The Art of Talking Middle East Peace with a Forked Tongue

I hear the news with much bemusement of Israel agreeing to talk peace with the Palestinians, and that Benjamin Netanyahu is looking forward to this meeting.

It is almost comical to me, and about as believable as some sort of mythical Chimera, which only exists on the pages of a fantastical Greek tale with an elaborate plot. Even the ultimatum by Hillary Clinton (which already has been revised) sounded as if it was intended for the audience's benefit while the actors had studied the script thoroughly and were knowingly smiling.

Ever since the Oslo accord, which I thought rather foolishly at the time to be a major first step towards peace, I have learnt to be skeptical of any sentence that contains one of these ill fated words: 'Middle East', 'Peace' and, 'Talk'. Since Oslo, I have heard innumerable iterations of these words without any manifestation of their meaning, or even a remote possibility of anything vaguely resembling peace, so that now whenever I hear of any news related to this subject I laugh my evil laugh, soon followed by nausea and pessimism.

The person who was responsible for that small step towards a broader peace agreement, Yitzhak Rabin, was himself murdered by a Jewish fanatic who apparently didn't agree with his policies. Since his death, commitment to the Palestinian right to self government, which was part of the Oslo accord, has been pretty much a farce. Ehud Barak, who never stops talking about how he offered Arafat the deal of his lifetime and was refused, offers nothing short of a gross misrepresentation.

According to political scientist and Middle East scholar Norman Finkelstein, the Israeli offer was considerably less than the 22 percent of the original Palestinian territory that they were asking for: basically a written and signed waiver of the pre-1967 war border, which Israel came to occupy during that war: it is now in defiance of UN resolution 242 which has been accepted by the Palestinian Authority for over fifteen years. He also stated that the most of the onus of concessions was on the Palestinians, though the plan divided Palestine in two swaths of land with Israeli territory running right down the middle. Israel also refused to cede control of the temple mount and the two Mosques. It is quite possible that Ehud Barak may have wanted to make some sort of reasonable deal but the pro-Israeli American faction pressured him to modify his original offer, and Barak caved in.

Among those involved were the usual beltway figures like Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller, et al (hardly neutral parties for these negotiations). So it came as no surprise that the talks failed miserably, with chief objections including a right of return for Palestinians, contiguous Palestinian Land, and East Jerusalem (they did agree to a single highway running through the territory).

Israel has been chipping away at the occupied territories by building settlements, encroaching on Palestinian lands, bulldozing Palestinians homes, uprooting date and olive trees, and resettling Jews from the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries on Palestinian land (and by this I am not referring to a 'promised land' based on mythical writings but Palestinian land in the true John Lockean sense of the word for generations). This encroachment happened slowly at first, but it is happening at an alarming rate of late. The land grabbing has been particularly emboldened now that Israel has little or no international pressure, and the United States has been pretty much coerced into its ambition of a greater Israel by systemic instruments of persuasion.

Benjamin Netanyahu was famously caught on tape saying how easy it was to manipulate United States foreign policy in favor of Israel, and how he derailed the Oslo accord with a political trick of redefining Palestinian territories. He further said that the only way to deal with Palestinians is to "...beat them up, not once but repeatedly, beat them up so it hurts so badly, until it's unbearable." There are some minor oppositions and criticisms of these land grabs, but they are mostly of the defanged sort with little or no threat of consequences, as we continue to be the largest funders of Israel to the tune of approximately $500 dollars per Israeli citizen per annum according to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt--and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

The noose around the inhabitants of these territories has been tightening both economically and territorially for some time now, as Israel effectively runs the world's largest quasi-prison camp: the Gaza Strip. It controls all aspects of this thin strip of land (25x5-7.5 miles) which is home to about 1.5 million people: it is walled on the Egypt side; it is hemmed-in and patrolled by the Israeli air force and navy on its Mediterranean Sea side; on its north-western side there are checkpoints; and there is a military presence all around the Gaza Strip towards its eastern and northern edge. The main airport has been bombed by IDF and rendered defunct by bulldozers since 2002. Israel monitors electric plants, supply and quantity of food, fuel, medicine, and building material.

Gaza was literally decimated in the last war, a war declared inhumane by an independent United Nations investigation headed by none other than Richard Goldstone. Until the recent breach on the Egypt side, Dov Weisglass, an advisor to Ehud Olmert, said "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger." Harvard Professor Martin Kramer, in his talk at Herzliya, criticized the West's supply of pro-natal subsidies to Palestinians and bemoaned the population problem of 'superfluous young males' in the territories.

Just months before his bid for office, Ariel Sharon, gauging the negative sentiments of the Israelis at the time towards Barak's government and his land-for-peace offering and hoping to derail the whole Oslo process, marched on the top of the temple mount inside the ground of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock with his thousand or so gendarme escorts, and succeeded in getting a reaction out of the Palestinians. While the Wailing Wall is sacred to the Jews, the inside ground is hallowed ground for the Muslims, especially during prayer service and on Fridays. People of other faiths are now allowed inside the compound during certain hours: these visits are of peaceable natures. The inside ground has been always under the control of a Muslim cleric, and this arrangement has not been changed since Moshe Dayan took control of the complex. Sharon's desecration march was an affront to the Palestinian population of Jerusalem, and, as expected, there was a violent protest and police standoff with casualties.

