FEBRUARY 13, 2008
‘I’ve never been to Ramallah before,” one of the White House correspondents says, gazing out at the cold gray mountains outside Jerusalem. The walls and ceilings of the buses provided for the press are lined with strips of old shag carpet, and it takes two skinny Third-World-person-sized seats to fit a single network cameraman accompanying President Bush on the first leg of his pilgrimage to the Middle East. The printed sign in Hebrew at the front of the bus reads hebron. This is an armored bus that has been diverted from its normal route in the West Bank, which explains why the windows are so thick and the aisles are so narrow.
The rest of the reporters in the bus stare out the windows, trying to make heads or tails of the bleak, rain-swept moonscape of the Judean Hills. It is one of the great disappointments of first-time travelers to Jerusalem that the hills surrounding the city where King Herod ruled and Jesus was crucified look nothing like softly glowing Bible illustrations of well-fed cows and humble donkeys. Instead, the scenery largely consists of barren fields of broken rocks that look like they were smashed by a surly giant with a sledgehammer.
Ripped from Ambien-induced slumbers at 5:45 a.m., the White House press has been fed an Israeli hodgepodge of hummus, eggs, smoked fish, and coffee for breakfast in the lobby of the Dan Panorama Hotel before being swept for weapons and explosives by the Secret Service and then badged in the lobby by future “Good Morning America” host Dana Perino. In addition to the White House photo badge, there is also the hexagonal traveling-pool badge and a Palestinian Authority press badge bearing the insignia of the P.A. and the Palestine Liberation Organization, two organizations that also might as well be located on the moon.
Driving through the rain in Ramallah, we pass through a cordon of Palestinian Authority soldiers in brand-new camo uniforms carrying M-16 rifles that looked as if they had been freshly unpacked from their crates. “There are no people,” someone gasps, as we head into the sterile zone set up by the Palestinian Preventive Security Force with the aid of the Americans over the past few days. Residents in the streets surrounding the Muqata—the old British prison that served as Yasir Arafat’s headquarters and has since been inherited by his successor, Mahmoud Abbas (“Abu Mazen”)—have been told not to go out onto balconies or roofs and to stay away from windows while the president is here. The largely fictional nature of Palestinian self-government in the West Bank is shown by the fact that only a token handful of Abbas’s Presidential Guards are allowed inside the sterile zone, which has been secured by U.S. sniper teams and electronic warfare specialists.
In the week before the president’s visit, the Israel Defense Forces spent four days arresting wanted men in Nablus, a city that the Authority had declared to be a shining example of its recent security successes. Israel also cut fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip, the seaside jail where a majority of the Palestinian population lives under the control of Hamas, the murderous Islamist militia that won a plurality of the votes in the Palestinian elections in January 2006 and now showers Southern Israel with rockets. Having been stripped of its democratic mandate by Abu Mazen, Hamas replied by taking control of the Gaza Strip in approximately 48 hours between June 12 and June 14, 2007, exposing the hollowness of the American commitment to the electoral process and also the inability of the Palestinian security forces to defend themselves with their slick new American-donated weapons.
At the entrance to the Muqata, visitors are greeted by a large portrait of Arafat in a black and white kaffiyeh hanging next to his colorless successor, Abbas. “The South Africans got Nelson Mandela,” a Palestinian friend from Jerusalem once told me. “We got Winnie Mandela.” As a student of revolutionary movements, my friend believes that the personal character of the historical leader has a determining impact on the political culture of the future state. In his view, Arafat’s essential trait was duplicity. By being all things to all people, and refusing to commit himself to a single course of action, Arafat’s legacy is that he has made it impossible for the Palestinians to choose their own fate.
The press is rushed from the armored buses to the Muqata’s main briefing room, a professional-looking setup with state-of-the-art overhead light arrays and other CNN-ready paraphernalia put together at a cost of over $1 million in U.S. taxpayer money in order to provide American officials like the president and the secretary of state with a secure, camera-ready location from which to transmit their latest newsworthy pronouncements. On the wall near the door hangs a large printed plastic banner of the gold-topped Dome of the Rock rising above the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The White House press corps is seated near the door, in case something happens and they need to be hurried back to the buses. The Palestinian press corps, shivering outside in secure tents, will soon be allowed to take their places across the aisle, in a section of folding chairs in front of Abu Mazen’s podium.
