Israel Report

July 2001         

The Death of Compromise

There's no more middle in the Middle East.

By David Brooks

For the past half century, most people thought the Arab-Israeli conflict was a fight over land. Leaders would propose slogans like "Land for Peace." Diplomats would draw lines on maps, hoping to find some territorial arrangement that would be acceptable to both sides. But the events of the last nine months—the failure of Camp David and the subsequent intifada—have transformed the Middle East as radically as the events of 1948 or 1967. They have stripped away the notion that this is a struggle about land and material things. They have revealed that it is a struggle over the assignment of historical guilt.

If the conflict were about land, it would already have been solved. At Camp David, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered to dismantle over 100 settlements, return over 90 percent of the West Bank, large chunks of Jerusalem, and all of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians, and to swap other land to compensate them for the last few bits of territory that would remain Israeli. Arafat rejected this without even making a counter-offer because Barak's deal would have amounted to a step away from what Arafat and his people really care about. The Palestinians know that they cannot threaten the existence of Israel in a material sense. Israel's GDP per capita is over ten times that of its Arab neighbors, and its military might is unquestioned. But the Palestinians can hope to undermine the moral legitimacy of the Jewish state. More than anything, it now seems, this is what they want: for the Israelis to capitulate intellectually and morally; for the Israelis to admit that their state was founded on a crime; for them to apologize for what their existence has done to the Palestinians.

The Palestinians will not, it now appears, stop fighting until the Israelis acknowledge the justice of the Palestinian cause and absolve the Palestinians of all guilt for the terrorism perpetrated in their name. They're like a man in a bitter feud whose enemy's opinion begins to matter more to him than anything else: He craves his enemy's admission of guilt. To secure this, the Palestinians are willing to endure another century of refugee camps, road closures, violence, and conflict.

In other words, the Middle East conflict has been polarized and simplified. The whole dispute hangs on a simple question: Is Israel a criminal state? Arab populations have swung behind the idea that it is, and the Jewish population has swung behind the idea that it isn't. Not since 1948 has the issue been so stark and each side so unified. There is simply no middle position on this central question, and so all those who were trying to span the divide between the two peoples—the businessmen who want to trade with the other side, as well as the peace activists who want to build bridges—have found that the ground has vanished from under their feet.

It's interesting for Americans to watch the evolution of this conflict, because this is what happens when one state is militarily and economically dominant over its rivals. The rivals give up even trying to compete on the battlefield or in the marketplace. Instead, they challenge the very idea of the dominant power. And the people in that dominant power have to do something that is very difficult for a bourgeois democracy. They have to remind themselves of the ideals for which their nation was founded. They have to rally around those abstractions, enduring terrorism and fear for their sake, even when it seems easier to appease their rivals with apologies and other displays of post-colonial guilt or multicultural relativism.

America, the world's dominant power, may soon face this kind of challenge. If so, let's hope we behave as well as Israel, a regional power, is now doing. Almost all Israelis—of left, right, and center—are unified behind the proposition that Israel must fight to defend its moral legitimacy. The country that a few years ago seemed exhausted by conflict, enamored of the NASDAQ, and too rich and sophisticated to bother with military service, is now thoroughly mobilized. Patriotic rhetoric rings in the most unlikely places, the politicians are actually working together, and the idealists who believed in reaching out to Yasser Arafat now acknowledge their past misjudgments.

If there is one person who can stand in for all the Israelis who have changed their thinking, it is Shlomo Ben-Ami. A distinguished academic, Ben-Ami is a historian of economic development and medieval Spain. He is a man, Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy jokes, who thinks in 55-minute soundbites. He is also a politician. He served as foreign minister under Ehud Barak and was Israel's chief negotiator at Camp David in July 2000. Ben-Ami went to Camp David believing that each side had made a big compromise to get the Oslo process started, and that now it would take one more big compromise to achieve peace. This was the conventional view among Israelis, and it still is the conventional view among most diplomats from Europe and the United States.