This event gave rise to the second Intifada movement, and most importantly, handed Sharon his prime ministership of Israel. While the Mitchell's Israel-friendly report may point to the contrary, I believe this act by Sharon alone was the main catalyst for the second Intifada.

Israel has always said it wants to talk peace and wants peace: sure. But Israel has always gotten around the peace talk by simply stating, "We want to talk peace but we don't have a partner at the table." This was a ploy of semantics utilized successfully until the death of Arafat who was disliked universally. Then it demanded that there be a 'legitimate government' that it could talk to, and when the Palestinians elected Mahmud Abbas as their leader, Israel found itself in a political cul-de-sac and needed an out quickly. It found that out in Hamas.

Israel raised Hamas as a major sticking point to the whole process, and elevated Hamas from a mole hill to a mountain by deeming it a grave national security threat that didn't recognize Israel: at the time Hamas was only a very small resistance group, and the false recognition only made matters worse for Israel as Hamas gained strength.

After much deliberation with the United States, Israel convinced the United States to demand that the Palestinian Authority hold an election in the Gaza strip to delegitimize Hamas. I am not certain whether it was to Israel's or the United States' surprise, but Hamas won the election handily. Condi Rice went to Ramallah to pressure Abbas to dissolve the Hamas government by force. I refuse to believe that Israel's intelligence department (Mossad and Shin Bet) skipped its homework: they had to have known the strong support of Hamas in Gaza. And I don't buy into the entire 'hold the election now' charade. I think they knew all along what the result would be, and knew that by having Hamas as the canard, they will always have an out from the peace talks: they can revile Hamas all day long through their media machine.

Hamas is the golden goose that Israel doesn't want to kill: they get to create a struggle for power between the two occupied territories, keeping Fatah's power in check. Hamas's rhetoric of bluster and bravado provides incendiary sparks to this tinderbox of a situation, but in reality Hamas is nothing but a lowly midge on Israel's mighty military radar: a thorn of necessity, if you will, in their side.

And there are other ways it has successfully avoided sitting at the table. It does this by pursuing an ongoing act of war against the residents, or assassination of Palestinian leadership soon after agreeing to talk peace, or moving its tanks inside the Palestinian area and bulldozing homes, or indiscriminately carrying out helicopter raids in residential areas by missile attacks under the guise of fighting terrorism. It routinely carries out an operation of mass detention and extrajudicial killings of clerics and prominent figures. Neither side is good at restraint during times of cease fire, but when it comes to such agreements Israel holds most of the cards.

Israel uses Intifada, Hamas, Qassam canister rockets, guns, and the act of youth throwing stones (vs. tanks, bombs, air power, and the threat of nukes) as a perennial caveat for the breakdown of talks: it is very savvy at keeping up a rhetorical façade of disconsolate woefulness and pathos for international benefit. Meanwhile it metes out brutal treatment of the Palestinians--all Palestinians, not just individuals known or suspected to be a threat--behind the facade.

It is the only nuclear power in the region with warheads, and it is a military behemoth of enormous magnitude: thanks mostly to the advance weaponry we give away or provide at bargain basement prices. Intifada is mostly a symbolic act of defiance, and a call to the international community for an end to this oppressive occupation. One can't inflict any significant damage to Israel by throwing stones, firing guns, and canister rockets with limited range from a militarily barricaded area. Israeli army's Kevlar armor can at best be blemished by Intifada. The Palestinians are outgunned by a staggeringly huge factor, and usually the casualties are in a 100:1 ratio.

While the United States has frequently chosen to take issue with nations that are on the wrong side of history, in this case it has chosen, in my opinion, a side that is morally quite tenuous when it comes to the Palestinians' right to nationhood. Israel is the biggest foreign policy liability for the United States in the Muslim world, and a few non-Muslim nations for that matter, and it is paying a very dear price for this continued alliance.

I am not alone of this opinion: John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Noam Chomsky, Richard Goldstone, and Norman Finkelstein echo this sentiment (Jewish academics and political figures ostracized for their views: the self-hating sort, if you go by the Likudniks and Zionists--this muzzling device is all too predictable and should be called out).

While making an address at a University Moshe Dayan said the following, "We came to a region that was inhabited by Arabs, and we set up a Jewish state. In many places, we purchased the land from Arabs and set up Jewish villages where there had once been Arab villages. You don't even know the names of the previous Arab villages and I don't blame you, because those geography books aren't around anymore. Not only the books, the villages aren't around." He conveniently forgot to mention the several hundred Palestinian villages that were terrorized by Haganah, Irgun and Lehi (early Zionist paramilitary and terror groups): the villagers were forced out of their homes using terror tactics and sent into refugee camps.

I have now lived in the United State longer than I have lived in my own country of birth. I have often had to defend this country's actions to my European friends who are derisive of our politicians and foreign policy. There are numerous things I love and appreciate about this country. But when it comes to its foreign policies, I have had some strong disagreements, especially concerning Israel.

Israel reminds me of that delinquent child whose parents coddle it, and always come to rescue and justify its misbehavior. But the misbehavior has reached a level where it is usurping the United States' authority. If you believe the media, great strides are being made in the direction of peace, and the prospects are hopeful. Personally, I am not as hopeful that these meetings will get us any closer to any meaningful outcome despite resumption of talks. I am no Oracle of Delphi but when it comes to these Middle East peace talks, I fear that those of us who remain skeptical may carry the curse of Cassandra.