Even if Abbas is a “good man,” in the patronizing formula adopted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, it is hard to see why the president of the United States believes so strongly in the likelihood of brokering a peace deal between a weak Israeli government and a Palestinian Authority that exists largely on paper and has no obvious means of future support. It is true, of course, that the fiction of the Palestinian Authority is convenient for everyone. Without the myth of Palestinian self-government, Israel would be forced to rule the West Bank directly, the Americans would pressure Israel to leave, and the Jordanians would go weak at the knees at the thought of a second Gaza Strip arising on their border. Still, confusing the fig leaf offered by the P.A. with a functioning state seems like too big a blunder even for an administration that brought us the failed U.S. puppet government in Iraq.
When it comes to describing the purpose of today’s staged event, the reporters in the room are therefore in a double or triple bind. It is rude to say that the Palestinian Authority is a fiction and that a peace treaty signed with an imaginary entity would be a joke. It is rude to say that there is no immediate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because it is rude to say these things, it becomes difficult—if not impossible—for reporters and editors to think about why the president is here. In the more conspiratorially minded climates of the Middle East, for example, it did not escape notice that the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) announcing that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program was published after the U.S. Army announced that attacks on U.S. troops by IEDs and other explosive devices of Iranian origin had fallen by nearly two-thirds. It was also noted that President Bush had publicly approved of the Russian decision to ship nuclear fuel rods to the Bushehr reactor. In the opinion of regional conspiracy buffs, the president was pursuing a secret deal with Iran, and the focus on a grand plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians in 2008 was intended to give plausible cover to a trip whose real purpose was to reassure the skittish Kuwaitis and Saudis that the Americans were not planning to fold up their tents and go home.
In the meantime, the White House press corps has been left to speculate on the chances for solving the 100-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict in the next twelve months while watching one of the Muqata flacks hang foam-backed Palestinian eagles on little hooks at the front of each podium. A young Palestinian reporter seated in front of me is writing down a question in her lined notebook, in case President Bush calls on her. “Mr. President, there has been talk about you giving the green light to the Israelis about a military strike,” she writes. A woman from the U.S. Consulate distributes Star Trek-like devices that will allow the reporters to hear a simultaneous translation of Abbas’s remarks.
At 11:07, eight minutes early, a wedge of security people moves toward the stage. “They’re coming!” the press handlers announce. The sound of shutters going off fills the room like someone flipping through a deck of plastic- covered playing cards. “Two minutes, guys.” The room falls silent. The truth is that it is difficult if not impossible for any native-born American to travel on a presidential plane, go through the endless security checks, and bear witness to the extreme precautions that are taken to ensure the president’s safety at every stop, and still conclude that what you are watching is void of significance.
Faster than expected, Bush walks in from the cold and winks at the traveling press, who generally seem to like him. Next to him is Abbas, who wears a gray suit with a white shirt and a dull striped tie as he addresses the leader of the free world for the cameras: “Our people will not forget Your Excellency,” Abbas begins in Arabic, “and your commitment toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.”
The father of the future state of Palestine fumbles with his earpiece, which is not working. “I haven’t got it yet,” Bush says. He points to a White House correspondent in the front row. “You better stay awake,” he jokes. Everyone laughs. The Palestinian press is discovering what the American reporters already know, which is that Saint George, Defender of Western Civilization is also a world-class cut-up.
“Our people, Your Excellency,” Abbas begins again. The president’s earpiece still isn’t working. “I agree completely,” Bush says. Finally the earpiece is fixed, and he settles in to listen as Abbas praises “our Palestinian people who are committed to peace as a strategic option.” It would be easier for everyone, of course, if Abbas were given to praising “our Palestinian people who are committed to peace,” without adding that odd little phrase at the end. Well, the truth is, it’s an old formula, you can hear the presidential translator, Gamal Helal, saying, as he explains what “strategic option” really means for the umpteenth time on the way back to Jerusalem.
Bush turns his face to the camera as he steps to the microphone. “We have met a lot in the past, and I’m glad to finally have a chance to sit down in your office to discuss important issues,” Bush begins. The translation audio goes out again. “Listen, they say I have enough problems speaking English as it is,” Bush jokes, unflustered. He is lean and fit and achingly sincere. Standing next to Abbas, he looks like Jimmy Stewart side by side with the Walrus from Alice in Wonderland. The Palestinians are entrepreneurial people who can create jobs, Bush says, in an encouraging way that makes him sound like he is addressing a Hispanic job fair in San Antonio. A handful of people want to dash the aspirations of the Palestinian people by fomenting chaos and violence.
