Negotiations in the Middle East are at an impasse. What two former Israeli Prime Ministers have recognized -- that there can be no settlement in the Middle East as long as Israel claims all of Jerusalem -- has been rejected by Benjamin Netanyahu and his rightist cohort. Offers by Ehud Barak to Yasir Arafat, and later by Ehud Olmert to Mahmoud Abbas, of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem (both of which were declined), have now been taken off the table by Netanyahu. This is the impasse that has been created by Netanyahu's exclusion of East Jerusalem -- captured by the Israelis in the 1967 war -- in any settlement freeze. And the Palestinians on their part will not enter into "indirect" negotiations -- with George Mitchell as the go-between -- as long as all settlements are not frozen.
As Netanyahu put it in his speech to AIPAC last week, Jews were building in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and they are building in Jerusalem today. What happened in the interval, as during the seven regimes between the beginning of the Common era and 1948 is in effect brushed out, including that of the benighted (excuse the pun) Crusaders -- not to speak of the fact that nothing can match architecturally the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, originally built by Muslims, respectively in the seventh and eighth centuries. How then can the Israelis claim all of Jerusalem for themselves?
How can Netanyahu get out of the impasse he has created, after years of careful fudging by U.S. and Israeli diplomacy? By what the French call a "fuite en avant." It is like preemption but not quite. It is "the acceleration of a (political) process judged necessary although dangerous." In other words, Netanyahu might seek to change the game, in order to transcend the current impasse. He can best do this by -- heaven forbid! -- attacking Iran. In the resulting turmoil, the whole dimension of the Middle East "peace process" would be altered. There would be no more talk of an "impasse," at least in the context as we know it. It would end all talk of settlements and East Jerusalem. It would also be disastrous for U.S. interests in the region, already undermined, as Gen. David Petraeus has pointed out, by Washington's longstanding and one-sided support for Israel.
I do not think, however, that Netanyahu and company are that desperate. Not yet.
Editor's Note: Dr. Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East-South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from August 1979 to August 1984. It was this Division that directed the covert action operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He is now a historian and an associate of the Belfer Center's International Security Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School.