POLITICS JANUARY 15, 2001
The months of Palestinian rage known as the "Al-Aqsa intifada"—they are actually only the latest outbursts in the years of Palestinian rage that have comprised most of the political history of the Palestinians—should have demonstrated that peace will be made on the ground or it will not be made at all. The recent violence exposed the peace process as an exercise of elites, of the a bientot crowd, who are always cordial toward each other. The leaderships of Israel and the Palestinians have been busy with the terms of a settlement, but they have been paying little heed to the inclinations of their populations. And those inclinations differ significantly. In Israel, there is popular support for peace and there is popular opposition to peace; the electoral swings of Israeli democracy during the past quarter of a century are directly attributable to this tormenting division. But the Palestinian population, we now see clearly, is not divided. From Fatah to Hamas, peace is scorned. Where is the internecine Palestinian debate? On this question, there is no air between Faisal Husseini and the most inflammatory of the Gazan mullahs. They are all maximalists; and their children in the streets are behaving like the children of maximalists.
The extraordinary thing about Bill Clinton's frantic attempt to manufacture an accord between Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak is that it flies in the face of present experience. At the very moment that the Palestinians are proving that peace must have roots if it is to have branches (and that it has no roots yet in their community), the president is throwing himself into another round of deracinated diplomacy. He seems to think that a few more summits, a few more bridge proposals, and a few more brandies are all that it will take to get things "back on track," when we have just learned that there is no track, at least not through the sites ofthe conflict itself. Reality has tested the peace process, and the peace process has failed the test; and so the president is in flight from reality. He is looking for formulas where there are only funerals.
Clinton's little rush of conflict resolution is based upon a misunderstanding of conflict. He seems to believe that it is the leaders who are standing in the way of an edifying outcome. But it is the communities who are the obstacle to his ambition, because they happen to be at war. What will it matter if Yasir Arafat agrees to the principles of an approach to an interpretation of a framework? Arafat's position in Palestine is as fragile as his health. He lives in mortal terror of his own people. He is helplessly witnessing the ascendancy of a new radicalism in Palestinian politics, a new rejectionist consensus based upon new generational and theological developments. Arafat cannot even govern his own movement, which is now more faithfully represented by the paramilitaries of Marwan Barghouti, the warlord of Ramallah. And what will it matter if Ehud Barak agrees to surrender sovereignty of the Temple Mount, or any other mount? He now enjoys the support of exactly 36 members of the Knesset. He is trailing Ariel Sharon in the polls, not least because of his willful and autocratic flexibility in all these negotiations. Anyway, by the time a new "breakthrough" breaks down, Clinton himself will be far away on the lecture circuit.
There is another sobering truth that the months of Palestinian uprising have exposed, and it is the unappeasability of Palestinian diplomacy. The summer's talks at Camp David were defeated by Arafat's demand for the Temple Mount, and so the winter's talks have begun with the suggestion that Barak deliver the Temple Mount. Incredibly, at least from the standpoint of Israeli politics, Barak appears to have agreed. (More incredibly, from the standpoint of Israeli security, he has also agreed to quit the Jordan Valley, which is Israel's line of defense against Iraq, its most dangerous Arab enemy.) A deal, then? Of course not. The satisfaction of one Palestinian demand is succeeded only by the expression of another Palestinian demand. The new "stumbling block" is the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their old addresses in what is now Israel. This demand is especially troubling, because it represents the belief that the reversibility of history is a condition of justice, and because it refuses to concede once and for all the legitimacy of the Jewish state, and because it prefers the past to the future. If there is anything that the Palestinians might learn from the Jews, it is that you do not flourish by making a fetish of your father's house.
The cartographical contraption that Bill Clinton hopes to cobble together will not come to pass, for many reasons. The really terrible thing is that his Hail Mary diplomacy is interfering with the lucidity that the present crisis demands, with the dourness about peace that these days is surely the beginning of wisdom.
This article originally ran in the January 15, 2001, issue of the magazine.