May/June 2000

See Change

By Martin Peretz
The New Republic 26 June 2000

We are ending our three-and-a-half-month stay in Israel, and it is only now that I have the confidence to admit that I think the Oslo agreements were a mistake.

Looking out from my rooftop apartment, I see the Mediterranean immediately to the west and the hills of Samaria not at all so remotely to the east. Tel Aviv, at its farthest, is 15 visible miles from the old frontier with the West Bank, and it is somewhere near this old border that the new one with nascent Palestine will be set. Some day soon, I fear and I expect, mortar and missiles will target old Israel from new Palestine, from those hills to here.

Only an idiot can believe that Israel has strategic depth anywhere but on its frontier with Egypt--and that exception owes to the unique vastness of the Sinai.

The fatal flaw of the Oslo process is process. Israel committed itself to an extended sequence of negotiation and concession, whereby it would make a series of permanent and palpable sacrifices, while what was expected of the Palestinians was mostly that they show up and mutter the empty formulas of reassurance. If they didn't like what and how much Israel was prepared to relinquish, the Palestinian Authority would simply leave the table and go home. Then, to get Arafat's men back to the table and to accommodate pressure from the United States, the Israelis would give away something more--all without even knowing what the outcome of all these leavings and takings would look like.

What is being expected of Israel is magnanimity in the dark. Surely the friendship of the United States cannot make up for the blindfold that it is asking Israel to wear on the road to peace.

Now we learn that the Israeli government is prepared to relinquish even the Jordan Valley, which until yesterday was considered off-limits by all but the most reckless peace processors. This must send shivers down the spines not only of many Israelis but also of the moderate, friendly (and pro-American) royals in Amman, who know that without an Israeli presence there, the river Jordan will blow chilly and cold, and the Palestinians may begin to feel their old craving for the Hashemite kingdom. Iraq and Syria, too, have ambitions toward Jordan; and Israel can defend the Hashemites (and, of course, itself) only if its forces are strategically positioned to move directly and without interference from Arafat's legions.

The father of this "what's yours is yours and what's mine is yours" process is Shimon Peres, the French intellectual who long ago bought into the great contemporary cliché that territory is no longer iportant in warfare. The preposterousness of this idea (which has its devotees in Washington, too) has been demonstrated in every modern war, from Vietnam to Iraq to the Balkans. The only certain consequence of the dependence upon air power has been disillusionment with the dependence upon air power. Neither bombs nor missiles will dislodge or disarm the adversary if his forces hold land. Early in June I heard Peres pronounce on just about everything important to Israel in a muddle of an after-dinner talk in Jerusalem. We will turn bullets into ballots. We will turn terrorists into tourists. Frontiers are of no importance. Science knows no borders. Science knows no language. The science of knowledge and the knowledge of science. One thing we do know is that Peres himself knows no science. If he did, he would know that science by itself makes neither people nor government virtuous.

Science is neutral. In wicked hands, it is wicked. But the pundits now discern an inclination toward peace in Bashar al-Assad because he is an ophthalmologist.

Edward Said may have fabricated his life as a Palestinian refugee, but he was telling God's honest truth when he asserted in a recent column (reprinted in The Jerusalem Post!) that there is no "new peace between old enemies." The opposite proposition, he writes, "has been disproved by the examples of Egypt, Jordan and the PLO, whose leaders have gone all the way toward Israel without persuading their populations to follow suit.... Resistance to its presence is still strenuously displayed ... the conventional wisdom about peacemaking in the Middle East has essentially been disproved." Said knows whereof he speaks: he is the most prestigious of all tenured rejectionists. But Israelis, mostly eager for peace, have begun to grasp that their neighbors do not reciprocate the eagerness. Whatever happens to Ehud Barak's government, the popular enthusiasm for the Oslo process is fast unraveling. Indeed, it was a stroke of luck for Barak that Hafez -Assad stiffed Bill Clinton in Geneva: had the bloody tyrant (now widely treated as a prudent statesman by, among others, the American president and secretary of state) agreed to take back the Golan Heights, leaving only a few symbolic yards on the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee in Israel's hands, the Israeli electorate would almost certainly have rejected the deal.

Syrian participation in the negotiations over the Golan is not part of the Oslo drama, but it shares with Oslo two salient characteristics. The first is Syria's maximalist presumptions. Neither the Palestinians nor the Syrians are contemplating real compromise: they want nothing less than everything they lost in 1967. The second is the American role. In the negotiations over the Golan there was hardly even a pretense that the parties in conflict were talking to each other. (In Shepherdstown, remember, the Syrian foreign minister refused to shake the Israeli prime minister's hand.) But the legacy-addled American president was frantic for an agreement; and so the only real negotiating was between Washington and Jerusalem. To be sure, teams of Palestinians and Israelis talk to each other endlessly; but the real bargaining took place between the United States and Israel, with the United States always pushing Israel to give more and more and more.

Maybe there will be an agreement with the Palestinians. But it won't cover Jerusalem, and it won't cover the Palestinian refugees (by the third and fourth generation, are they still refugees?). Still, Israel will have turned over to the emerging Palestinian state some 80 to 90 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Then what? Every question left unresolved will become yet another cause for violence. In the eyes of many Palestinians, the imperfections of the deal will justify riot or terror or both. And what happens when an illegal missile is illegally launched from Palestine? I once asked a dovish Israeli friend what would happen if a post-peace Syria suddenly diverted the waters of the Golan from the Jordan to its own uses. He said that Israel would urgently seek a meeting of the Security Council. Urgently! From my sun-drenched roof I behold the Israeli miracle along the coast and I think: It was not the Security Council that secured this; it was self-reliance. Even people who are not friendless must establish their safety and their felicity for themselves.

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