President Obama distinguished himself in the Middle East. It is early, grasping at straws, and probably insane to make this point, but as of now, only ten weeks into it, Mr. Obama is the first president since James Monroe to be having a better second term than he had a first term. In the Middle East, beyond all the obligatory claptrap about the virtues of all sides (and all sides do have a strong case, up to a point — otherwise not even the paroxysms of perversity regularly attained in that region would generate the intractable problems there), he subtly but clearly shed his former and long-standing adherence to the settlements myth, emancipated himself from the philistine terror of Tom Friedman, and declared the settlements issue to be the red herring, the outright fraud, that it always has been.
As Charles Krauthammer remarked with his usual acuity, the president achieved this by implicitly rebutting the long-held view of the Palestinian leadership that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are the decisive bar to a lasting agreement. Obama stated that Palestinian sovereignty and Israeli security are the keys, and did not need to lead his listeners further into the obvious. When Palestine has a state, there will be no Israeli settlements in it. There may now be such settlements in what will ultimately be part of a Palestinian state, but they will, in the event of agreement, be repurposed as residences for returning Palestinians, or demolished, but not left as sitting ducks of clustered Jewish residents in the jaws of a new Palestinian state.
Israel demonstrated, in giving up Sinai and Gaza, that it would uproot settlers for peace, though admittedly on a scale vastly inferior to the incursions settlements have made on the West Bank. There are 350,000 Jewish settlers in over 100 settlements on the West Bank. They occupy less than 5 percent of the territory of the West Bank, but connecting roads and adjoining military installations raise the built-upon portion of the West Bank to about 40 percent.
This appears to be an absolute bar to a viable Palestinian state, but it isn’t. In the first place, Israel was never going to offer an exact return to the pre-1967 borders, and Israel can never accept a severely divided Jerusalem or a country only nine miles wide at its narrowest, as it was for the first 20 years of its history. The offer Ehud Barak made to Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 was the whole West Bank with territorial swaps, and the capitals of both countries in a shared Jerusalem. The West Bank would be narrower and the Gaza Strip deeper. Abbas walked out, as Arafat had in 2000 and 2001. If a genuine peace could be arranged and agreed, and not just another tentative Palestinian cease-fire in exchange for irreversible cessions of land on the Oslo model, Israel would happily yield some of the settlements and build new accommodations for the displaced settlers elsewhere. If Israel and the Palestinians can reach agreement on a division between them of the territory the British effectively promised to both simultaneously in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Palestine will effectively acknowledge the right to exist of the Jewish state, Israel will be satisfied that its security can be maintained, and the settlers who are in the way will be moved. The infrastructure left behind will either be donated to the new Palestinian state or be razed, depending on the ambiance at the end of the negotiations.
Building settlements was the only high card Israel could play in its contest with the Palestinians. The Arabs endlessly stated that they had the numbers, and therefore the time. But Israel had the land and the ability to occupy the land and build on it, and it is running out more quickly than the time. It has all been a game of chicken that the Palestinians mistakenly imagined they would win.
The key has always been Palestinian acceptance of the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, and this has never been conceded by the Arab powers, apart from by the Sadat-Mubarak government of Egypt and the Hussein-Abdullah government of Jordan. At each stage, the Palestinians have treated agreements as a step toward their objective of reclaiming the entire territory of the Palestine Mandate. Abbas recently told a visiting Western foreign minister, who said that the Security Council had recognized Israel as a Jewish state in 1948, that this was not the case — and produced a photocopy of a document in which President Truman recognized the State of Israel but had allegedly personally put a line through the word “Jewish” in front of the words “State of Israel.” Abbas represented this as meaning that Truman and the United States did not recognize Israel at its birth as a Jewish state. Of course, as the visitor pointed out, all it meant was that Truman recognized that the correct title of the country is “State of Israel,” as Ben-Gurion and Weizmann had proclaimed it, not that it was anything other than a homeland for the Jews.
