A QUAGMIRE IN THE NAME OF PEACE
By Micah Halpern
Thursday October 1, 2009
Do you know what a quagmire is?
A quagmire is the Middle East right now, a quagmire is the situation the Israeli and Palestinians are stuck in right now. A quagmire is the situation that the Obama White House, however unwittingly and unintentionally, created in the name of peace.
President Barack Obama and his band of advisors embraced the Israeli/Palestinian peace process with gusto and zest, but with very little understanding of the players, the playing ground and the process. The White House does not yet comprehend the value of language and symbols as they apply to the Middle East. And that is a problem. And now Israelis and Palestinians are even further behind in the process of making peace than they were before the last US election. The White House doesn't even realize the mess they have caused.
It all began with lofty goals and good intentions.
The White House wanted to invigorate the peace process. Since the inauguration in January, the new administration repeated - and repeated and repeated, the need to freeze all construction in Israeli settlements. It was their mantra. The Arab world responded with a great hadad!, which means hurray! in Arabic. Finally, they thought, the United States gets it.
In fact, the United States did not get it at all. The United States President did not understand that he was repeating the Palestinian mantra. He did not understand that freezing all settlements is the Palestinian mantra. He did not understand that for the Palestinians settlements are not buildings and roads, schools and post offices, for the Arab world settlements are a symbol.
President Obama did not understand that, for years, settlement construction has been used as the most licentious and destructive obstacle to an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Instead, the new administration embraced a vibrant chant and called for a settlement freeze, insisting that even one new nail would be a violation of the concept of settlement freeze.
The administration would soon discover that things in the Middle are seldom one dimensional. The US made it clear that past promises, even promises in writing to Israel regarding settlements, would not be honored - and they thought they were nearing a real breakthrough. But the reality was that now the sides were not talking to each other. President Obama had created a sin qua non for the start of dialogue. The attempt to pressure Israel to come to the table was failing.
In the period before the US election, when Ehud Olmert was prime minister of Israel, the parties were speaking and there were no preconditions. Now, The President of the United States said no to construction in the settlements, the Israeli said to no that decree and the Palestinians were saying that they had the blessings of the United States not to come to the peace table because the Israelis were not in compliance.
What was President Obama to do? He back peddled. He sent George Mitchell, his special envoy, to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, in London. Netanyahu explained that he could get his government to agree to a settlement freeze, but. The but was - Jerusalem is not a settlement. The but was that there were 2,500 apartments in Jerusalem that were already under construction.
Mitchell called Washington and it was agreed that a good compromise had been reached, not construction, except in Jerusalem. After all, an effective compromise is one in which both sides give a little, both sides feel that they have been gypped a little and both sides shake hands.
The Arab world was offended. Jerusalem is not only a settlement, it is a symbol. And there is no compromising on a symbol. Palestinians were up in arms, the Arab world felt betrayed.
And Obama back peddled some more. During the United Nations General Assembly in New York the US president scaled back his language. He did not insist on a total settlement freeze. Arabic papers saw it as a major retreat - and that retreat caused the Palestinians to increase their absoluteness and their insistence that no settlement means no settlement.
And that is where the situation remains today. Settlements might or might not be frozen, but the peace process certainly is. Now there must be a calming down period which must, by definition, delay any reconciliation. Not exactly what President Obama had in mind.
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