THE BLOG

Three-Dimensional Billiards

This past weekend there was a meeting of around 100 folks -- about half Americans and half Israeli -- with more than a smattering of sitting, as well as former, very senior officials of both governments, plus bunches of NGO types from both countries' think tanks as well as leading members of the press and a handful of observers full of amateur curiosity like this writer, plus a few Palestinian Israelis, Jordanians and other Middle East nationals. The subject obviously was the Middle East in general and U.S./Israel relations in particular. This was the ninth year in a row the meeting was held. The rules of attending prohibit revealing names and attributions, though everything else is free game.

If there was any consensus resembling a conclusion, it was that things are just as confusing as they were nine years ago and, according to several people who had attended all nine annual meetings, probably more complicated and risky to all parties. But, that it is just as important to keep talking -- about what?

Naturally a lot of timely events drew a lot of talk: settlements on the heels of the UN Palestinian vote? The role of Egypt, Clinton, Obama and Morsi in the ceasefire in Gaza? The connections or lack thereof between Turkey and Israel? The Syrian uprising and what role of the U.S. and Israel? The January elections in Israel and who are the serious players? How to deal with Iran and their nuclear plans and ambitions? Where do Russia and China fit in the whole picture?

You do not want me to walk you through all those issues because, after listening for about 15 hours of fascinating detailed discussion, my mind was swimming in confusion. It does take a lifetime to become fully familiar with that collection of historical animosities, political and occasionally military conflicts, economic and cultural entanglements, and the bewildering cast of characters that is, uniquely, the Middle East. It also seems that it is likely to take more than my lifetime to understand them. Hence the image of three-dimensional billiards came to mind. Three dimensional chess is actually playable. I suspect no one has ever tried something similar with billiards -- or even thought about trying. It seems to me, however, that it's a fitting metaphor for the realities of the Middle East today. However, a couple of thoughts occurred to me about how the subject could be framed, without being constrained by excessive familiarity with the historical stories.

It is fatuous to say that if it were not for the existence of oil and nuclear weapons, the subject of the Middle East would not be of much interest to the rest of the world today. Yes, the Middle East was and remains the cradle of the modern world -- with or without oil and nukes. Yet, without those things the peoples there would simply be a largely unmelted pot with tribal and religious distinctions and histories, constantly at each other's throats, yet with increased visibility in the world because of modern telecommunications and other forms of modernization.

But with oil and nukes in the picture the rest of the world inevitably gets drawn into their tribal and religious issues and angers, as if it were an integral part of that past and present.

"So what?" you may be thinking. Well, if we all go back to basics and strip the billiards game back to pre-oil and nukes and then analyze how it got to now, we all might begin to see some things more clearly.

For one thing oil surely is on the way to becoming less influential. As the U.S. becomes increasingly rich again in hydrocarbon energy with massive gas reserves, the calculus will begin to change a great deal well ahead of the ultimate changes. If, and when, we all get through the knothole of restraining the Iranian nuke issue, that general overhang is bound to recede in importance, as the world is bound to/has to adjust to a nuclear world.

If the Israelis could bring themselves to thinking bigger, they hopefully could begin to think better about the smaller issues.

As this weekend's meeting was drawing to a close, in a somewhat frustrated mood, one of the most senior Americans present, with no official connection to the issues, but with perhaps with the biggest and most insightful brain in the room, asked in a very brief compelling way, in substance as accurately as I can recall it, "How can you expect us Americans to forever keep backing you in this vexing situation if you do not make clear a rational plan for how you intend to proceed. It is not enough for you to keep telling us we are inevitably your Siamese twin who cannot be split; we need to know how you propose to solve these problems in a way that can make sense for all concerned."

That was the unexpected dramatic moment of the weekend.

Perhaps that question may reverberate and start a process that could lead to a plan and help us all lighten the burdensome load called the Middle East.