Michael Gerson

Neither side is ready for change in the Middle East

Updated: 2013-07-11T22:55:43Z

By MICHAEL GERSON

The Washington Post

— T The Green Line — across which generations of Israelis and Palestinians have fought and haggled — was given its name because the United Nations mediator, Ralph Bunche, used a green pencil to draw the cease-fire boundary in 1949. In the Middle East, arbitrary markings can assume the geographic seriousness of mountain ranges.

The last Israeli prime minister to try drawing outside the lines was Ehud Olmert, who proposed a map in 2008 giving Palestinians control over 94 percent of the occupied territories and half of Jerusalem, along with a plan for joint custodianship of the holy places. “I thought it may bring an end to my political career,” Olmert told me, “but I was determined to do it.” Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice observed that another Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, had been assassinated for less.

Olmert lived; the peace process didn’t. Olmert’s Palestinian negotiating partner, Abu Mazen, never got to “yes.”

Now the Obama administration — or at least Secretary of State John Kerry — is trying to restart peace talks. So far, this has involved a process to produce a formulation that would allow both sides to sit at the same table. If there is a more substantive policy outcome in the works, it has been effectively hidden from everyone but Kerry.

Israelis of various political stripes admire Kerry’s dedication but wonder about this timing. Recent Israeli elections were almost exclusively focused on nation-building at home. Israel is in the midst of a tech-led economic boom. Tel Aviv is a cross between Miami Beach and Palo Alto — and feels very distant (though it isn’t by miles) from Gaza and the West Bank.

Israel is also protecting its “villa in the jungle” (Ehud Barak’s description) more effectively than most thought possible. The vast security wall is ugly but effective. The Iron Dome and other missile defense systems have proved their worth. The result is the best security situation in Israel’s history. But it has encouraged an Iron Dome mentality, in which every national problem appears to have a technical solution.

The arguments for Israel to define its borders through a two-state settlement remain strong. “Given the history and heritage of the Jewish people,” Olmert says, “we can’t occupy forever three or four or five million people without equal rights.” An agreement, he argues, would increase Israeli legitimacy, open global markets and make a Jewish state more demographically sustainable.

But these arguments seem abstract and long-term compared to the pleasures of life in the villa. The majority of Israelis vaguely support a two-state solution, but there is no critical mass of political support for concessions in that cause. And Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, doesn’t seem inclined to follow the Olmert model of leadership and unexpected generosity from a position of Israeli strength.

On the Palestinian side, the need for a two-state solution is acute because the current quasi-state, the Palestinian Authority (PA), is a shell, dependent on outside donations to function. Given Israeli settlement activity and general Palestinian distrust for Netanyahu, confidence in a negotiated solution is low. But the alternative — a unilateral effort to gain recognition from the United Nations — would cause both the U.S. and Israel to (once again) cut the flow of outside donations to the PA, risking its total collapse.

Several Palestinian leaders have sufficient strength to undermine each other. The question is whether any Palestinian leader is strong enough to deliver on a peace agreement.

The result is the Middle East at its most frustrating. Majorities of Israelis and Palestinians support a two-state solution. The broad parameters of a deal have been clear since the Clinton administration. The American secretary of state is energetically on the job. But little is likely to change.

To reach Michael Gerson, send email to michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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