The Road to the State of Palestine Through Syria

Aaron Miller writes an extremely pessimistic piece of advice for President elect Obama on the impossibility of Israeli/Palestinian peace right now. I think that it is a very well written piece, and that anything Aaron writes should be studied carefully. But there are two responses that should soften his pessimism.

There is a myth out there driven by the Clinton parameters of December 2000, the Taba talks in 2001, the Geneva accord a year later, and the hundreds of hours of post Annapolis talks between Israelis and Palestinians that the two sides are “this close” (thumb and index finger a sixteenth of an inch apart) to an agreement. The gaps have now narrowed, perhaps impressively, but closing them, particularly on the identity issues such as Jerusalem and refugees, is still beyond the reach of negotiators and leaders.

The dysfunction and confusion in Palestine make a conflict-ending agreement almost impossible. The divisions between Hamas (itself divided) and Fatah (even more divided) are now geographic, political and hard to bridge. Until the Palestinian national movement finds a way to impose a monopoly over the forces of violence in Palestinian society, it cannot move to statehood. The hallmark of any state’s credibility (from Sweden, to Egypt, to Poland) is its control over all the guns. Criminal activity is one thing; allowing political groups to challenge the state, or its neighbors, with violence is quite another.

Third, there is serious dysfunction at the political level in Israel as well. Israel has its own leadership crisis. The state is in transition from a generation of founding leaders with moral authority, historic legitimacy and competency to a younger generation of middle age pols who have not quite measured up to their predecessors or to the challenges their nation faces.

He recommends instead:

Instead, go all-out for an Israeli-Syrian agreement which is doable and will enhance American credibility to confront Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran over time with tough choices, and improve America’s regional standing. Then, perhaps, your chances on the Israeli-Palestinian track may be better. In the interim, I’m afraid sadly that the bottom line for Israelis and Palestinians is not a good one: Israelis will have their state, but Palestinians will never let them completely enjoy it.

I agree with this recommendation but I think that movement on the Palestinian front can occur much more quickly than Aaron thinks IF the Syrians become part of the peace seeking of the Middle East. Aaron is overestimating as a negotiator the importance of negotiation, and that is why he is so pessimistic. Negotiations can only do what people on all sides really want them to do, and there is not enough political will right now to make difficult compromises. These compromises could actually cause major civil conflict among Jews as well as obviously among Palestinians (they already have) and therefore require much more political will. But if increasingly the Arab states of the region are part of the solution the entire psychological and social dynamic of the conflict will change. Furthermore, it is essential that working with the people and their basic rights be at the core of the efforts now. Only by focusing intervention on human rights, empowerment, deescalation, can we move to a broader consensus among Jews and Palestinians of a real deal that they can all live with. This focus will lessen Hamas’ justification of violence, the less violence the more Israelis will have to look at themselves and the occupation, the more freedom of movement in Palestine the more enticing the two-state formula will become and the more Hamas will be forced to accept it completely. The more embraced Syria becomes, the more it receives what it wants, the more pressure it will place on Hamas and Hezbollah to moderate, which in turn will force Israelis to introspect.

The cycle begins with Syria, continues with aggressive intervention to challenge the worst and most unjustifiable elements of the occupation, and ends with a broader consensus of Jews and Palestinians for a real future together. We all have to start thinking about relationships ten steps down the chess board, not the way things look and feel now. That is the difference between optimists and pessimists. But Aaron Miller is required reading for any sober, serious peacemaker.

Aaron Miller
Aaron Miller
© Marc Gopin