Sandy Tolan, Five Questions for George Mitchell

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[Note for readers: Whatever you do, don’t miss Part 1 of the TomDispatch excerpt, posted Saturday, from the stunning graphic memoir, Waltz with Bashir, the book version of the Oscar-nominated Israeli animated film of the same name. It’s a document for our time.]

In the latest issue of the Nation magazine, Jonathan Schell has written a piece, “Obama and the Return of the Real”, that should stand as a manifesto for sanity in our times. In it, he considers just how self-inflicted our present catastrophic situation, from economic meltdown to foreign policy disaster, actually is. Of Iraq, for instance, he comments, “The invasion… was the American empire’s self-inflicted wound — a disaster of choice, so to speak. All we had to do to escape it was not to do it. Here and elsewhere, the work of our own hands rises up to strike us.” He also considers the unnerving way in which we have “been cannibalizing the future to provision the present. Though we are not killing our children directly, we are spending their money, eating their food, cutting down their cherry orchards.”

In the Bush era, no country was more eager to follow our president into its own regional version of a “global war on terror” than Israel, which has, in a sense, been a U.S. Mini-Me for eight long years. As David Bromwich wrote recently at the Huffington Post, the two countries in these years “shared a fantasy. The fantasy says that the Arabs understand only force. It says we can end terrorism by killing all the terrorists. The neighbors of the terrorists will be overawed. No new terrorists will be created.”

In the process, Israel’s leaders have mirrored the Bush administration in bringing destruction to others as well as in the category of self-inflicted wounds, of which the most recent was certainly their December-January offensive in Gaza. Forgetting the morality of essentially attacking a civilian population in that heavily populated, heavily urbanized strip of land and purposely destroying civilian infrastructure, it was, in Schell’s terms, one of those utterly unnecessary decisions — taken up in part for domestic political reasons, in part simply because Israel’s leaders seem to have seen the moment before the Obama administration’s arrival as a bizarre window of opportunity. Undoubtedly, their decision to invade Gaza will, in retrospect, be seen as a rash blunder and an act of cannibalizing the future.

You can feel the shame over Israel’s most recent destructive acts spreading in the Jewish community (or rather communities) here and among policy thinkers more generally, further eroding support for the present Israeli government and perhaps even opening the way for some new thinking and new policies. The recent offensive also seeded years, even decades, of further bitterness into an already desperate, explosive situation — and all for nothing, or less than nothing. It’s certainly time for Israel to end its version of the Bush years. In the meantime, Sandy Tolan — author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, an indispensable book that traces the tragedy at the heart of the Middle East through two families and a single house — suggests why the old thinking may be at a dead end and what some of the questions leading to a new policy might be. Tom

Mitchell’s Challenge
After Gaza, Five Questions about Palestinian and Israeli Realities
By Sandy Tolan

The deep irony of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” first struck me in 1996 as I was driving through the West Bank from Hebron to Jerusalem. I had turned off the potholed main road that passed through Palestinian villages and refugee camps and headed west into Kiryat Arba. In that Israeli settlement, admirers had erected a graveside monument to Baruch Goldstein, the settler from Brooklyn who, in 1994, gunned down 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs. From the settlement’s creepy candlelit shrine I cut north, and soon found myself on a quiet, smooth-as-glass “bypass” road. The road, I would learn, was one of many under construction by Israel, alongside new and expanding settlements, that would allow settlers to travel easily from their West Bank islands to the “mainland” of the Jewish state.

How strange, I thought naively, as I traveled that lonely road toward Jerusalem on a gray winter afternoon: Isn’t this part of the land that Palestinians would need for their state? Why, then, in the middle of the Oslo peace process — barely three years after the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn — would Israeli officials authorize construction that was visibly cementing the settlers’ presence into Palestinian land?

Twelve years later, these post-Oslo “facts on the ground” have all but doomed the traditional path to peace. The two-state solution, the central focus of efforts to end the tragedy of Israel and Palestine since 1967, has been undermined by the thickening reality of red-roofed Israeli settlements, military outposts, surveillance towers, and the web of settlers-only roads that whisk Israelis from their West Bank dwellings to prayer in Jerusalem’s Old City, or to shopping and the beach in Tel Aviv. So dense had the Israeli West Bank presence become by 2009, so fragmented is Palestinian life — both physically and politically — that it now requires death-defying mental gymnastics to imagine how a two-state solution could ever be implemented.

