How History Weighs on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (COMMENTARY MAGAZINE) Seth Mandel 05/18/12)
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In September 1993, Yasir Arafat told one of recent history’s most
significant lies. At the time, Arafat still resided where he
certainly belonged: on the State Department’s terrorism list. But the
date of the White House ceremony announcing the signing of the
declaration of principles was nearing, and the Clinton administration
had given up its earlier resistance to asking Yitzhak Rabin to shake
the bloodstained hand of the committed murderer on the White House
lawn so everyone could have their “historic” moment in the sun.
So Arafat wrote a letter. He would–scout’s honor–end his campaign to
annihilate the Jewish people. “Our lawyers judged this written
renunciation as sufficient grounds for the president to take Arafat
and the PLO off the State Department’s terrorism list,” wrote Martin
Indyk in his memoir of the Clinton administration’s Middle East
diplomacy. The rest, as they say, is history.
I recount this story not to take a gratuitous swipe at the naïveté of
the Clinton administration nor at the cavalier way Israeli security
concerns were put in a box in the White House attic so Clinton could
mug for the cameras. The point is that allowing Arafat to hijack and
destroy the chances for peace cannot be so easily undone, even if
we’ve learned something from these mistakes.
Aaron David Miller, a member of the Clinton team, is now at the
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a regular
columnist for Foreign Policy, and has used his perch to attempt to
atone for the mistakes of the Clinton administration. It is an
honorable and laudable act. And yesterday at the center, Miller
moderated an interesting discussion between former Shin Bet director
Ami Ayalon and former Obama campaign adviser Robert Malley. The event
was ostensibly about how the old negotiations paradigm has become
somewhat useless and the value of unilateralism in moving forward.
Malley described a strategy of “parallel unilateral steps.” Ayalon
mostly agreed, but insisted “this is a friendly unilateralism, not an
antagonistic unilateralism.” Neither, however, went on to describe in
any great detail what your friendly neighborhood unilateralism would
look like in practice. And Malley restated Miller’s own thesis,
suggesting that it was difficult to understand how giving up the
fiction of a bilateral peace process could possibly be more damaging
than maintaining it, at this point.
But there are two problems here. First, Ayalon readily admitted
that “we know the parameters” of a final deal, and those would
be “the Clinton parameters… and all that was discussed in the last 20
years.” Because the “last 20 years” have been used by the Palestinian
leadership to broadcast as loudly and as often as possible that they
utterly reject this idea, it’s hard to imagine why Ayalon still
thinks this is a workable plan. But his opening seems to be that
Israel should conform to those parameters with or without Palestinian
This may or may not be worth exploring–I’ve written
about “coordinated unilateralism” before, though I’m not sure
changing the tactics while keeping the same parameters of a final-
status agreement is practical.
But Ayalon does have one revolutionary idea, and it’s one he has been
drawing attention to recently. That idea is: treat Israeli settlers
like human beings. As Ayalon wrote in the New York Times in
April: “We have learned that we must be candid about our proposed
plan, discuss the settlers’ concerns and above all not demonize them.
They are the ones who would pay the price of being uprooted from
their homes and also from their deeply felt mission of settling the
Ayalon repeated this thesis yesterday. This is important, because
among mainstream media outlets and left-of-center journalists you
will not find such empathy toward the settlers. Nor will you find
nuance or complexity.
For his part, Malley wants the settlers at the table too. This is in
part because Malley wants everyone at the table–he’s long been a
proponent of negotiating with Hamas. But that just makes those who
would exclude the settlers look that much more ridiculous. (Among
leftists, the idea that you would talk to Hamas but not Orthodox Jews
makes perfect sense–which helps explain the marginalization of the
But this raises an important question: Are you bringing settlers to
the table as props, to display your empathy and humanity and ask them
to sit there quietly as you pat them on the head? Or are you bringing
them to the table to include them in negotiations? Malley, Ayalon,
and Miller are all men of the left, so it’s encouraging to hear them
talk like this, but the panel was not exactly balanced. And history
is, once again, an obstacle–disrespect of the settlers and the
whitewashing of violent Palestinian rejectionism have become
ingrained elements of the peace process.
During the presentation, Ayalon said he believes “there is no peace
without partners.” If that’s true, then based on the behavior of
Israel’s “partner,” there is no peace.
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