But the experience of Camp David transformed Ben-Ami's view. "[The Palestinians] came to the negotiation under the assumption that they had already made their compromise," he says. There would be no more. Their attitude was "We don't have a problem, you have a problem," namely, the crimes committed in the name of Zionism, especially the seizing of land in the 1967 Six Day War. The Palestinians' position, as Ben-Ami saw it, was to wait until Israel decided to satisfy their demands.

In an interview, one of the lead Palestinian negotiators, Abu Ala, confirmed that this was the Palestinian posture. Ala is as intelligent and sophisticated as Ben-Ami. He is no crude nationalist, no thunderer. But he insists that it is not up to his side to make counterproposals. "I cannot give proposals," he says. "It is impossible for now to 1,000 years that the Palestinians will decrease their size from the 1967 borders. . . . To ask me, is to ask how many kilograms I will cut from my own body. This will never happen."

Ala says that he and Arafat warned Bill Clinton of their position before Camp David, and Clinton promised that if the talks broke down he would never blame Arafat. But Clinton broke that vow. On the third day of the talks, Clinton finally exploded at Abu Ala. The Palestinian negotiator remembers, "He screamed, 'You have personal responsibility for the failure of the process!' He blamed me in front of the Israelis!"

But this was not simple Palestinian intransigence, Ben-Ami came to realize. Ben-Ami noticed that the Palestinians' real concerns were intangible. "You could see they were adamant to assimilate some of the mythological issues of Zionism," he says. In other words, the Palestinians could see that the Israelis had a moral vision that was half religious, half secular. They longed for their own all-embracing ideology.

Ben-Ami came to see that his opposite numbers had in fact developed such a vision, which he calls Palestinianism. It has a religious element, Islam, symbolized by the crescent, and a secular element, which Ben-Ami calls refugeeism, symbolized by the brass keys that Palestinians hold up at rallies, representing the keys to their original homes in what is now Israel.

The talks at Camp David soon focused not on land, but on two core issues fraught with symbolic and moral significance. As Muslims, the Palestinian negotiators sought to gain control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, or, as it is known in the Arab world, Haram al'Sharif, where the al-Aksa mosque stands. As believers in the creed of refugeeism, they sought to secure the right of refugees to return to their original hometowns. These issues—the Temple Mount and the Right of Return—have nothing to do with finding a place where Palestinians can live in peace and prosperity. If there were peace, Muslims could worship at the al-Aksa mosque today (as indeed they already do whenever the roads are open). And it's not clear how many refugees would actually take advantage of the right to go back to their original towns; if they did, they'd have to take Israeli citizenship. But it is supremely important for them to have control of the mosque and the right to move back, as symbols of their legitimate claim to the land and of Israel's corrupt birth.

Ben-Ami realized that this was not like haggling in a bazaar in order to reach a middle price. It was a contest between historical and spiritual visions. One day while talking about the disposition of the Temple Mount, the Israelis proposed that the Palestinians control the top of the mount, where the mosque is, but agree not to dig down into the earth below the mosque plaza. Jews believe that somewhere below the mosque lie the remains of the Jewish temples, and that in those temples was the Holy of Holies, the sacred spot where the ark of the covenant was kept. The Palestinians agreed never to dig. But then Ben-Ami asked them to put words into the agreement making clear why the Israelis didn't want the Palestinians digging, and the Palestinians vehemently refused. They could not sign a document that acknowledged even the possibility that the spot might be legitimately holy to the Jews. In fact, the Palestinian media regularly deny that there ever was a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount. This symbolic position could not be compromised because it goes to the core of the moral claims.

The Palestinians are paying an awful price for this position. The decision to shut down negotiations at Camp David last July and the subsequent intifada have been disasters, measured by any rational cost-benefit analysis. The resumption of the terror war with its attendant Israeli reprisals has caused the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians. The Palestinian economy is in near collapse as a result of the suffocating closures Israel has imposed on roads in the territories. The governing institutions of the Palestinian Authority barely function. Arafat's refusal to negotiate has cost him dearly in the court of world opinion (if Yasser Arafat wants to visit the White House, he'll have to buy a ticket and stand in the tourist line). The Palestinians have utterly lost the Israeli public; those who used to sympathize with the Palestinians and urge concessions are now quiet or shamefaced, and the center of the Israeli electorate has shifted behind Ariel Sharon.

