Mideast Still Not Ready for Peace

On March 14, 2003, less than a week before "Shock and Awe" opened in Baghdad, President Bush made a surprise appearance in the White House Rose Garden to announce the "road map for peace" between Israel and the Palestinians. Coming completely out of the blue, it was thus perceived as more a ploy than a plan, one meant to rescue Tony Blair from sinking approval ratings back in Albion, and to appease, with the carrot of a Palestinian state, Arab moderates who might otherwise be more vocal in opposing our impending take/make-over of the Iraqi government.

The Iraq war then kept the headlines busy for a while until quite recently, when suddenly the road map was back and Bush was flying about the Arab world hugging dictators and looking like some down-home Solomon about to split the contested baby in half, all parties smiling as if that's exactly what they'd wanted in the first place. In fact, even Bush wasn't quite ready to follow the map (despite its strong support from Colin Powell) until, presto change-o, he's waving it about like a guide to buried treasure.

Or to the 2004 election. Which it might well be, depending, of course, on whether a powder keg of variables resists ignition before those chads start dangling all over again.

Candidate Bush was rumored to be slightly fuzzy on foreign affairs, and his first six months in office did little to dispel the perception; he was mostly concerned with getting each of us our $300 tax "loan" so we wouldn't be upset that he won the election by a single vote (Sandra Day O'Connor's). And then Muhammed Atta and his pals "martyred" themselves along with 3,000 innocent people, and overnight Bush was "riding herd" on the rest of the globe, corralling the Taliban and sending Saddam and his deck of cohorts shuffling into the desert.

And now, the road map to peace. Funny thing about road maps -- they can be notoriously difficult and misleading to read, especially when the cartographers are less than intimate with the area depicted. A street that seems to go from here to there without interruption really doesn't, due to some detail or obstacle the map has failed to indicate. And the whole idea of a road map suggests travel, as if the Israelis and Palestinians were going on a trip far from home, which is hardly the case; more than a road map, what they really need is a remodeling plan.

But let's not quibble over words. The Israeli-Palestinian peace game, it seems, is as compelling to recent U.S. presidents as "Grand Theft Auto" is to today's adolescents. Or, to make a less contemporary analogy, and one more relevant to the Middle East, it's like the riddle of the Sphinx. No president has claimed to know the answer, but all have surely believed that if they found it, history would plop a crown on their heads just like the one Oedipus got (though, of course, Oedipus had problems later on that Kenneth Starr would have killed for). So will Bush be the real Oedipus Rex? Perhaps we ought to examine the riddle:

What walks on all fours in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?

The Middle East, of course. In the beginning there were four: the British, who had added the region to their empire, promising in 1917 that the Jews would have a homeland there, then simply abandoning the whole mess after WWII; the United Nations, which established the state of Israel; the Jews, ready to fight for it, and the Arabs, ready to fight against it. Then there were just two -- Jews and Arabs, the latter presenting themselves as a united front determined to drive the former into the Mediterranean. That is, until Arab losses in three wars convinced them that aligning themselves directly with the interests of the Palestinians wasn't so smart. Which is why there are three players now: Israelis, Arabs, and the Palestinians themselves, who today find themselves closer than ever, perhaps, to having a viable state of their own.

So what's the problem? Just a few of those minor details, you might say, that don't quite show up on the map. Like these:

1) Who's in charge on the Palestinian side? Yasser Arafat, Abu Mazan or Mahmoud Abbas? Oh, right, forgive me, the last two are the same person (having two names, I assume, allows more leeway in contradicting oneself, perhaps like the compassionate conservative Bush who becomes faith-based Dubya when he works the "right" crowd). In any case, with Arafat accurately branded a terrorist, Bush wants nothing to do with him, which is rather convenient, since Abbas appears more than willing to follow the map. He's even insisting that the brothers grim, Hamas and Jihad, stop using bombs as fashion accessories, but whether, without Arafat, he has any muscle to put behind that demand seems rather unlikely. It seems even more unlikely -- impossible? -- that Hamas-Jihad will restrain themselves without being forced to at weapons-point.

2) Yes, a separate Palestinian state, but what will it look like? Its future citizens are insisting on "contiguous territory," meaning they don't want to exist within Israel the way Indian nations today exist within America, i.e., little circles of desolation completely enveloped by their prosperous, powerhouse neighbor (though I suppose the Palestinians could open a string of Holy Land casinos). When Sharon came out for a separate Palestinian state recently, he might have been acting Clintonesque -- it depends what the meaning of "state" is -- the West Bank or a couple of back yards in Nablus and Rahmallah?


3) And then there's Sharon's sudden willingness to use the "o" word -- "occupied" -- and to dismantle some of the settlements Israel has built in the West Bank since March of 2001; in fact, he was reportedly already doing so. So what if they happen to be unpopulated? Are these Mid-East machers for real? Let's face it, nobody's going to take Mazzan / Mahmoud seriously until they see Palestinian security forces raiding Hamas headquarters, just as no fool's going to believe Sharon is genuine until they see the Israeli army shipping disgruntled Jewish settlers back inside the door-handle of pre-1967 Israel.