Five Questions for an Israeli-Palestinian Future

Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Obama’s respected, fair-minded Middle East envoy, will bring his considerable skills to bear on this ever more daunting problem. It is Mitchell’s widely acknowledged fairness that has prompted jaw-dropping comments from some hardline pro-Israeli lobbyists and Christian Zionists who became accustomed, under George W. Bush, to getting whatever they wanted; this in itself is a signal that Obama’s approach to the region may represent a genuine break from the past.

To an honest witness like Mitchell, for whom the facts and the aspirations of both peoples seem to actually matter, it may become quickly evident that the traditional two-state solution is now on life support. Seeing that, he would do well to keep an open mind and be prepared to ask some hard questions. Among them might be:

1. What does the unending march of Israeli construction actually mean for a “viable, contiguous” Palestine?

The only way anyone can viscerally understand the thousand cuts inflicted on the two-state solution is by driving through the West Bank. I’ve crisscrossed this landscape a hundred times since 1994, and never has the hardware of settlements and Israeli military control been so dense. Since the beginning of the Oslo “peace process” in 1993, the West Bank Jewish settler population has jumped from 109,000 to 275,000 — and this doesn’t include the Jewish “suburbs” in East Jerusalem, which bring the total settler population to nearly half a million. Some 230 settlements and strategically placed “outposts” are now strung along hilltops across the West Bank, towering above whitewashed Palestinian villages.

The ragtag outposts, technically forbidden under Israeli law but encouraged by some within the government, are meant to connect with larger settlements to form an everlasting Jewish presence on Palestinian land. It’s no longer possible to drive any significant stretch of the West Bank without encountering a settlement, military post, settler road, surveillance tower, roadblock, stationary checkpoint, or “flying” checkpoint. The number of West Bank barriers (roadblocks, checkpoints, and other obstacles) has increased nearly 70% in the last three years, and now exceeds 625 — this in a land about the size of Delaware.

How all this could be removed in order to create a “viable, contiguous” Palestinian state seems, increasingly, a question without an answer. During the Camp David talks in 2000, and in more recent discussions between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, there was much talk of large, consolidated “settlement blocs” and land swaps to facilitate a contiguous Palestine.

To the extent an unbroken Palestine was ever possible — and there was much behind-the-scenes debate about this, even among American negotiators at Camp David all the way back in 2000 — the facts on the ground, placed there deliberately by Israel, have by now made the issue virtually moot. Maps of many would-be “solutions” show the West Bank fractured into pieces, cut up by walls, settlements, military posts, and “security zones.” Far from the two-state solution envisioned in the wake of the 1967 war, today’s maps tend to look like advertisements for a sci-fi movie entitled “The Incredible Shrinking Palestine.”

2. How can a viable Palestinian state exist when a city of 20,000 Israelis sits in the middle of it?

In 1978, Ariel, the city of Jewish settlers, was founded, over U.S. and international objections, in the heart of the West Bank district of Salfit. Fully one-third of it juts onto Palestinian land. Israel’s “security barrier” (known as the “apartheid wall” to Palestinians), which ostensibly follows Israel’s border with the West Bank, in fact doesn’t; at Ariel it veers east 11 miles to enfold the full settlement in its embrace. For this reason, Ariel’s leaders say confidently that their settlement, essentially a bedroom community for Tel Aviv with its own university and industrial park, is “here to stay.”

Indeed, the removal of Ariel — a red line for the Palestinians — has been mandated in almost none of the peace plans going back to Camp David, including the 2001 informal Geneva peace plan much heralded by the Israeli and American peace camps. That is why Ariel’s city fathers feel comfortable in sending its young “director of community aliyah [Jewish emigration to Israel],” Avi Zimmerman, raised in West Orange, New Jersey, across the U.S. to recruit more American Jews to move to the settlement. “It’s the ingathering of exiles,” Zimmerman told me, standing on a hilltop above Ariel. “You have to make sure there’s a constant flow of people.”

For Palestinians who live nearby, the existence of Ariel and other settlements makes traveling anywhere a nightmare. Osama Odeh, born in the village of Bidya (which means “olive grinding stone” in Arabic), told me that, if he wants to visit friends in a village five miles away, he must drive east, then south, then west, crossing multiple Israeli military checkpoints where he will have to show documents, open his car’s trunk, and face questions about his intentions and past whereabouts. The journey could take an hour. Or two, or three. “It becomes forty kilometers, instead of three or four,” he points out. “It’s ridiculous. In the name of security, they can turn your life to hell.”

