Monday, September 6, 2010

Peace Talks, and Talks, and Talks.

For the nth time in umpteen years, Israelis and Palestinians are sitting down together to talk about peace. What does it mean, no one yet knows. But both sides left agreeing to come back, which is always a good start.

One significant difference between these talks and the talks hosted by our last two fearless leaders, Clinton and Bush, Jr., is the fact that President Obama did not wait until the last few minutes of his term, as the ink was drying on the inauguration invitations for the next guy, to announce an attempt to make history and solve one of the world's most intractable conflicts. So that is something.

And THAT's the good news.

Netanyahu is holding his coalition together with both hands and some duct tape. He does not currently have the ability to make any significant concessions, lest his coalition, stacked heavily-although not entirely-to the right, finally take its ultimate plunge into the abyss of Israeli history books. Netanyahu is not the first Prime Minister in Israel to be given a second shot at the position, but it is hard to imagine Bibi getting a third shot at the prize in the foreseeable future.

Now we have to remember, for all of Netanyahu's edge and stance, he is also one of the only Israeli Prime Minister's to accede territory, however small (the other two being through-and-through righties Begin and Sharon). He is a pragmatist, even if he wishes that Israel, the world, and President Obama would forget it.

So Netanyahu's juggling act comes out in a repeat of his imaginative claim from last year that, new to the ether of peace talks, it would be unacceptable for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians without a full recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

On the surface, this is simple enough. Israel is the Jewish state, let whoever wants to make peace with them say it out loud. But this was not asked of Sadat of Egypt nor King Hussein of Jordan, and Israel willingly signed treaties with both of these parties.

Why ask the Palestinians, who have no (and will continue to have no) standing army, potentially no control of their borders or air space, and certainly no right of return beyond whatever is specifically spelled out under any ultimate peace plan, when the same was not asked of Sadat-the-Giant, or King Hussein, over whom Israel had no such control.

The answer of course is because they can. Well, if they are less concerned with peace than constituency that is. Time Magazine's Karl Vick just wrote an interesting, if not perfect, cover story about why Israel has moved on from peace (an excerpt can be read here). The question here is really less about Israel than about Netanyahu. Netanyahu does not have the coalition to allow him to make serious concessions. Requiring Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state as, well a Jewish state, is tantamount to asking them to take their beating and say "uncle" all the same.

Before you go jumping to the comments section to tell me that I hate Israel and/or that I am ignorant and/or that I should die, and so on, give me a second. Please. In any real peace, a peace that can be accepted by either leader and brought back to the people without outright riots and secession, both sides are going to have to make serious concessions. Israel is going to have to dismantle SOME settlements and outposts, accept SOME leniency with Palestinian borders and find SOME way to allow the Palestinians to claim Jerusalem a shared city, even if mostly only on paper.

For the Palestinians, they are going to have to accept that some settlements are not settlements, but permanents, that they are never going to receive any real semblance of the Right-of-Return, that they are (at least for now) not going to have an army or any real control over their borders or their airspace, and that Jerusalem is never going to be as "theirs" as they had hoped.

This is going to be painful for both sides. Decades (nearly a century) of war, and hardship, and talks, and brutality, and vitriol, and anger, and everyone is going to be unhappy. But that is what compromise is. If everyone cannot be happy, then everyone needs to be the least amount of unhappy as possible.

When all is said and done, the best case scenario for a future Palestinian state is going to be hard-to-swallow, difficult-to-sell and a work-in-progress state that might never stop being a work-in-progress. It IS going to be noncontagious and indefensible. It IS going to be a shard of what the Palestinians feel is their deserved state. But, God and Allah and Jesus and Glenn Beck and whoever-you-choose-to-bow-down-to willing, it is going to be a state.

To then ask the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, despite the fact that within it their are over a million Palestinians (about 1/5 of the population of Israel) and that the Palestinian state will be full of people who still wear necklaces with keys to their old homes in Haifa, Jaffa and so on (cities that will certainly remain a part of Israel), is akin to kicking them while they are down.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, I understand the sentiment. You have been fighting so long for the Jewish state. Essentially you are asking someone to tell you that you were right, that your brother and your friends did not die in vain, that your life's work mattered, that you, and your people, are real and legitimate.

But it is never going to happen. Just like you are never going to accept the Right-of-Return for a significant number of Palestinians, they are never going to lower their head and grant you this victory.

But honestly, that is not really the point, is it? You are not demanding this for the Palestinians or for the Israelis. You are doing it for your coalition and for President Obama. If you somehow defy the odds and reach peace, your coalition is doomed to fail. If you cannot give a good reason for reaching peace, you are going to piss off on angry, dumped-on American President who has been getting beaten up from every side recently and may (he just may) decide that you are a battle worth fighting.

And who knows what happens then.

To all of those of you who have been waiting patiently, you can now tell me to die, and all that fun stuff. I will try not to take it too personally.

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