POLITICS JANUARY 15, 2001
Five years ago—five years and two months, to be exact—I wrote in these pages that "no president of the United States has had such valent sympathy for Israel as President Clinton." "You could see it on his face," I went on, "... you could hear it in his words: 'Israel's covenant with God—for freedom, for tolerance, for security, for peace—that covenant must hold.'" Clinton's message and his affect touched the audience that had assembled, in shock and grief, on a hilltop in Jerusalem to "gather," as Scripture puts it, Yitzhak Rabin "to his fathers." No one has ever employed that corny phrase "Shalom, chaver" to greater effect.
The president, we have all learned rather ruefully, is a master of emotional circumstance. He manipulates with unparalleled skill. And many of us happily consent to our manipulation. We not only admire it, we demand that others in our public life (most poignantly, Al Gore, who was partly done in by his inability to project phony feeling) emulate it. Clinton is our most inauthentic president and, not coincidentally, the first to cast himself as a celebrity.
In any case, I confess: I was taken in by Clinton's haggard visage and passionate talk on Mount Herzl. He really did care, I told myself. Clinton loved Israel in the way, perhaps, that Thomas Jefferson loved France. He would not put the Jewish state in danger.
So count me among the manipulated; putting the Jewish state in danger has become the central thrust of Clinton's final days in office. Yes, he felt our pain. But that was precisely what was so insulting. Real attachments require distinctions. To have too many friends (too many chaverim) is to have none at all. Clinton did feel Zion's pain at Rabin's interment. And he felt the pain of Zion's sworn enemies at exactly the same time, in exactly the same way—which is to say falsely.
Bill Clinton, it turned out, loved an Israel of his imagining, an Israel whose peacemaking would aggrandize him. But one must love Israel for what it is—a democratic and humane society in a benighted and demeaning neighborhood— whether it is at peace or at war, the more perhaps if it is at war. For Clinton this is an incomprehensible thought. He has a horror of conflict; everything must go with everything else. And Israel is now paying the price—as Bosnia did before— for his unwillingness to admit that sometimes, strategically and morally, it does not.
THE PALESTINIANS DESERVE not to be governed by Israel. But they do not deserve to govern territories that will make the defense of Israel impossible and the lives of Israelis a nightmare. And that is precisely what our president now proposes.
The making of peace is a long process. But it must be a process that shows each side to have progressed emotionally, or at least intellectually. Each must believe that the other has some justice to its cause and, therefore, should be conciliated in palpable ways, with concrete and reciprocal concessions. Moreover, the two publics have to support these concrete concessions, as the Israeli public has. This was the unfulfilled logic of Oslo, the furtive negotiations celebrated on the White House lawn in September 1993. I did not attend that celebration, because I sensed in my bones that its logic would remain an abstraction, that the facts would not comply. And I take no joy in learning that I was right.
From the beginning, the challenge of Oslo was to reconcile the maximalist ambitions of the Palestinian leadership with the reality of what Israel could safely bear. When the agreement was signed, I feared that gap could not be bridged, that Palestinian Chairman Yasir Arafat would remain delusional. Now, to my horror, I realize that he was not delusional—the gap has been bridged, but it is not Arafat's ambitions that have been compromised; it is Israel's security. Clinton has handed Arafat (and his unknovm successors at the helm of emergent Palestine) most of what he has always demanded and much more besides.
It began with Fatah, and later the Palestinian Authority, setting preconditions they knew Israel would not meet. But then, mirabile dictu, they found that Clinton could be counted on to lure Ehud Barak into compliance. Soon after assuming office, the great realist of the Labor Party began transforming himself into the type of dove he used to disdain, abandoning one historic and strategic red line after another. The PA did not fail to notice this surprising new pattern in Israeli behavior, and soon habits began to form. Why not ask for everything? And now we have reached the end of the line. There is just about nothing real left for the Palestinians to try to extort. And, indeed, even extortion has not been required. A temper tantrum will do. Or sending thousands of violent young men into the streets to throw Molotov cocktails and fire machine guns at Israelis, both civilian and military.
The present government of Israel is now committed to returning virtually to the 1949 armistice lines and—in those few instances where it will retain a half-kilometer here and a half-kilometer there—to compensating the Palestinians with land from pre-1967 Israel, a bit of the Negev, let's say. At its population heartland, from Tel Aviv north, Israel will be squeezed into roughly 15 kilometers between armed Palestine and the sea. (And no one pretends any longer that Palestine will really be disarmed.)