Nonetheless, Arafat remains popular with Palestinians, and the intifada is the oxygen in the blood of Palestinian nationalism. Three American journalists and I recently toured Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, and Israel on a trip organized by Satloff's Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Our Arab hosts were as committed to their cause as any people could be, and as determined to achieve final victory. There was almost no grumbling about Arafat and his methods. Everywhere we went we heard how the Israelis murder Palestinian children with F-16s and similar brutal firepower.

Israelis sometimes accuse Arafat of loving the Palestinian cause more than the Palestinian people. That's true, but by all evidence, the Palestinian people also love the Palestinian cause more than they love the Palestinian people. This second intifada may be different from the first one several years ago. It is organized instead of spontaneous. It is waged by soldiers using mortars and rifles, not boys throwing stones. But it's wrong to say that this is an artificial uprising imposed by Arafat and a few henchmen. To the highest government official and the poorest refugee alike, it seems, this is a crusade more important than money, comfort, opportunity, or life itself.

The fervor that fuels the Palestinian crusade is perpetually reinforced by pan-Arab satellite TV. The several Arabic-language satellite stations from the region offer blanket coverage of the intifada and the Israeli reprisals. Their ratings soar with each new incident. Some of the channels are quite professional and regularly beat Israeli stations to stories, but with their graphic shots and lurid commentary, they also serve to organize and stoke Palestinian hatreds. It's sometimes said that global communications will bring us all together, but in this case, the technology serves to whip up animosity. Even the Palestinian Authority's Abu Ala agrees. "The media in the Arab world have tied our hands," he says, not making clear that he would do anything differently if the media fell silent.

One night we sat in the home of a prominent Jordanian newspaper editor. His guests included several pillars of the Amman establishment, a former speaker of the parliament, a religious affairs minister, a former attorney general, and so on. They were men in their sixties and seventies, and anybody who saw The Sunshine Boys will get a sense of their posture and intonation. To me they looked like Upper West Side elderly Jews kibitzing. But the content was slightly different. The suicide bombing outside a disco in Tel Aviv that killed 21 young Israelis, most of them recent Russian immigrants, had just happened. We asked whether the Koran endorses that kind of violence. None of the men had any doubt about the legitimacy of murdering the young people. That wasn't even worth talking about. Only the fact that the bomber had killed himself in the process, thus apparently violating the Koran's prohibition of suicide, raised concerns. In the end, the men decided that given the evils of the Israeli occupation and the need to fight against it, the young suicide bomber was not really committing suicide but merely waging war.

This conversation—among the cream of Arab society, sophisticated, humane, and generous—is symptomatic of how the Arab world has closed ranks on the question of whether Israel is a criminal state. Anybody who dissents from this line, or who tries to have contact with Israelis, is known as a "normalizer," a status that can cost you your friends, your job, or your freedom. "I am ostracized, my father is ostracized," one Jordanian high-tech entrepreneur told us.

As a result, the range of debate across the region has narrowed. The Egyptian government recently arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a human rights activist and writer. He was thrown into jail on trumped-up charges of embezzlement and "defaming the state," though his real crime was uncovering fraud in Egypt's electoral system. But what has been striking since his arrest and conviction is how relatively few of his fellow human rights activists have leapt to his defense. "What did him in was his pro-Israeli stand," said one over dinner. "It made it difficult for people to support him." Saad Eddin Ibrahim's "pro-Israeli" position consisted of going to Israel to talk with the leftist fringe of the peace camp.

The human rights activists we spoke with note that it is becoming more difficult to recruit volunteers for their organizations on Egyptian university campuses. Many students do not want to work for such organizations because they view the whole idea of a human rights organization as a Western import, alien to Arab culture. Even among the students who do volunteer, there is a growing religious conservatism. Some of the young men in one office asked the young women to stop going to the swimming pool with them because they considered the women's bathing suits an affront to the modesty codes.