For the many villagers without a car, the trip simply becomes impractical, thus encouraging political and social disconnection. “All the time they are expanding,” Odeh says of the settlements. “You feel trapped. Villages that have been there for hundreds of years, now they feel like they are fragmented.” According to U.N. maps, Palestinians are restricted from entering some 40% of the West Bank, while the major Palestinian cities now essentially function as isolated cantons.

Some Israeli negotiators, including deputy speaker of the Knesset Otniel Schneller, a longtime leader of the settlers’ movement, have called upon Israeli engineers to design workarounds. Their answer: a network of tunnels, “flyover” ramps, and bridges to ferry Palestinians under and around the settlements. For Schneller, these concrete fixes would keep a prominent Jewish presence in “Judea and Samaria,” while allowing Palestinians ostensible “freedom of movement” through tightly controlled funnels: Not exactly what Palestinians had in mind during the decades of their liberation struggle.

3. What kind of Palestinian state would have its capital in a village far from Jerusalem’s Old City and virtually sealed off from huge portions of the West Bank?

Palestinians have always insisted on having East Jerusalem, including portions of the Old City which encompass the Muslim holy sites, as their capital. At Camp David in 2000, PLO leader Yasser Arafat refused an American-Israeli offer of a “sovereign presidential compound” beside the Muslim holy sites. He derided it as “a small island surrounded by Israeli soldiers.” More recently, Israeli negotiators have reiterated their intention to hold onto the Old City and its holy sites. They have suggested that the actual Palestinian capital should be located in some of East Jerusalem’s Arab “neighborhoods” — actually, small villages never considered part of Jerusalem by Palestinians, but now incorporated into greater Jerusalem, thanks to the redrawn administrative boundaries of Israeli city planners.

Even were the Palestinian capital to be located in the Old City, its ability to govern the rest of Palestine would still be hamstrung. Since Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli government has built a ring of Jewish “suburbs” around Arab East Jerusalem. Nearly 200,000 Israelis now live there. This ring essentially seals off East Jerusalem from Bethlehem, Hebron, and Palestinian villages to the south.

One of the last pieces to snap into place was Har Homa, a settlement built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on a hill known to the Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim. I recall seeing the hill from Bethlehem in 1996. By then, Israeli chainsaws and earth-moving equipment had already sliced lines into the hill’s conifer forest, giving it what looked like a bad haircut. Palestinian activists, desperate to hang onto this part of the West Bank, had set up a 24-hour emergency camp, pledging not to abandon their peaceful protest until Israel withdrew its claims.

Today, the trees are gone, replaced by long rows of new white houses for Israelis. “This is the last resort from which you can establish the umbilical cord between Bethlehem and Jerusalem,” said Jad Isaac, director of the Applied Research Institute, a Palestinian think tank in Bethlehem. “So the construction of Har Homa destroys the peace process. Unless Har Homa is totally destroyed and returned to the Palestinians, there is no peace.”

For Bethlehemites like Isaac, the wedge of Har Homa and the other East Jerusalem “suburbs” effectively renders moot Palestinian aspirations for a contiguous state. If any doubt about this lingered, Israel’s separation wall put an end to it.

Driven into the land at the northern end of Bethlehem is the 25-foot-high concrete curtain with two narrow, single file pedestrian lanes running beside it. Each is about 150 feet long, framed by steel bars from concrete floor to metal ceiling. These give the few Palestinians with permits to travel from Bethlehem the inescapable feeling of moving through a cattle line. (Actually, Palestinians prefer a poultry analogy, calling the lanes ma’aatet al-jaaj, the chicken-plucking machine.) When I walked through the line, emerging near the southern edge of Jerusalem, I gazed back on the northern face of the wall, stunned at a banner unfurled beneath the gun turret and watchtower. From the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, it proclaims in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, “Peace Be With You.”

4. How can you build a viable state by negotiating only with the weakened representative of one Palestinian faction?

Even if the obstacles outlined above were to miraculously disappear, George Mitchell’s work could be badly crippled by an outdated American strategy of dealing only with Fateh and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. Long backed by Americans as a Palestinian “moderate,” in the wake of the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza Abbas has lost virtually all credibility among his people. (As of January 9th, he also technically ceased being the Palestinian president.)

Despite the death and destruction of these last weeks, Hamas is increasingly seen by observers in the region as gaining strength in the West Bank, while firmly holding power in Gaza. “The Islamist movement is going to come out of this war strengthened politically vis-à-vis its rival Palestinian factions, including Fateh, and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah,” wrote the shrewd political analyst and former Palestinian labor secretary Ghassan Khatib in a commentary for bitterlemons, a website run by Israeli and Palestinian analysts. He added, “The Israeli war on Gaza, which increased public sympathy with Hamas [has] further shifted the balance of power against Fateh in the West Bank and left the Palestinian Authority politically very vulnerable.”