Sure, for a few years Israel will have some constabulary force on the Jordan River. But thereafter its border with Jordan—a border that could essentially become its border with Iraq—will be handed over to the Palestinians. The Jordan River is a border of immense military value, as Israel's generals all know. And when it goes the traffic in big weapons will begin, as it has already in the port of Gaza. This is not only a nightmare for Israel. It is also a nightmare for Jordan's young King Abdullah, whose father knew the designs of the Palestinians on his stable and decent government. How long before Saddam Hussein responds to the spontaneous clamor of Jordan's Palestinians, and Arafat and Saddam transform themselves from comrades-in-polemic into comrades-in-arms? The enforced politesse of Arab politics keeps the Hashemites silent about this. But it does not disguise the realities. Even Clinton and his national security adviser know they are paving the way for Jordan's demise, and they don't care. Jordan's pain is something, alas, that Clinton seems not to feel. Clinton is an immediate gratification artist, and why should he dwell on someone's future pain when there is so much pain he can feel today?
The strategic lunacy of abandoning the Jordan Valley contains no countervailing moral logic. Almost no Arabs live— or, for that matter, have ever lived—close to the western side of the Jordan River, except for the inhabitants of Jericho, who have been under Palestinian rule almost since the peace process began. This is truly empty land.
VASTLY LESS EMPTY, and vastly more complicated, is the land around Jerusalem. There is a specific psychiatric malady called "Jerusalem syndrome," and, alas, it seems to have infected our president. The city's Arab and Jewish populations are interlaced like the fingers of two clasped hands. So there is frequent occasion for conflict and slight—some of it, it must be admitted, committed by the citizens and officials of Israel. But the notion that the solution for this city, with its many layers and textures, should be two ethnically pure sovereignties flies in the face of not only its past but its present. For better or for worse, this has always been a mixed city. It cannot be unmixed. You can separate parts of the West Bank from Israel, and maybe that will ultimately happen if this "peace agreement" fails. But you cannot separate Jerusalem from itself. It is a geographical impossibility.
Israel was ready, without Clinton's lubrications, to cede many civil functions to the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. (They already exercise some of these, de facto, and have for some years.) It was prepared to let Palestinian flags fly over many venues, in some—for instance, the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif—confirming what has been the case for 33 years: that this is a place of predominant Muslim concern. Even during Benjamin Netanyahu's term as prime minister, the Israelis negotiated a proposal behind the scenes for a Palestinian parliament in metropolitan Jerusalem, and, without any interference from the government, construction was completed.
But that successful compromise was achieved (and could only have been achieved) in the context of a united city. There are many wrongs encapsulated in the ethnic-purity model of two sovereignties in Jerusalem. The grimmest consequence is that it fosters among Muslims the idea that nowhere should they be forced to live as a minority under other people's rule. A corollary of this notion is often that other minorities must live under Muslim rule as second-class citizens. In many places, this means Christians are forced to live under sharia, Islamic law. It is ironic that Clinton, whose finest moment in foreign policy was in finally mobilizing against the ethnic purifiers in the former Yugoslavia—OK, he was pushed into this finest moment by Al Gore—should have as the core of his proposal for the Middle East the logic of ethnic and religious purity. And the logic will not stop in Jerusalem. Why, some Israelis will surely ask, if a minority of Muslims cannot live under Israeli rule in Jerusalem, should they be allowed to do so in Haifa? It is an ugly question, but, as a result of Clinton's proposal, it will be asked.
Meron Benvenisti probably knows more about Jerusalem than anyone else alive today. He is a dove, although this nomenclature simplifies his complex views. He is more than sympathetic to the Arabs. He has the kind of genuine empathy that the great empathizer still in the White House can't grasp. Here is what Benvenisti wrote in Ha'aretz on Decem- ber 28: "[W]hen I tried to ask 'my sources' how it is possible to implement the principle of the division of Jerusalem on an ethnic basis,' I discovered that the bridge-builders will have a lot of work: There will be a bridge from Silwan to the Temple Mount, a bridge from the Jewish Quarter to the Mount of Olives, and bridges from the Jewish Quarter to Mount Scopus, to French Hill and Neveh Ya'akov, and from East Talpiot to Har Homa." There will be many bridges and many tunnels, and none of them will be safe. The 20-foot-wide road from the Jaffa Gate through the Armenian Quarter to the Zion Gate at the beginning of the Jewish Quarter will be under Israeli sovereignty, while the neighborhood that straddles the road will be under Palestinian sovereignty. The Palestinians will be sovereign here, here, and there. The Israelis will be sovereign there, there, and here. A child might have to pass through several sovereign enclaves to get to school.