The consolidation of Arab opinion has also led to an upsurge of anti-Semitism in the government media. There have always been stories in the Arab press about Israeli merchants shipping bubble gum with the AIDS virus into Arab countries. But now anti-Semitic attacks are routine. In Egypt, for example, a prestigious commentator at a government-run newspaper twice wrote items lamenting that Hitler failed to finish the job. This rhetoric has become somewhat embarrassing for Arab elites, and so even before the subject is raised they are quick to reassure American visitors that they themselves are not anti-Semitic. The Nazi style of anti-Semitism has no roots in Egyptian society, the foreign minister told us. (The cynic in me wanted to say, "Congratulations—after 3,000 years of anti-Semitism, you've invented a new variety.") Some of these men do have records of fighting anti-Semitism, and all of them recognize that the pervasive anti-Semitism in their official organs hurts them in the court of world opinion. Still, there is no sign of a let-up.

For all the pervasive anti-Semitism, and for all the admiration for the suicide bombers (polls show about two-thirds of Palestinians see heroism in blowing up teenagers), the Palestinians' commitment to their cause is striking. In America, people on average move every seven years; if opportunity is lacking in the place where we are, we move on. But after more than 50 years in refugee camps, in Arab-Israeli towns and in Jordan, the Palestinians remain committed to the idea of their struggle. In this day and age, it is rare to find a commitment that is more powerful than commercial calculation. We say we want people to believe in causes larger than their self-interest; the Palestinians do.

But in the end, the new Israeli patriotism is more admirable. For while Palestinian nationalism looks a lot like 19th-century blood and soil nationalism (laced with a large dollop of Islamic fundamentalism), Israeli nationalism is Lockean nationalism. It is a patriotism infused with democratic pride, and with respect for individual opportunity. Israel is an ever more individualistic country, ever more commercial and more affluent, yet the Israeli people, at this moment more than at any time in the recent past, seem able to be patriots as well as yuppies.

This is not to excuse the violent excesses Israeli troops commit against the Palestinians, or the anti-Arab prejudice that is on the upswing, only to note how difficult it is to infuse a self-seeking, affluent populace with a sense of national purpose. The Israelis have done that. One day we surveyed the central region of Israel with an Israeli Defense Force commander. He's in his mid-thirties and has a couple of young kids. Earlier in his career he was caught in a Palestinian ambush and spent a year in the hospital recovering from his wounds. Having lost sensation over large areas of his body, he is classified as 72 percent disabled. In the midst of the peace euphoria, he went back to school and got an MBA so he could be a businessman and live a normal life. But now that fighting has resumed, he's again chosen to spend his life away from his family, in the barracks and in the field, once again at constant risk of ambush.

This renewed commitment has changed the atmosphere in all sectors of Israeli society. The Russian immigrants feel thoroughly Israeli, having shed their own blood at the disco bombing. Even among politicians, there is relative civility. During Desert Storm, I recall watching two Israeli politicians, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, bicker on the evening news. "You disgust me," Shamir said. "You disgust me and you frighten me," Peres responded. I remember thinking sarcastically, "Isn't it wonderful how Israelis have come together during the Gulf War." But this time they actually have. There is a national unity government led by Ariel Sharon that shows every sign of lasting for a while.

We met Sharon in the cabinet room Israeli founder David Ben-Gurion used to use in Tel Aviv. Judging by the shabby surroundings, they hadn't changed the furniture since. Sharon smiled through our entire hour-and-fifteen-minute meeting. He was grandfatherly and said nothing that any Israeli would have disagreed with. He used our meeting to announce Israel's acceptance of the cease-fire proposal hammered out with CIA director George Tenet. He was delighted, not only because he is now riding high, but also because he had just boxed Arafat into a corner.