“We are fully satisfied,” Abbas says, in answer to a question from a Palestinian journalist about the results of the meeting. “We spoke about all topics. ... We are agreed on all topics. All topics are clear.” His habit of talking out of the side of his mouth makes him sound like he is slightly soused. While news reports will portray the American president as having expressed empathy with Palestinians, or condemned the Israelis, or predicted a peace treaty by the end of the year (”Bush expects to see Palestinian state before he leaves office,” says USA Today), or done other consequential things, the truth is that nearly every sentence out of his mouth has already been said someplace else. Those sentences that don’t fit the expected storylines are ignored.
“Look, the U.N. deal didn’t work in the past,” Bush says, in answer to a Palestinian question about why the United States doesn’t simply enforce the relevant U.N. resolutions relating to Israel the way it did with Iraq—i.e., by bombing. Seated at the side of the room, out of Bush’s direct sight line, Rice stares stone-faced at the enormous plastic Dome of the Rock banner. On another day, with another president, a statement that the “U.N. deal” no longer applies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be diplomatic dynamite. But the truth is that this is Bush, and besides, no one cares anymore. “We can stay stuck in the past, which will yield nothing good for the Palestinians, in my judgment,” the president explains. “Do you want this state, or do you want the status quo? Do you want a future based upon a democratic state, or do you want the same old stuff?”
“We’ll take a state,” Abbas interjects, showing a welcome sign of life. But what he wants doesn’t matter all that much anymore, either. If the occupying Israeli army disappeared from the West Bank tomorrow, it is doubtful that he would last more than a few months.
“See, the past has just been empty words, you know,” Bush says, leaning over the podium in an oddly ruminative moment. “I’m the only president that’s really articulated a two-state solution so far—but saying two states really doesn’t have much bearing until borders are defined, right-of-return issues resolved, Jerusalem is understood, security measures—the common security measures will be in place.”
A Palestinian reporter asks Abbas how he expects to reclaim the half of his future state that is currently under the control of Hamas. “Gaza is considered a coup by us,” Abbas says. On cue, a cellphone starts ringing at the side of the stage, filling the room with the familiar sound of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. “We consider it a coup d’etat,” Abbas repeats, his upper lip twitching. The Palestinians crack up. “We spend in Gaza fifty-eight percent of our budget,” he explains. “It is our duty toward our people that we provide them what they need.”
Back in Jerusalem, I ask National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley how it is that 58 percent of the Palestinian Authority budget goes to Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas. I suggest that the figure is particularly disturbing in light of the $7.4 billion in aid pledged to the Palestinian Authority at the recent Paris donors’ conference. A tall and courteous national security expert, Hadley has the slight stoop of a man who has spent the better part of his life standing at briefing podiums set up for men who are four or five inches shorter than he is.
“Let me reframe your question, if I can,” Hadley says. “What is Salam Fayyad, as prime minister in this Palestinian Authority, what is he going to do?” He is playing for time as he tries to sort out the small mess that Abbas has made.
“We don’t have a presence in Gaza and haven’t for a long time,” Hadley parries, as though he wishes to avoid any accusation that the national security adviser’s office is getting a cut, too. Finally, he gives in. “We worry about it. Salam Fayyad worries about it. He and President Abbas have no interest in strengthening Hamas,” he says, adding, “If you want to get back in and restore the status quo ante to the Hamas coup, the last thing you want to do is stop the money flows.” The logic of this last statement is debatable.
For a moment Hadley looks flummoxed, and then he decides to cut his losses and move on, like a man who lost a hand at whist. “Are there risks? You bet,” he says briskly. “Are they concerned about it? Sure. Are we concerned about it? Sure.”
THERE IS NO shortage of theories in Jerusalem as to why Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has chosen to lend himself so enthusiastically to the goal of reaching a final-status agreement with an imaginary Palestinian partner. The theory put forward in public by Olmert himself is that the circumstances for an agreement are unlikely to be as favorable to Israel in the future as they are now, with Bush in the White House. “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights ... the State of Israel is finished,” Olmert told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. More cynical minds have plastered the walls near the Prime Minister’s office at 3 Rehov Kaplan with posters that show a mournful Olmert behind bars in shirtsleeves and a necktie, beneath the legend: EVEN BUSH CAN’T SAVE YOU.