IVE BEEN ASKED why the Christian leadership in Jerusalem supports Palestinian sovereignty in the Old City, as reported in The New York Times just before Christmas. For one thing, they had no alternative once Clinton and Barak offered to give it away. For another, most of the Christian leaders are Palestinians themselves. But, as Christians, they have nothing to fear from the Israelis. By way of contrast, in the 19 years of Arab rule in East Jerusalem, from 1948 to 1967, there were draconian regulations against even the upkeep of churches. And since authority in the West Bank was relinquished to Arab rule in accordance with Oslo, the story has been much the same. Once a city with a hefty Christian majority, Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, is now nearly 70 percent Muslim. This is not because of the high Muslim birth rate. It is because Christians living there live in tremendous adversity and fear. But Christian Arab intellectuals like Edward Said and Hanan Ashrawi continue to wager, as their forebears have since Arab nationalism first emerged a century ago, that their fervent devotion will keep Arab nationalism secular. It is a wager that they, like their predecessors, will lose.
Such history matters little to the Clintonites. And perhaps no one in the Middle East expects Americans to be deep readers of history. But you'd think they could at least read maps. The Israeli army has been exemplary in respecting civilian authority in political matters. It has drawn whatever maps the prime minister asks for, and it makes plans to defend the country according to those maps. But the chief of staff, General Shaul Mofaz, told the Cabinet last week that the map now being drawn is indefensible, that Tel Aviv could not be defended. The general whom Netanyahu passed over for Mofaz's job and who is now a member of Barak's government, Matan Vilnai, said essentially the same thing.
Perhaps it is they who were thinking about history. On April 13, 1948, a month before Israeli independence, one of the daily convoys of doctors, nurses, and those injured by Arab shelling was making its way to the old Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. The hospital was cut off from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem, and the convoy had just passed the Arab neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah when it was ambushed. The British high commissioner had guaranteed the convoy's safety; 78 Jews were killed. Now, according to Clinton's and Barak's maps, we will need such convoys again. And this time, some cheerfully suggest, they will be protected by the United Nations.
ALL THIS ISRAEL seems prepared to allow. Barak's only remaining bright line is the roughly 3.7 million refugees, maybe more, dispersed in Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and the West Bank. And so Clinton's solution is for some refugees to be resettled in a Palestinian state and for the others finally to enjoy a warm welcome in the lands they have lived in, despised and persecuted, for years. This really is hauteur—Barak and Arafat are to sign an agreement that commits the governments of Lebanon and Syria to integrate the Palestinian refugees into their own societies. Why in the world, after the brutal mini-state the Palestinians set up in southern Lebanon after 1975, would any Lebanese leader consent to this fix? Somewhere in Clinton's deluded head is a $40 bilhon emolument. Maybe the Bushies will fork it over instead of their tax cut.
Barak clings to Clinton's grandiose vanity because it serves his own. He is convinced that a piece of paper signed by him and Arafat, however flawed and however dangerous, will get him re-elected. Pre-election polls in Israel are notably volatile, Barak is telling himself, and Sharon gives many Israelis pause. Barak knows he doesn't have the authority to make this deal; maybe he doesn't even entirely believe in it. After all, it contradicts his earlier pledges. But the greater good is always a politician's election. An agreement is a tenuous way. But it may be his only chance. Apres moi, he figures, le deluge.
Which brings us back to the American president, his own days in office numbered, his place in history in permanent shadows. He does not want to endanger Israel. He almost certainly thinks that the perils of potential war are more fearsome than the vagaries of a risky peace. He is a "give peace a chance" politician, which is fine. If this deal improbably succeeds, he will gain the glory. But it is not he who will be taking the chances. It is not his children who will be on the buses with bombs dedicated to the greater glory of Allah, not his children who will die restoring the borders he thought expendable.
Israel has another option. It is not war but perseverance. Let Israel withdraw unilaterally from Gaza and from what it thinks prudent in the West Bank. Let that prudence be generous. Let it also devolve unto the Palestinians whatever parts of Jerusalem Israel can do without. The Palestinians will have their state, the first polity of their own in history, the second state to have been birthed by Zionism. There will be separate states, not interlaced states, making their own economic ways in the world. I suspect the Palestinians will make a mess of it, like their cousins in the rest of the Arab world. Perhaps the Saudis will help them. Or the Europeans, who have such strong views on what Israel should risk. It won't be Israel's responsibility. And it won't be America's. Bill Clinton won't get the Nobel Peace Prize. So what?
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.
This article originally ran in the January 15, 2001, issue of the magazine.