For reasons that have never been publicly and coherently explained, much of the Muslim world and almost all the Arabs have taken the position that the setting up of Israel on what the Arabs consider to be their land (though they have never in 3,000 years actually governed it) is a straw that breaks the camel’s back and is completely intolerable. It is the culmination of 13 centuries of retreat since Charles Martel sent the Arabs packing from France after the battle of Tours in 732. This is not rational and Israel has been an immense success, is a nuclear power, and will not be dislodged. The mystery is why the Palestinians, having clawed their way back to half a loaf, which the Israelis were certainly not prepared to concede for the first 30 years of their national existence, consent to go on being cannon fodder in this absurd and impossible struggle, which enables the Arab powers to invoke it constantly as a goad and psychological displacement to distract the Arab masses from the misrule almost all their leaders inflict on them. It is difficult not to conclude that the motive for the Palestinian leaders, first the unspeakable Yasser Arafat and now Mahmoud Abbas, in ensuring that there is no progress in the misnamed peace process is that if there were peace, they would cease to be the co-stars with the leaders of Israel in the world’s greatest political crisis, and would become mere chiefs in one of the world’s dustier and more obscure little countries.
President Obama’s recognition that the settlement issue has been used as a pretext for not doing anything by the Palestinians and other Muslims, as well as their witless dupes in Europe and the underdeveloped countries, is a great breakthrough that comes at the same time as other seismic shifts in the region. On March 31, Israel began pumping natural gas from the offshore Tamar gas field that will save the country about $3 billion in energy imports this year. As Turkey continues its 180-degree turn from being an ally of Israel and critic of its former Arab subjects to a champion of the endless Arab grievances against Israel, Israel has opened closer relations with Greece and is assisting that country in developing its own gas reserves in the Aegean, and cooperating in building a natural-gas pipeline to Cyprus and on to Greece. This has provoked a great deal of blustering in Turkey and threats against Cyprus, which in turn has elicited a very purposeful stance from the Russians, against Turkey.
The flight of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria to Jordan has put that country and the Hashemite dynasty at the head of it under great pressure. It is now difficult to be confident about whether existing national boundaries in Iraq, Jordan, and Syria will continue unaltered, or whether a Palestinian entity will be carved as much from Jordan as from the area of, and occupied by, Israel; whether there will be a breakup between the Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite sections of Iraq; and what sort of regime will emerge in Syria. The antics of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are unlikely to gain mass popularity and, as predicted here and elsewhere, the Brotherhood is showing no aptitude at all for intelligent economic management. The positive side of that part of the Arab Spring is that when the Islamist party is thoroughly demystified, it will either be democratically rejected in favor of something better, since there are no worse options left, or will be thrown out by the army, who may not be brilliant managers but at least will stop playing footsie with the Iranians. The destabilization of Iraq, if it goes much further, will cause Turkey to become even more preoccupied with Kurdish nationalism, as it will then have a Kurdish oil state on its borders, and whatever influence Iran gains over Shiite Iraq will be at least partly compensated for by a loss of influence over Sunni, post-Assad Syria, which will presumably be less available as a conduit to Hezbollah terrorism directed against Israel.
No one, not even Iran, nuclear-armed or not, wants a real war with Israel, and the shambles of the Arab Spring will make it more difficult than it has been for the Arab powers to maintain the focus on what has essentially become the phony issue of Palestine, as Israel will be more than happy to give it statehood if the Palestinians stop their violent provocations and their denial of Israel’s sovereignty. I doubt that the Palestinians, or their Arab cousins, will be willing much longer to endure severe hardship and sacrifice to dispute Israel’s well-earned status as a legitimate, successful, predominantly Jewish country.
President Obama came into office with naïve and rather anti-Israeli preconceptions, and confessed after a couple of years that he had had no idea how difficult Mideast peace would be to achieve. His Turko-Israeli mediation was not really much of a resolution, since Turkey, in its present addiction to pan-Islamic posturing, is in no mood for a resolution. But there are hopeful signs that the president’s position may be firming up on the Iranian nuclear issue, if only because it affronts his totemistic preoccupation with arms control. He had a good visit to the region, and his stance on the Middle East and its many problems has shown what our elementary-school teachers used to call “steady progress.”
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].