Interesting Times: Faux 'dissidents'

The peace process is stymied by too much evenhandedness, not too little

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
"There is no serious political debate among either Democrats or Republicans about our policy toward Israelis and Palestinians," writes Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. "And that silence harms America, Middle East peace prospects and Israel itself." Indeed, Jimmy Carter, Nicholas Kristof, Profs. Walt and Mearsheimer, George Soros, Zbigniew Brzezinski and others have all painted themselves as brave pioneers exploring forbidden lands at the risk of being branded anti-Semites. Yet Carter's book is a best-seller, and none of the above have had trouble disseminating their views in the most prestigious publications in the land. Stranger still is the attempt of these supposed dissidents to claim such status when their policy goal, far from being suppressed, is virtually universal: a Palestinian state. Is there any country or mainstream politician, even in Israel, who opposes this outcome? This call is not exactly samizdat. Even the more controversial contention that Israel is blocking such a state can hardly be considered subversive. This has been the mainstream Western intellectual and diplomatic view since 1967. If anything, what is remarkable is the persistence of this view after Yitzhak Rabin headed down the road to a state in 1993, after Ehud Barak offered one in 2000, and after Ariel Sharon started creating one unilaterally in 2005. How much further must our politics turn upside-down for some to notice that the Israeli public and leadership wants a Palestinian state even more than the Palestinian leadership? Yet the assumption remains, and not just among Israel's harsher critics, that the Palestinians want a state and it is Israel that is standing in the way. THE PERSECUTION complex of Israel critics is essentially a sympathy-grabber. Their more serious contention is that US policy has become too pro-Israel for its own, and Israel's, good. This is another idea that it is strange to regard as endangered speech. Even in the US, most Americans want a pro-Israel policy, but I bet a poll would show that very few Americans believe that the US is not pro-Israel enough, while a significant number - even among those who support Israel - worry that excessive American support for Israel may harm its role as an "honest broker." They shouldn't worry. The truth is that the peace process is stymied by too much evenhandedness, not too little. This is not just because Israel is the only democracy and real American ally in the Middle East, but because of the logic of peacemaking. If country X attacks country Y, it does not make a lot of sense to try to make peace between them by being completely evenhanded, thereby precluding any distinction between aggressor and victim. When Japan attacked the US at Pearl Harbor, would it have made sense for England to call for "restraint from both sides"? This, however, is essentially how the West, including the US, approaches the Arab-Israel conflict. Every statement or proposal must list what Israel and the Palestinians must do, and these lists, according to the "honest broker" paradigm, must at least seem to be balanced and tough on both sides. THE PROBLEM here is that automatically acting as if "both sides" are equally to blame for a conflict provides a huge incentive for aggression. Why not attack, when not only will you not be blamed for it, but your victim will get the flak? This is exactly what happened during the waves of suicide bombings against Israel, when escalating Arab aggression not only failed to produce more pressure on the Arab side, but resulted in increased pressure on Israel. What can be done to fix this? Actually, some baby steps have been taken in the right direction, along with much effort wasted in pointless evenhandedness. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's press conference this week was centered on an announcement of biweekly meetings between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. This idea has a certain surreal quality, since Abbas cannot speak for the Hamas government he has joined - and if he can, what is there to say? The other, much more promising, side of her latest swing through the region was a new emphasis on pressing the Arab states to pitch in. "Applause at the end of the road will be welcome, but help now... is far more important," Rice said in her closing press conference. "Just as Israelis and Palestinians must clarify a political horizon together, the Arab states must clarify a political horizon for Israel... The Arab states should begin reaching out to Israel - to reassure Israel that its place in the region will be more, not less secure, by an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state; to show Israel that they accept its place in the Middle East; and to demonstrate that the peace they seek is greater than just the absence of war. "Such bold outreach can turn the Arab League's words into the basis of active diplomacy, and it can hasten the day when a state called Palestine will take its rightful place in the international community." This new thrust should be seen as the wheat of peacemaking, compared to the chaff of Olmert-Abbas meetings for their own sake. But why not go further? It would better yet if Rice credited Israelis for demonstrating that they are more than ready to live next to a peaceful democratic Palestinian state, and that the principal obstacle to peace is the Palestinians' demand of a right to move to Israel - a demand that is obviously inconsistent with Israel's right to exist. This would be better not because it is more "pro-Israel" per se, but because you can't end a conflict before you can speak honestly about its cause. The irony is that if there is self-censorship in the debate, it is not being exercised by Israel's critics but exists in the refusal to assign blame where it belongs, and to speak clearly of the glaring asymmetry in responsibility for the conflict's perpetuation.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11