4) But will the Israeli right allow such a thing? The country seems to have, instead of a constitution, articles of confederation, each group with a say not even the majority can override. Imagine the U.S. if the religious right weren't just a wing of the Republican party but a distinct group in Congress capable of political blackmail whenever the need arose (OK, so you don't have to imagine that). The Israelis may have Arafat holed up in his compound, but the ultra-orthodox Jews have the Knesset under siege. Israel's identity as a "Jewish state" seemed utterly essential while the ashes of the Holocaust were still warm, but now, with the hardcore religious exempt from military service and chomping at the Torah to rewrite the very definition of a Jew, well, the Israeli government seems as incapable of action as the Palestinian Authority.

5) And speaking of action, the road map is supposedly a collaboration between us, the U.N., Russia and Europe, so why was Bush the only one sipping a Diet Coke in Aqaba? Did he once again not care to wait for the other parties to hop aboard, or do those other parties think that this, their own road map, is so sketchy they'd rather not be caught trying to explain how to follow it?

6) And if America's the only one playing this round of Palestinian-Israeli Jumanji, will our elected officials be able to walk the line between not betraying Israel in the eyes of American Jewish voters while at the same time not appearing to Arabic eyes as one-sided?

7) And a last detail, but woefully not least, Jerusalem -- to halve or halve not.

Sound complicated? Too complicated for the likes of George W.? Not to imply he's cerebrally challenged, but is he the type of leader who can provide the nuanced approach (or, as many worry, the "focus") that will surely be necessary to overcome so many barriers? Or will he just use his OK Corral style to attempt to intimidate the parties into cooperating? When will the next distraction in the war on terrorism divert his attention elsewhere? His cronies say this is the right time for him to act on this issue because, it is assumed, we're so heady from our blitzkrieg victory over Saddam that we think the Middle East is no longer a political tar pit but just another schoolyard, like South and Central America and the Caribbean, where we can play the sanctimonious bully. But with the situation in Iraq looking more and more just like a tar (er, oil) pit -- i.e., our soldiers still being picked off, administration defectors claiming that Washington is deluding itself about what it will take, in time and money, to repair and democratize Iraq -- will our window of opportunity for the road map slam shut at any moment, leaving the heart of the Middle East chronically debilitated with the same untreatable angina?

In which case, we may have to tap into certain suspicions, namely that this whole peace initiative is just a smokescreen for the Administration's current setbacks in postwar Iraq, now known as the "Curdled Crescent." After all, Israelis and Palestinians have been dying for years now, and suddenly this is the moment for peace? Let's drop the pious rhetoric (one of the Bush team's trademarks) and start telling it like it is: It wasn't Operation Iraqi Freedom but Operation Reorganize the Arab World; it's not the Iraqi people's oil, it's our oil, only we're just addicts in denial; and we can't be winning the war on terrorism because a) we don't know where the terrorists are; b) no matter how many regimes we change, we're still vulnerable; and c) the war on terrorism has become a war with ourselves -- over civil liberties, embellished intelligence, phantom weapons, the legitimacy of pre-emptive attacks -- over so many things that before 9/11 might have seemed inconceivable.

If I've detoured off the road map, forgive me. What the Israeli-Palestinian impasse requires is not posturing and simplification but commitment and complex negotiation. The "I'll do this only if you do that" Catch-22 has to be broken. We need to think about what the two parties get out of this state of perpetual war -- Israel has no tourists, the Palestinians have no jobs, but the people in power in both camps must feel that conflict without compromise is better than peace with it. Perhaps they prefer to keep a dream -- excuse me, fantasy -- alive rather than come to grips, on both sides, with the fact that it's no longer 1948. Perhaps they really don't mind living in a place where every day is September 11th.

No matter what one writes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will be out of date the next morning, when some Israeli bus explodes, or Palestinian teenager finds himself on the receiving end of an attack helicopter (either I'm clairvoyant or I know the game too well). It's going to take quite some time and a lot of "cleared underbrush" before even non-war comes to the region, let alone peace. In order to end the eye-for-an-eye cycle, someone out there will need to realize that each act of retaliation, no matter how "justified," does nothing but condemn further innocents to death.

So let's just put it this way: This may be a road map for peace, but there's a very good chance we'll get lost along the way. And what I fear most is that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and company aren't the kind of men who ask directions. How can they broker a peace when their own war on terrorism is no less immutable than Israel's?

Which means this road map may be road kill in no time. Perhaps it already is.

Ross M. Levine is an author, Marcel Proust marathoner and manatee-hugger who feels safer on the edge; i.e., in New York or California. He agrees with the King of Brobdingnag that we're "the most pernicious race of odious vermin to crawl the surface of the Earth." He thinks Americans have too much freedom -- fries, that is.

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