The popular depiction of Olmert as a sly and personally corrupt lawyer whose shaky judgment resulted in the debacle of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon has some truth to it, yet it slights his ability to finesse big egos while acting in surprising ways that in another life might have won him a job as consigliere for the Bonannos or the Sopranos. When Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni launched a campaign to replace him as head of his own Kadima party, for example, Olmert adopted the masterly and entirely counterintuitive strategy of doing absolutely nothing. If Livni wants to sit in Cabinet meetings in the morning and go to rallies against me in the afternoon, his attitude proclaimed, that’s her business. After successfully making his foreign minister look like an unruly teenager, he made his victory complete by appointing her chief negotiator with the Palestinians. Olmert is also surprisingly tall. “It was a good visit, a productive visit,” he intones in a mellow voice, when I ask him how the president’s visit went. As he speaks, he palpates my hand as though he was using some kind of ancient Ayurvedic medical technique to judge the fitness of my heart and my liver.
I ask him whether Bush’s summary statement on Thursday at the King David Hotel (known for a brief moment as the “King David Statement”) contained anything new—Bush’s description of Israel as a “homeland for the Jewish people, “ for example. “He said it in Annapolis also,” the prime minister said, in the tones of a man who has just enjoyed a relaxing hot bath. “It is always refreshing to hear it.” After another minute of chitchat, he glides out of his office and over to the Cabinet room to accept the resignation of Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer from Moldova.
Later in the day, I meet with Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon in his half- empty office. Ramon has spent most of the last 15 years in the Cabinet, and was once touted as the Bill Clinton of the Labor Party, before his career was briefly derailed by a sexual harassment case. Now he is the second-ranking member of the government. “The prime minister and the defense minister had talks with four eyes and six eyes with the president about Iran,” Ramon says, using the Israeli locution for private meetings. “Those talks were very important.” Before the NIE, Ramon says, he estimated the chances of a U.S. attack on Iran at 5 percent. Now he estimates the chances at 2 percent.
Bush told Olmert that he would not waste his precious last year in office on brokering a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians unless both sides were serious about reaching a deal. It is the opinion of the government of the State of Israel that a deal can in fact be reached, Ramon says. “It doesn’t mean that on the first of January, 2009, a Palestinian flag will be raised over Jerusalem, “ he cautions. “But we will reach a framework, a Declaration of Principles, in 2008, and that will be the agreement that will be implemented in the future.”
When I ask Ramon whether he shares Olmert’s opinion that Israel will be “finished” if the two-state solution collapses, he cocks his head. “I say that Israel is risking itself as a Jewish and a democratic state,” he says. In Ramon’s view, and in the view of most members of the cabinet, continuing the occupation poses a strategic threat to Israel. “We are not doing a favor for the Palestinians,” Ramon says. “This is a conflict between Israel and Israel itself.”
It would be wonderful if the Palestinian government somehow gains enough strength to carry out its commitments under the road map, Ramon suggests. If not, he continues, “we have to take unilateral steps that will solve these issues.”
A sharp glimmer of understanding penetrates my foggy brain. The Americans and the Israelis speak with such assurance about reaching an agreement by the end of 2008 because they are talking about a paper agreement with a paper partner to create a state that will only exist on paper. If a strong Palestinian government “untainted by terror” never arises—as seems quite possible, if not likely—then Israel will withdraw from most of the West Bank anyway. “It is up to us to secure our own future,” Ramon says, spreading his hands wide apart. “We can live without peace with the Palestinians, but we can’t continue to live with the occupation. We need to separate from them. We need to define our borders and tell them, ‘Bye-bye, go live however you want, and peace be with you. And, if you want to keep fighting, we’ll kill you until you stop.’”
Among the range of sources I speak to inside and outside the current Israeli government, no one suggests that Olmert’s weak coalition is up to the task of bulldozing large Israeli communities like Kiryat Arba that are located east of any future border. No one I talked to, from politicians to generals, expects combat-hardened U.S. or British or French troops to arrive to police the West Bank. No one wants to see the West Bank become another Gaza Strip. No one believes the badly fractured Palestinian polity is capable of meeting its commitments. Which means that most Israeli troops and settlers will stay more or less exactly where they are today. If the Palestinian security commitments will mostly exist on paper, the Israeli disengagement from the West Bank, unlike the disengagement from Gaza, will also exist mostly on paper.