The Israelis and Palestinians know they are in for another generation of warfare. Western diplomats, at least the smart ones, come to the Middle East merely trying to manage the conflict. The Israelis and Palestinians each try to negotiate cease-fires such that the other side will be forced to break them first. The day we met with him, Sharon knew that the Tenet cease-fire was wonderful from an Israeli perspective. It forces Yasser Arafat to perform a series of politically unpalatable tasks—like arresting terrorists and confiscating illegal weapons from his troops—before it forces Israel to do anything politically unpalatable, such as freeze settlement construction on the West Bank. Therefore, Arafat will have to break the cease-fire first and bear the brunt of the ensuing American disapproval.

Israelis are bitterly disappointed that the Oslo process didn't work out; during the Rabin period they gave in to romanticized hopes. But they are also enjoying the fact that everybody blames Arafat for the talks' collapse. It's not often that Israel does so well in the propaganda war.

Still, their thinking has shifted. The first subject of conversation among Israelis is Yasser Arafat. How could they have been so wrong in thinking that he wanted peace? Why did he kill Oslo? What will he do next? Some people, like former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, believe that Arafat refused to make peace because he feared assassination. Others believe that he simply couldn't make the transition from PLO fighter to Palestinian Authority administrator, worrying about sewers and education funding. From the left, there are waves of self-castigation and bouts of rethinking. Avraham Burg is one of Israel's most prominent left-wing politicians, likely to be the next leader of the Labor party. "For many years the peace camp lived with a 1960s conception of 'Make peace, make love.' The question was, Did you hug a Palestinian today?" he says. But those illusions are gone. "At the end of the process, we found the Palestinians did not have a 1960s conception of peace," Burg continues. "The Palestinians are not ready to make a compromise on their dream of greater Palestine."

The second subject of conversation is the future. "We are preparing ourselves and the IDF for years of struggle," says defense minister Benjamin Bin Eliezer. "I don't feel that there will be any serious breakthrough but with the next generation." So now there is a chance to think broadly. Some dream of an internationally imposed solution. The United States or the United Nations would come in and dictate terms for an end to the conflict. (We also heard this idea proposed on the Palestinian side.) Some want to destroy Palestinian television and undermine the Palestinian regime, feeling chaos couldn't be worse. Many Israelis are thinking of unilateral partition: Simply build a series of walls and fences to keep the Palestinians and Israelis apart. A few extremists (outside the government) talk of bumping off Arafat, or of exiling him, or of simply waiting for him to die. Then, they hope, the Palestinians would fracture into four competing emirates. They would be so weakened they would have to deal.

It's like being in a land of tinkerers—everybody has a scheme. Most of them are cockamamie. If Arafat goes, there is no indication his successor will be less radical. As for partition, a rising idea in Israel, especially in the Labor party, it is hard to see how it would work, because the populations are intermingled. Would Israel really build a Berlin Wall through the heart of Jerusalem?

No, what the future holds is a war over intangibles. The Islamic nationalism of the Palestinians will go up against the Lockean nationalism of the Israelis. Israel's superior military and economic strength carries its own weaknesses. Israelis have the wherewithal to adopt the California lifestyle. Some may just opt out of this exhausting mess and move. Others may lose heart and try to buy some peace. Resolve hasn't weakened yet, but it might as the years go on.

The role for the United States is clear: to stand with the democratic nationalists over the blood and soil nationalists. Those are America's values as well as America's interests. On our trip, we met several U.S. diplomats in the region. A couple were caricatures of old-fashioned State Department Arabists. They'd served the bulk of their careers in Arab countries, and they'd never had a thought they hadn't picked up from some Edward Said essay. The bulk of the diplomats were intelligent, informative, honest brokers of information. But they certainly did not talk as if their role were to stand up for American values. On the contrary, they saw themselves as mediators.

The mediator role had value as long as the Oslo process was alive. But it's dead now, and what has taken its place is a war over moral visions. American diplomats will find, as the people in the region have found, that you can't hover impartially between moral visions, because there is no there there. The struggle will be long, and it will force the people in the area—and the American people—to come to grips with the full implications of their political ideals.

©2001 - The Weekly Standard

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