political scientists call presidential rather than parliamentary government--which also extends to the American states--assures a level of dispute unusual in other democracies where chief executives are more likely to get what they propose.
In most other places, what the chief executive proposes reflects the recommendations that bubble up from professional cadres of civil servants, filtered through the judgment of politicians who have gotten where they are via a long climb and testing at one position after another.
America is distinctive, and not to its advantage, in selecting leading officials who are untested in virtually every important governmental skill other than their capacity to win popularity contests.
Extreme forms of decentralization are also typically American. Traditions place high value on the capacities of states and localities to decide about taxes and public services, with the result that quality varies greatly from place to place. That is part of America''s fascination with the values of freedom and liberty. Years ago those values distinguished the US from much of the world where life for many people was nasty, brutish, and short. Now Americans'' obsession with guns makes their society more like Mexico than Western Europe and other places that have leaped over the US in the quality of life.
The mixed bag that is the United States is sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse for the rest of the world. Western Europeans, Japanese, and South Koreans have been the most obvious beneficiaries of American largess, good will and wisdom. One can argue as to whether Israel ought to be in the same cluster. And there are louder disputes about those who have suffered the most from American clumsiness, misguided and self-defined good will, or sheer ignorance. Among the candidates are Iraq, and--even more contentious--Vietnam. Several places to the south of the US have also suffered, either from self-interested interventions of American forces or from the appetites of Americans for drugs and how that has impacted on the countries where they grow or through which they move to market.
America can be a nuisance if not something that is clearly perverse. It has become a sign of maturity for other countries'' leaders to reject unwise or inappropriate American demands, but without crossing over the vague line where declining aid, advice, or demands appears to be an outright rejection, insult, or challenge. Staying on the right side, or avoiding the wrong side of the world''s greatest current power is among the rules of political good sense.
For some time now a sizable number of Israelis have wondered about the innocence, poor judgment, or ignorance of leading figures in the American government and politics, including some considered to be opinion leaders or organizational heads in the American Jewish community. A cartoon in Ha''aretz expressed it as well as anything. It showed Secretary of State John Kerry sitting at a table with Israeli and Palestinian flags but no one else, and the Secretary saying to an empty room that it was time to begin negotiations.
Israeli and other skeptics wonder about the following items
- Cannot Americans--and those cheering them on--see the perverse nature of the Palestinian society, with Hamas controlling half of Palestine and other elements far from any willingness to accept Israel''s existence?
- Cannot they perceive the poor timing of any negotiations--apparently unwanted by either Palestinians or Israelis--in the context of dangerous unrest and other dangling issues across the Middle East, with special concern for Syria and Iran, and their capacity to spread chaos elsewhere?
- Cannot they appreciate the reluctance of Israelis to make concessions now, against having generous offers rejected outright by this and previous Palestinian regimes, and against the violent response to the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza?
Israelis should not claim absolute moral innocence with respect to Palestinians or anything else. However, its record of trying, as well as accepting outside proposals from the 1930''s onward dwarfs any efforts of accommodation from its adversaries.
The explanations of American persistence are among the things that provoke argument. The possibilities include
- American parochialism and arrogance that leads them to feel that all people are like them, and should be amenable to the views held by American officials about the best interests of people in other countries with other cultures
- American efforts to appease the many countries that possess energy resources and votes in the United Nations General Assembly and other international forums
- American preoccupation with their own accommodations with multi-culturalism and a multiplicity of religions, and the assumption that Islam is no more of a problem than some of the more demanding sects of Protestants
- American insistence in the exercise of its economic and military power, with demands for quiet in the areas seen as troubling its interests
In persisting to promote negotiations that neither side appears to want or is able to manage, this is one of the times when American officials are doing more harm than good. Not as much as when George W. Bush invaded Iraq, at least partly for the sake of bringing democracy to that country, and ended up by destroying a regime, contributing to the deaths of perhaps one million people, and not replacing the regime with anything a great deal better than what he destroyed.
The Obama administration may not be doing the harm that the innocent or ignorant President did via that Cairo speech calling for reform in a relatively decent Muslim country, and contributing to the chaos of Arab spring et al, whose death tolls in Syria, Libya and other places are well over one hundred thousand.
Nonetheless, continuing to push the unreality or unattainability of an Israeli-Palestinian accord is not only frustrating, but gets in the way of arrangements between Israelis and Palestinians that work reasonably well. Economic cooperation, Israeli restraints on the spread of Jewish settlements, cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security services, an easing of controls on Palestinian movement, more job opportunities for West Bank Palestinians in Israel, and developments in Palestinian housing, commerce, and industry point in the direction of two nations getting along.
American pressures to replace the good with the perfect can retard progress and turn it backwards. Demands for negotiations to imaginable arrangements more formal and permanent provoke political demagogues on both sides, and encourage Muslim and Jewish extremists to do the dramatic and destructive.
It is tempting to revise that line appearing in Fiddler on the Roof
and other sources of Jewish lore asking the blessing of the Lord that will keep the Czar far away. Now the Czar equivalents are Barack Obama and John Kerry. No doubt they are far more well intentioned than any ruler of all the Russians. But we also know which road is paved with good intentions.