- In the final months of his administration, President
Clinton has summoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian
leader Yasir Arafat to Camp David. The president's goal is a breakthrough
and a permanent, lasting peace. But the administration risks hurting both
Barak and Afafat, causing them severe - if not fatal - political harm at
home. The president's search for his legacy and the reality of Israeli-Palestinian
relations are on a collision course. Both will likely be damaged at Camp
- The latest Camp David talks are part of a chain, stretching
back to Wye Plantation and Oslo. All were supposed to lay the groundwork
for lasting peace. But why will the latest talks succeed where all the
others have failed? To begin, what exactly is the president trying to achieve?
- With his tenure winding to a close, Clinton is looking
to his legacy. Camp David, after all, is where President Carter presided
over an Israeli-Egyptian settlement. Clinton would clearly like to leave
behind the equivalent of Carter's Camp David accords. In itself, this is
not an ignoble motive. Presidents have a right to be concerned with their
place in history, and striking an Israeli- Palestinian settlement is not
a bad legacy.
- The problem that will arise is not one of intention.
The problem is whether the goal - a formal settlement - is first attainable
and second, worth attaining. The attempt to move beyond informal settlements
to formal ones may make the situation worse, rather than better. In seeking
his place in history, Clinton's good intentions may set the stage for a
substantial deterioration of the situation.
- To understand the profound difference between the first
Camp David accords and these, consider the difference between Israeli-Egyptian
relations and Israeli-Palestinian relations. In strict geopolitical terms,
Egypt and Israel shared nothing but a border. Indeed, the border itself
was artificial; Israel proper and Egypt proper were separated physically
by the Sinai wasteland. The Sinai created the opportunity for peace because
it allowed the separation of two nations. _________________________________
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- But no such buffer is conceivable between Israel and
the Palestinians. Even when Israel blockades the West Bank, hundreds of
thousands of Palestinians and Israeli citizens are intermingled in Israel
proper. In Jerusalem, boundaries are measured not in miles but in streets
- These two peoples are intimately connected by the economy,
as well. The Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza occupy territories
that are simply not viable without access to other markets, both for products
and labor. Countless Palestinians have migrated to other countries, true,
but those who remain need Israel as a place to work. In turn, Israel depends
on the Palestinian labor force for cheap labor.
- Economics aside, the fact is that Israelis and Palestinians
cannot get out of one another's way. Nor can they easily define their relationship
to each other. In a fundamental sense, Israelis and Palestinians both regard
the other as usurpers and intruders. Each regards the other as a historical
victimizer, and each can make eloquent and persuasive arguments in defense
of its own victimization.
- Instead of being marginal, these sensibilities go to
the heart of the political culture of each people. Zionism cannot dispense
with the idea that the Jewish exile and return was a moral imperative and
so, whoever inhabited the land during their absence was a squatter. Palestinian
nationalism is built on the idea that the inhabitants of the land now called
Israel were the unique victims of alien settlers who stole the land and
dispossessed the people. Each political culture is defined over and against
- A formal settlement at Camp David would require that
one side give the other some formal, explicit acknowledgement of claims
to the land. To do so, each side would have to modify its own understanding
of history. Israelis would have to treat Palestinians as other than interlopers,
with legitimate rights. Palestinians would have to formally accept that
Israelis have real rights, too. To do this formally would require a wrenching
redefinition of both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. ___________________________________
- For more on Israel, see: http://www.stratfor.com/MEAF/countries/Israel/default.htm
- For more on the Palestinian National Authority, see:
- The thorn in the heart of this problem is not whether
each leadership is prepared to live with such an understanding; both sides
live each day with the inescapable reality of the presence of the other.
The question, however, is whether the political systems of either Israel
or the Palestinians could endure the formal acknowledgement of the reality.
Can either side cross the chasm between tacit understandings and formal
- The Israeli political system, for one, is a fragmented
constellation of political parties. In election after election, regardless
of whether Labor or Likud wins, neither side has enough votes in the Knesset
to govern without a coalition. As in any democracy, coalition building
in Israel is a mixture of high-minded principle and pork barrel politics.
Who controls the housing budget is intermingled with the relationship between
secular and religious authorities.
- The question of the Palestinians is thrown into this
melange of interest group politics and deep, principled division. After
all, Palestinians and their rights intersect everything from housing strategy
to a Jew's obligation to the Torah's understanding of the land that was
promised. The Israeli political system is not only fragile, but also brittle.
