Mideast peace in our time really is kind of unlikely

  • Article by: JEFFREY GOLDBERG , Bloomberg News
  • Updated: September 20, 2012 - 8:24 PM

Romney is at least partly right about the Palestinians. He forgot to mention Israel's current leader.

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Palestinian Hamas border officers stand near the Egyptian-Gaza border during a protest against Egyptian policy on the smuggling tunnels in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012.

Photo: Hatem Moussa, AP

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Here's some good news for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney: His barbed observations about the Palestinians and the Middle East peace process, delivered during a speech in May at a now-infamous fundraiser, are 47 percent correct. Maybe 37 percent.

The point is, they're not completely wrong. Which for Romney is saying something.

In the speech, a video of which was just released by Mother Jones magazine, Romney argued that 47 percent of Americans are "victims" dependent on the government. In addition to implying that roughly 150 million of his fellow citizens are moochers and leeches, Romney, answering a question from the audience, said, "The Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish."

He went on: "I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there's just no way."

The previous sentence doesn't track very smoothly, but you get the point. Romney was endorsing the hard line articulated by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who said "the Arabs are the same Arabs and the sea is the same sea" -- which is to say, the Arabs are unswervingly committed to drowning the Jews in the Mediterranean.

What, then, should American policy be? Romney said the best we can hope for is "some degree of stability," while recognizing that the problem will remain unsolved. "We live with that in China and Taiwan," he said. "All right, we have a potentially volatile situation, but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it. We don't go to war to try and resolve it imminently."

So where is Romney wrong, and where is he right?

He is wrong to speak of "the Palestinians" as a single entity. He obviously knows that the Palestinians are divided between two main factions: the self-styled moderates of Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank; and Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood's Palestinian wing, which rules the Gaza Strip.

The West Bank and the Gaza Strip would together constitute the state of Palestine as currently envisioned by international peace processors, but the two parties are waging an intermittent civil war, and have radically different visions about the nature, purpose and size of their as-yet unborn state. The Palestinian Authority is committed, it says, to a two-state solution. Hamas is committed, it says, to the destruction of Israel.

There is a third important group in the mix: Palestinian refugees, and descendants of refugees, who live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other countries of the Middle East. Many of these refugees tend to be more radical than the Palestinian Authority but aren't necessarily affiliated with Hamas.

But precisely because the Palestinians are so divided, Romney is right to question the possibility of reaching a permanent resolution to the conflict anytime soon. He is also right to question the merit of forcing a peace process on the combatants before they're ready to talk. Israelis (and self-aware peace negotiators) often wonder about just who would be doing the negotiating on behalf of the Palestinians and, more to the point, who would have the power to enforce the conditions of a peace treaty.

Romney is also right to doubt the commitment of even some of the more moderate Palestinians to achieving "peace," as the notion is typically understood -- that is, the creation of a Palestinian state comprising the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with a capital in East Jerusalem, in exchange for an end to hostilities and a recognition of Israel.

The Palestinian Authority has had a number of opportunities to move toward such a final settlement. In 2000, Yasser Arafat, then the Palestinians' leader, walked away from the Camp David peace negotiations, where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had made substantial concessions. More recently, Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, seemed uninterested in a set of even more radical concessions floated by Ehud Olmert when he was prime minister.

Palestinian leaders on both sides of the Hamas-Fatah split continue to deny a Jewish connection to the land of Israel, and most claim Jerusalem as their exclusive patrimony. Many cultivate anti-Semitic feeling among their people and encourage a sense of eternal grievance among the refugees.

So Romney isn't wrong to be pessimistic about the desire of many Palestinians for compromise.

But he neglected to mention another relevant fact: Palestinian leaders aren't the only ones unwilling to move toward meaningful negotiations. The government of Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has for three years shown no interest in anything other than maintaining the status quo.

The continued construction of settlements on the West Bank, approved by the Netanyahu government, is meant to thwart the emergence of a Palestinian state. New pockets of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem are meant to deny Palestinians a capital in the Arab section of the city. The Netanyahu government has said it endorses the idea of a two-state solution, but the Palestinian state it envisions is a nonviably small one surrounded by Jewish settlements.

Netanyahu is a smart man, and he knows that no Palestinian leader, even the most moderate one imaginable, would ever accede to a state that adds up to less than 100 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But Netanyahu is also a political survivor, and he is playing to a base that won't give up its dream of a Greater Israel, and that doesn't think Palestinians deserve what Israelis already have.

There is no compelling reason right now to believe that a generous offer by the Israelis would be received positively by their Palestinian interlocutors, whoever they may be. So Romney isn't wrong to say the Palestinians seem uninterested in real compromise. He just neglected to mention that the other player in this conflict isn't particularly interested, either.

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