Thomas Friedman Little Energy for Peace in the Middle East

The only thing that might work in the Mideast is radical pragmatism -- a pragmatism that is as radical and energetic as the extremism that it hopes to nullify.

By Thomas L. Friedman


A wounded protestor is carried away during recent clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza. Hamas was protesting about Israel's blockade of the Gaza strip.
AP

A wounded protestor is carried away during recent clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza. Hamas was protesting about Israel's blockade of the Gaza strip.

When I reported from Israel in the mid-1980s, the big debate here was whether Israel's settlement-building in the West Bank had passed a point of no return -- a point where any serious withdrawal became virtually impossible to imagine. The question was often framed as: "Is it five minutes to midnight or five minutes after midnight?" Well, having taken a little drive through part of the West Bank, as I always do when I visit, it strikes me more than ever that it's not only five after midnight, it's five after midnight and a whole week later.

The West Bank today is an ugly quilt of high walls, Israeli checkpoints, "legal" and "illegal" Jewish settlements, Arab villages, Jewish roads that only Israeli settlers use, Arab roads and roadblocks. This hard and heavy reality on the ground is not going to be reversed by any conventional peace process. "The two-state solution is disappearing," said Mansour Tahboub, senior editor, at the West Bank newspaper Al-Ayyam.

Indeed, we are at a point now where the only thing that might work is what I would call "radical pragmatism" -- a pragmatism that is as radical and energetic as the extremism that it hopes to nullify. Without that, I fear, Israel will remain permanently pregnant with a stillborn Palestinian state in its belly.

Why we need a radical departure is obvious: The business-as-usual course that Israelis and Palestinians are on right now does not have enough energy or authority to produce a solution. With the encouragement of the Bush administration, Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank are negotiating a draft peace treaty that supposedly will be put on the shelf, until the Palestinians have enough capability to implement it. I seriously doubt that the parties will reach an agreement, let alone have the energy to implement it.

The Israeli-Palestinian energy shortage today is on three levels: First is the level of hope and trust. Ever since the breakdown of the Oslo agreement, the romance has gone out of the peace process. Israelis and Palestinians remind me of a couple who, after a stormy courtship, finally get married and one year after they tie the knot they each cheat on the other: Israelis kept on building settlements and the Palestinians kept on building hate. When you cheat and have war after peace, trust vanishes for a long time.

The trust deficit is exacerbated by the fact that after Israel quit the Gaza Strip in 2005, Palestinians, instead of building Singapore there, built Somalia and focused not on how to make microchips, but on how to make rockets to hit Israel.

The second energy shortage comes from the fact that Israel, with the wall that it has erected around the West Bank, has so effectively shut down Palestinian suicide bombers that the Israeli public right now feels no sense of urgency, especially with the Israeli economy booming. The West Bank behind the wall might as well be in Afghanistan.

"Today, you have neither the romanticism of the peace process before Oslo fell apart nor a visible disaster knocking at the gates of Israel's consciousness," noted the Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit.

The third energy shortage is the fact that the political system in both Israel and among the Palestinians is so internally divided that neither one can generate the authority to take a big decision.

Only the US can overcome this diplomatic brownout by offering some radical pragmatism, and the logic would be this: If Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not get control over at least part of the West Bank soon, he will have no authority to sign any draft peace treaty with Israel. He will be totally discredited.

But Israel cannot cede control over any part of the West Bank without being assured that someone credible is in charge. Rockets from Gaza land on the remote Israeli town of Sderot. Rockets from the West Bank could hit, and close, Israel's international airport. That is an intolerable risk. Israel has got to start ceding control over at least part of the West Bank but in a way that doesn't expose the Jewish state to closure of its airport.

Radical pragmatism would say that the only way to balance the Palestinians' need for sovereignty now with Israel's need for a withdrawal now, but without creating a security vacuum, is to enlist a trusted third party -- Jordan -- to help the Palestinians control whatever West Bank land is ceded to them. Jordan does not want to rule the Palestinians, but it, too, has a vital interest in not seeing the West Bank fall under Hamas rule.

Without a radically pragmatic new approach -- one that gets Israel moving out of the West Bank, gets the Palestinian Authority real control and sovereignty, but one which also addresses the deep mistrust by bringing in Jordan as a Palestinian partner -- any draft treaty will be dead on arrival.

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