In this context, minor parties threaten to bring down governments over
pork barrel issues and can hold matters of grand strategy hostage to those
- Simply raising the Palestinian issue provides minor parties
with tremendous leverage over any government. The result is the rapid destabilization
of any Israeli government that tries to deal with the matter; most governments
are unstable even if the Palestinian matter is never raised. Until there
is a revolution in Israeli voting patterns, Israelis simply don't have
the political ability to deal with the fundamental issue on the table.
- Nor, for that matter, do the Palestinians. The structure
of the Palestinian polity is such that it must always generate a faction
that stands in opposition to dealing with Israel. Conditions in Gaza are
wretched, and conditions in the West Bank are nearly as bad. Any agreement
with Israel threatens to lock into place a system of political and economic
relationships that are at best barely tolerable. An argument can be made
that Israel is an unavoidable reality and that, for better or worse, accommodation
has to take place.
- This was the position of Arafat's elders. Once, he opposed
it. Now, this is Arafat's position, criticized as it is by younger opponents.
The problem here is the Palestinian version of pork barrel politics. The
misery of the Palestinian people is not equally distributed. Arafat maintains
his position within Fatah and within the Palestine National Authority by
practicing the carrot- and-stick strategy of rewarding friends and coercing
enemies. He is therefore perceived - by some - as an Israeli collaborator.
- But more important, he is seen as an obstacle to their
economic interest and political ambition. As in Israel, fundamental matters
of principle intersect with more prosaic political and economic interests.
Given the poverty of the Gaza and West Bank, a fairly large segment of
the population sees itself as the simultaneous victim of both Israel and
Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Arafat simply doesn't have enough chips
with which to build a broad enough coalition to support him.
- As a result, the promise of peace is only minimally enticing,
since it seems to promise long-term economic misery. Many are frightened
by a formal peace, because they are afraid that it will lock them into
a double marginalization: first behind the Jews, second behind the PNA.
This is compounded by the deep ideological and national principles that
block acknowledging the permanence of Israel.
- The result is a permanent faction prepared to block any
formal settlement. This faction understands fully the deepest Israeli fears,
fears carefully fanned by their Israeli counterparts. The Israeli fear
is rooted in geography: Any Palestinian entity will become a staging ground
for an army rolling across Israel's narrow waist. At the very least, it
will be a staging ground for terrorists.
- Even if the Clinton administration thinks it has the
implicit acquiescence of Hamas, another faction will arise to carry out
the role of spoiler, giving Israeli hard-liners an excuse to crack down.
As the Israelis clamp down, the anti-Arafat faction in Hamas and elsewhere
can claim that Israel has no intention of allowing Palestinian autonomy.
Further, they can argue that Arafat himself is either a dupe or an agent
of the Israelis. As the situation grows out of control on the Palestinian
side, the brittle Israeli political structure shatters, leading to a political
vacuum - a new election that settles nothing.
- It is important to understand that Israeli-Palestinian
co- habitation has come a long way since the end of the Intifadah. While
the more extreme dreams of Oslo have not come to pass, there is a Palestinian
government, however it is called, in increasing control of the West Bank.
This is a tremendous event, unimaginable say, in 1973.
- But the most important elements have been the implicit
ones, not the explicit ones - the formal announcements of talks aimed at
a final, breakthrough agreement. In a very practical way, rooted in the
Middle East, the formal understandings and the way in which things actually
work are not intimately connected. Far more progress has been made in accommodating
the fears and needs of both sides - by not addressing them formally.
- Which brings us back to Camp David. It seems the president,
at the very least, has chosen the wrong place. It is not that he won't
get a document out of Camp David. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians
are going to be the ones to sabotage the talks. Each side is too savvy
about American power and about the media's perception to simply walk out
of the summit. Some piece of paper is likely to emerge.
- The problem is that whatever emerges will hurt both Barak
and Arafat, the very figures to which U.S. policy is tied. Washington actively
supported Barak against Netanyahu just as it backs Arafat against Hamas.
It is, therefore, extraordinary that the administration is forcing both
men into a negotiation that can cause severe, if not fatal, political damage
at home. Formal recognition - on paper - will provide opportunities for
political destabilization rather than increased security.
- Two metaphors are likely to apply. The first - that the
road to hell is paved with good intentions - quickly comes to mind. The
second - that a straight line is not necessarily the fastest route to peace
- will do, as well. Peace is not always best achieved by peace talks. Sometimes,
not discussing peace is the best course. Clinton's need for a legacy and
the reality of Israeli-Palestinian relations are on a collision course.
It is likely that both will lose at Camp David.
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