With Yasser Arafat now in the other world, pressure is certain to grow on President George W. Bush to become directly involved in a problem that British Premier Tony Blair has described as the most urgent issue of international politics today.
Bush, however, should think twice before he plunges into an adventure that has caused quite a bit of trouble for all American presidents since Harry S. Truman.
There are three important points to understand before making any move on the Palestinian issue.
The first concerns Arafat. While there is no doubt that Arafat's duplicitous character and inherent opportunism were major obstacles to peace, it would be wrong to blame him exclusively for the lack of progress toward peace. When the crunch came at the end of the year 2000, Arafat could not accept what the Israelis offered while the Israelis were nor prepared to offer what Arafat wanted.
By common consent the 2000 talks, brokered by President Bill Clinton, hit the wall over the issue of the right of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants over the past 50 years, to return home, that is to say to all parts of historic Palestine, including what has been Israel since 1948. Arafat wanted a blanket acceptance of the right of return by the Israelis in accordance with international law and several United Nations resolutions. Bearing in mind that Palestinians living outside the historic Palestine may now number around six million, the prospect of their return would, theoretically at least, amount to a recipe for changing Israel's nature as a Jewish state. Arafat knew that no Israeli government would be able to accept something that amounted to an invitation to political suicide. At the same time, the Israelis knew that Arafat could not go and tell the six million or so Palestinians scattered all over the world to abandon their dream of return — a dream that most know is unrealizable but cherish nonetheless.
What did all that mean? It meant neither Israel nor the Palestinians were psychologically or politically prepared for peace. Both spoke of a just peace or a peace of the brave. But peace becomes problematic as soon as we attach an adjective to it. A child of war, no peace can ever be just. Every peace bears the mark of its unjust origin in some way. The phrase "the peace of the brave" is also nonsensical. The brave do not make peace; they go on killing one another on their way to Valhalla or wherever it is that fallen heroes assemble. Peace is either imposed by the victor or negotiated by cowards who seek the possible rather than the ideal. In either case there is no place for justice.
Despite years of negotiations and the signing of numerous accords, there is no evidence that either the Palestinians or the Israelis are prepared to accept a peace that might appear unjust to both. Arafat's passing is unlikely to change that fact, at least for the time being.
There is also no evidence that greater US involvement would change that fact. President Richard Nixon invested heavily in the so-called "step-by-step" formula for peacemaking in the Middle East. President Jimmy Carter devoted nearly half of his single term to the issue and brokered the Camp David accords. But those accords did not produce peace; they produced an official recognition of the "no-war-no-peace" situation that had been in place since 1967.
In fact, the war that Camp David was supposed to terminate continues on different fronts. It is fought in classrooms, in newspaper articles, in books, on television, in cyberspace, in mosques, and through attacks on resorts hosting Israeli tourists. A majority of Egyptians and the Jordanians do not feel they are at peace with the Israelis. The feeling is reciprocated by a majority of Israelis.
For his part, President Bill Clinton spent more time on the Palestinian issue than on any other. He met Arafat 17 times, compared to only five meetings with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In his recently published memoirs, Clinton makes it clear how he had tried to turn peace in the Middle East into his principal legacy. He failed because neither side was prepared for peace. And until that happens there is little that any outsider, including a "superpower" can do.
The solution of the Palestinian problem cannot be imposed from the outside or from the above. It must come from the inside and from below.
In fact one reason why this problem has continued for so long is that it has attracted intervention by outsiders from the start. The conflict was adopted by the Arab states as a "national cause" which, in practice, meant outsiders would decide the fate of the Palestinians. This meant that successive generations of Arab despots could play hero at the expense of the Palestinians. They would make fiery speeches and get the applause while the Palestinians did the dying. Palestine became a pan-Arab problem, thus achieving greater complexity by absorbing a variety of other considerations that had nothing to do with the issue itself.
As far as Israel is concerned it, too, was adopted as a cause first by France and, after 1967, by the United States. That, coupled with the fact that most Arab states, and the Palestinians, sided with the Soviet bloc gave the conflict an additional Cold War dimension that complicated matters further.
Outside intervention is not always beneficial. In some cases, the parties to the conflict might feel that, once they have powerful outside backers, they no longer need to swallow the bitter pills without which there can be no peace. In other cases the parties to a conflict might become mere pawns in a game that they neither control nor understand. History is full of examples of conflicts that continued beyond their natural term because of outside intervention. Inflating the importance of a conflict could also make finding a peaceful solution more difficult. If the parties to the conflict are convinced that their little quarrel is the most important issue facing humanity they are that much less likely to be amenable to painful compromises without which there can be no peace.
What we need is a measure of deflation for this Palestine-Israel issue. With respect to Tony Blair, this is not the greatest or even the most urgent issue facing humanity. The whole of historic Palestine covers an area that is one percent of Saudi Arabia. It has no natural resources of any importance, and does not even register on the radars of international trade. Nor is it to the modern world what Renaissance Florence was in its heyday. When it comes to compassion, this conflict is a fairly minor one compared to the tragedies that the world has witnessed since the 1940s. Even more recently, we have witnessed much greater tragedies in ex-Yugoslavia, Chechnya, High Karabagh, The Sudan, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Algeria.
Right now Thailand is building a real wall, much longer and higher than the Israeli fence, as a shield against its Muslim minority.
There are, of course, attempts at transforming the Israel-Palestine issue into a case of the clash of civilizations or even a war of religions, setting the stage for a never-ending conflict. Pan-Arabists have tried to turn the issue into the central plank of their romantic vision of a single Arab nation, united in an empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Initially uninterested in the issue, the pan-Islamists have adopted the Palestinian cause for their own purposes: Liberating Palestine is the first step toward uniting the whole of mankind under the banner of the One And Only True Faith.
The issue has become complicated because many considerations have little or nothing to do with it have been projected into it. What is needed is de-projecting those considerations, so that we are left with the core of the real issue: A dispute about land, frontiers and statehood, and coexistence.
Bush's intervention would raise the profile of the dispute once again, thus, paradoxically, making a solution that much more difficult. The Israelis and the Palestinians must be pressed to assume their own responsibilities, that means doing their own peacemaking just as they have been doing their own war making and suicide-bombings. The only thing that the outside world, including the US, can do is to offer a helping hand once the two peoples have shown that hey are genuinely ready for peace.
Right now there is no evidence that a majority of either the Israelis or the Palestinians are ready for peace — a bitter pill to swallow, and an injustice to accept.