The Métropolitain

Israel under siege—again. The dilemma of mutually assured discomfort

By David T. Jones on April 23, 2010

Washington, DC - Having just returned from a Middle East trip that included travel in Israel, I am prompted to muse over the current imbroglio roiling U.S.-Israeli relations.  Over the past several weeks, there has been renewed incentive to fault find Israel for offenses that sometimes more in the mind of the beholder than in reality.  Indeed, it is far easier to find unloving critics than uncritical lovers in the current environment.  For example, the tour group with which I traveled had two briefers:  An articulate representative of the Palestinian Authority who (predictably) found fault with all elements of Israeli policy and an Israeli from a local NGO who was also critical of the GOI.  But the absence of "balance" went unremarked.

And one must be at least mildly skeptical that some of this media bludgeoning came during the run-up to Passover; likewise, one can be cynical over the breathless revelations regarding the child molestations by Catholic clergy adroitly timed for the Palm Sunday/Holy Week/Easter time frame.  The public relations battle for citizens' hearts and minds is a constant one.

Nevertheless, prompting the latest round of prickly irritability, Israeli announcement of further steps for construction of 1,600 housing units in Jerusalem while Vice President Biden was visiting Tel Aviv to jumpstart "proximity talks" between Palestinians and Israelis, appeared designed to embarrass the USG.  At best, it was the type of "left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing" stupidity. It also is possible that the announcement reflected internal Israeli government infighting to force Netanyahu into even less compromising positions.

Still the practical result has been invidious:  de facto postponement of these proximity talks that at best had little chance of substantive accomplishment, but the absence of which provides justification to Palestinian "days of rage" and attacks that resulted in greater restrictions on West Bank Palestinians.  There has also been a new burst of global irritation and hand-wringing over the Israeli announcement, prompting a circle-the-wagons response from Netanyahu and a predictable refusal on his part to reverse the GOI decision even under intense USG pressure. 

What can be said is that the deliberate refusal by media, human rights NGOs, the United Nations, and others to hold Palestinians to account on at least an equal standard, justifies Israeli rejection of any external criticism.  Still, it is also clear that few Americans or Canadians would accept life under the extensive labyrinth of political, economic, and social constraints inflicted on West Bank Palestinians.  Passing from the West Bank into Israel is a protracted security process even on the best days; clearly it discourages easy communication and economic activity.  The "separation barriers" have worked, so far as largely eliminating Palestinian terrorist entrance into Israel is concerned (and who in a post-9/11 world can criticize a government for protecting its population), but it seals off rather than resolving the problem.  Simply examining the virulent graffiti on the Palestinian side of the barriers confirms that there are few who would support any compromise Tel Aviv could accept.  The torch is being passed to the next generation, but they only wish to use it to incinerate the Israeli state.

Thus in April 2010, we have the same frustrating problem that has defied solution by the best minds and most devoted negotiators for over two generations.  Nobody has ever lost money betting against peace in the Middle East, perhaps because the parties have settled into an endurable, if hardly perfect, balance:  Mutually assured discomfort but not at the level of pain that the sides feel compelled to make the hard compromises to resolve the problems.  Without mutual willingness to compromise (now including Hamas as well as the Palestinian Authority and Israel), no outside authority can manufacture an agreement.