From the standpoint of its inventors, at least, the paper disengagement is a stroke of political genius that gives all the parties most of what they want. The Israelis will get international credit for committing to do in the future what they are not able to do in the present—namely, to withdraw large numbers of Israeli soldiers and settlers from the West Bank. The fiction of an Israeli withdrawal can support the fiction of a Palestinian state run by Abbas and Fatah, whose physical security will be insured by the presence of actual Israeli troops on the ground. The Americans can get a diplomatic success that can give added credibility to a diplomatic alliance against Iran, or peacemaking efforts with Iran, depending on how the wind blows in the next six months. Starved of political legitimacy and government funding, settlements east of the future border will slowly wither on the vine, making an actual Israeli withdrawal—when it happens, with or without the establishment of a Palestinian state, whether Fatah or Hamas is in charge—that much easier.
It is easy to imagine why, within the historical parameters of the conflict, any Palestinian leader worth his salt would find such a reasonable yet utterly ridiculous exercise—in which the “right of return” is finally assigned to the dustbin of history—to be an unbearable humiliation, and refuse to sign it, just as Yasir Arafat refused to sign the real-life version of the same agreement at Camp David. Then again, in another two or three years, the Palestinian Authority may no longer exist, even on paper. The fact that the State of Israel is widely loathed does not diminish the extent to which 15 years of failed Palestinian state-building followed by the failure of the Second Intifada have turned the Palestinian national cause into a byword for gruesome terror bombings and children wearing toy suicide belts in parades. All you need to do is spend a day driving around Israel and then through the West Bank to see the results of the last 15 years. Israel is a modern First World country whose standard of living is much higher now than it was before Oslo. The Palestinians are beggars.
I spend my last few days wandering the Old City of Jerusalem and getting reacquainted with Palestinians I know in the antiquities trade. My friend Badawi’s store is filled with junk, which he uses as a way to calibrate the wants of his customers and what they will be willing to pay. There are strings of silver-inlaid worry beads, engraved plates, daggers, traditional Palestinian headdresses, and other heirlooms that West Bank villagers have sold to feed their families. “Don’t touch that, it’s garbage,” he instructs me, when I pick up some Turkmeni rings from a bowl. What I have learned from the afternoons I have spent sitting in Badawi’s shop is that commerce is different in Middle Eastern societies than in Anglo-European societies, where commodities are stubbornly believed to have a natural price. As a result, most Western people find prolonged negotiation to be quite stressful. They pay too much, or become flustered and walk out. Here, fantasy and desire are the acknowledged foundations of any negotiation; negotiation is a way of understanding the mind of your opponent before arriving at a price.
When we are finished eating lunch, I go across the way to visit Mahmoud, another dealer I have known for years. Bundled up against the cold, he talks about his education at St. George’s School in East Jerusalem. A year and a half ago, his son came home from school spouting slogans against the Jews, he says. After consulting with a friend, he enrolled his son in a program for cross- cultural understanding at the ymca in West Jerusalem and paid to send him on a month-long group trip to Austria. Now his son has Jewish friends. Still, Mahmoud watches where his son goes, and with whom. As he talks, he reminds me of the parents I have met in inner-city neighborhoods who try to keep their kids away from gangs and drugs. No one could ever convince Mahmoud that Jewish supremacy in his ancestral city is just, any more than they could convince him that the Palestinian national movement since Oslo has been anything other than a failure.
“I went to the mosque today, and the sheik was talking about the difference between legal settlement and illegal settlements,” he says, in his soft voice, seeking to define the situation more precisely. “And one man stood up and said, ‘There is no difference between settlements and the State of Israel. The fundamental basis of the state is illegal.’ Now, it doesn’t matter whether I agree with him or not,” he continues. “But, when I was leaving the mosque, I turned to my friend and I asked him, ‘What do we want? Do we want these slogans from the past, or do we want a state?’ My friend couldn’t answer me. This is the problem of Palestine today.” David Samuels writes for The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New Yorker. He is the author of two forthcoming books, Only Love Can Break Your Heart and The Runner.
This article appeared in the February 13, 2008 issue of the magazine.