Indeed, some West Bankers, who hold no brief for Hamas, are echoing the words that many Lebanese said of Hezbollah in the wake of the 2006 war in Lebanon: “They put up a resistance for 22 days — Fateh leadership did and said nothing,” the Palestinian-American journalist Lubna Takruri wrote me from Ramallah this week. “People in the West Bank are still smoldering that while they were watching all these worldwide protests here, Fateh forces were preventing the Palestinians from protesting against the Israelis at checkpoints. This was huge. It made people feel like the PA [Palestinian Authority] was doing Israel’s work for them, while Israel handled business in Gaza.”

Early signs strongly indicate that the Obama team will continue the strategy of propping up Abbas, with credibility-destroying “help” from the CIA, while refusing to deal with Hamas until it recognizes Israel. Clearly the Hamas charter is despicable: It describes the Jews as aspiring to “rule the world,” and declares that the elimination of Israel would be a historic parallel to the defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin.

American and Israeli officials have, however, ignored more subtle signals from Hamas — which was, after all, brought to power in free and fair elections — that it would abide by the expressed will of the Palestinian people for coexistence with Israel. One of the strongest signals was the 2006 “Prisoners’ Document,” initiated by leaders of Hamas and the imprisoned former Fateh leader Marwan Barghouti, that called for negotiations with Israel in pursuit of peace. The Bush administration, siding with the Israelis, who insisted that there was “no partner for peace,” chose to ignore such signs and so undermined any efforts toward a Fateh-Hamas unity government.

It would be disastrous for Mitchell to go down this same road. Hamas is here to stay. These last weeks, Israeli dreams of defeating it in Gaza have been shattered, and any attempt to deal only with the rickety shell of Fateh will ensure that the U.S. obtains the same bleak results. The fact is: engaging Hamas will be a much better way of keeping the rockets silent.

5. Given these immense obstacles, is a viable, contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state even possible anymore? And, if not

Given the overwhelming odds facing a two-state solution, a strong American negotiating presence will be necessary, of a sort not seen since well, ever. The hallmark of the last eight years (and to a large extent the previous eight Clinton years) has been an utter lack of American pressure on Israel. This has been in no one’s interest, including Israel’s.

Ehud Olmert, who in 2008 spoke — apparently sincerely — of Israel’s need to withdraw from “most or all” of the West Bank settlements, received no support from Washington for saying so. In the vacuum of American leadership, Olmert capitulated to the settlers’ bloc in his ruling coalition. Hence, the arrival of yet more Israeli facts-on-the-ground on the West Bank. This American administration has to do much better.

The last 16 years have also been marked by an inability to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through anything but Israeli eyes. Now, Mitchell will, hopefully, bring a willingness to understand six decades of tragedy through two sets of aspirations: this will be essential if a just, lasting piece is to be forged. This will also have to include confronting one of the most vexing issues of all, that of the 4.4 million Palestinian refugees and the insistence of many of them that they be allowed to return to their original homes in what is now Israel. This is, of course, a red line for Israelis who insist that the “right of return” would mean the end of their state.

Essential for George Mitchell in all of this will be an openness and a creativity absent from American diplomacy since the violent birth of Israel and the Palestinian catastrophe in 1948. Increasingly, small groups of Palestinians, a handful of Israelis, and even motivated outsiders like Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, are looking at coexistence anew, by exploring the possibility of a third way. The alternatives differ sharply: some call for a one-state solution; others for a binational state; others for an Israeli-Palestine confederation or a Middle East Union.

The words “single state” spark a visceral fear among many Israelis who see this, too, as the end of the Jewish state. But the dreams of what Albert Einstein called the “sympathetic cooperation” between “the two great semitic peoples” are rooted, in large part, in the history of progressive Zionists, who, like Einstein and the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, believed in their bones in a just coexistence. Buber advocated a binational state of “joint sovereignty,” with “complete equality of rights between the two partners,” based on “the love of their homeland that the two peoples share.”

For many, the two-state solution remains, in the words of former U.S. Middle East negotiator Aaron Miller, author of The Much Too Promised Land, “the least bad alternative.” But should George Mitchell take an honest look at the immense obstacles now involved in a two-state solution and determine that they are insurmountable, he would do well to remain open to other possibilities, and bear in mind the words of Albert Einstein.

“No problem,” said Einstein, “can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Sandy Tolan is the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, and associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

Copyright 2009 Sandy Tolan