Should the U.S. help broker peace?

Today’s question: Should the goal of the peace process be a lasting peace or management of the stalemate? Does the U.S. have a role? Click here to read previous exchanges of this week’s Dust-Up.

Point: George E. Bisharat

The United States has a moral obligation to foster a lasting peace in the Middle East stemming from our complicity, as Israel’s principal ally, in Palestinian suffering. In addition, we have a strong self-interest in defusing resentment against us, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds, generated by our unconditional support of Israel.

Over the last 15 years, we have seen much process and very little peace. The reasons are multiple, and Palestinians are not blameless. But at the root, Israel, the more powerful party, has blocked a final peace because conflict is a condition of its continuing expansion into the West Bank. Israeli citizens may crave peace, but the generals and right-wing ideologues who have led the country have not yet achieved their full territorial ambitions.


The truth sometimes slips, as when former Israeli Prime Minister (and terrorist earlier in life) Yitzhak Shamir confessed after the Madrid Conference in 1991 that his objective had been to stretch negotiations out for 10 years. But Israel’s expansionist plans are written unambiguously on the ground. Since the Annapolis conference in November, Israel has authorized the construction of 3,500 new housing units in East Jerusalem alone.

The U.S. government has been Israel’s main abettor. We have supplied Israel with an average of $3 billion annually since 1973; President Bush recently re-upped for the coming decade. As important, we have shielded Israel from censure for its serial violations of international law through 41 vetoes in the U.N. Security Council. In negotiations, we have acted, in the words of former U.S. State Department negotiator Aaron David Miller, as “Israel’s lawyer.” Our diplomats cluck at Israel’s disastrous settlement policy -- then turn a blind eye.

Yet the United States can play a unique and constructive role in fostering Middle East peace -- if only an American leader emerged with the requisite courage and vision. Like Israel, we have a strong commitment to democracy and some skeletons in our closet, such as the monstrous institution of slavery. Historians estimate that about 35 million Africans died in the slave trade, making it, numerically, the worst holocaust in human history. This while our Declaration of Independence attested: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

We still struggle with the legacy of slavery. But at least our basic impulse to rectify our mistake was correct -- and it wasn’t to create a separate black republic. Rather, it was to install basic legal equality for all citizens and to encourage integration of blacks and whites in one society. We started with the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution and continued with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The road has been bumpy and full of mistakes and reversals. But today an African American man has reasonable odds of becoming our next president. We should be both proud and humble.

Judea, you cannot escape this simple fact: Palestinians will never be equal in a Jewish state. The narrative you ask them to join is not an Israeli national narrative open to all citizens, no matter their origins or creed. It is a Jewish narrative, based on ethnicity rather than citizenship. From that, Palestinians are forever barred by birth.

America’s role should be, as a trusted friend, to compassionately and respectfully share our experience with Israel. We must wean it away from separatism, help it embrace the value of equal rights and counsel it to seek peace based on mutual reverence for Jewish and Palestinian humanity.

George E. Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.

Counterpoint: Judea Pearl

The goal of the peace process cannot be decided from the outside; it must reflect the goals of the participants. For more than 40 years now, the world has been asking the same question with increasing impatience and bewilderment: “What the hell is Israel doing in an area it never meant to occupy? Why doesn’t it just leave, let the Palestinians build their own state next to Israel, and save themselves and others all this pain and headache?”

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian Authority negotiator, appeared on C-SPAN a few weeks ago and told viewers, “Things have changed in the past decade; 66% of Palestinians now aspire for a two-state solution, living in peace side by side with Israel. I can now say things for which I would have been lynched a decade ago.” After Erekat’s hopeful message, teams of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists arrived as emissaries to plead with the American public to seize on the opportunities opened last year in Annapolis. Analysts and commentators spoke of an unprecedented historic opportunity and asked, “What the hell is Israel waiting for?”

Well, the answer finally came on Wednesday.

It came from you, George, in your compelling advocacy of the one-state utopia. Palestinians, as you described, do not want and never have wanted to build their own state next to Israel; they want to dismantle what is now Israel and establish a new state called Palestine, which would stretch from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. On paper, its character would be democratic, secular, multicultural, multiethnic, with equal rights to all its citizens regardless of origin or creed, with justice and liberty to all, etc. But in reality, its character would be shaped by a power struggle between two factions, Jews and Arabs, in much the same way that the character of Lebanon or Iraq is currently being shaped.

More significantly, “Greater Palestine” would open its doors to millions of exiled Palestinians and their descendants (exiled in 1947) and close its doors to exiled Jews and their descendants (exiled in AD 140), regardless of the dangers those Jews might face. Moreover, Greater Palestine would not allow its Jewish citizens to defend themselves in the unlikely case that Hamas members (under this scenario, citizens of Palestine) would decide to take seriously the text of their charter or to exercise what they have been taught in school. Instead, the Jewish community would be given state protection, similar to the protection Christians are currently enjoying in Lebanon.

I hope you would confirm, George, the accuracy of my description of your one-state proposal. Moreover, please tell us if you refuse to accept a Jewish state even the size of a postage stamp and whether most of the Palestinians you know share this view, as they have since 1947, regardless of what Israel did or did not do. I thank you in advance for not dodging this question, George, because it is essential that Western readers get straight answers to this question; they refuse to believe it when it comes from Israeli observers or pollsters.

Now to pragmatism. My friends in the Israeli peace camp are facing a tough dilemma: Who is telling the truth? Erekat and his 66% of peace-seeking Palestinians? Or Bisharat, with his one-state solution? Moreover, what fraction of Erekat’s 66% view the pending Palestinian state as a stepping stone to regroup, rearm and prepare for the next phase in the armed struggle for Greater Palestine? My friends in the Palestinian peace camp face a similar dilemma: What would assure them that Israel intends to pull out and allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state? Each side requires evidence that the other is committed to the declared utopia of a two-state solution and that an agreement, whatever its shape, would be considered just and permanent by the other.

Accordingly, Israelis need to see tangible Palestinian investments in that utopia through educational programs teaching coexistence, permanent housing for refugees and a united, unyielding stand against terrorism. Correspondingly, Palestinians need to see compelling evidence that Israel’s democracy is prepared and able to deal with Jewish settlers when push comes to shove, as it did in the Gaza disengagement.

However, trust-building signals are only useful when both sides aim at the same utopian ideal; they are useless, in fact deceitful, when each side aims to undermine the proclaimed shared utopia. Thus, George, if your hope for a one-state-dissolution is shared by the majority of Palestinians, then the trust-building signals that Erekat broadcasted to us are useless and deceitful. If this is the case, the entire peace process is doomed to failure, not because Israel did this or that, but because the two-state solution never penetrated the Palestinian consciousness as a just, workable and permanent option.

I hope Erekat is right, but I would love to know your take, George.

Judea Pearl, a professor of computer science at UCLA, is a frequent commentator on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is the president and co-founder of the Daniel Pearl Foundation -- named after his son -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to dialogue and cross-cultural understanding.

Response from George E. Bisharat

Judea, you must know that there is a range of opinion among Palestinians regarding one or two states. I support one state, and Erekat, along with most of Palestinian officialdom, supports two states. He has labored very sincerely -- albeit futilely -- to realize his particular vision. I am doing the same. So the answer to your question is, each of us is telling the truth, as we see it.

Many Palestinians in the occupied territories who once supported two states have concluded that the “peace process” has only provided cover for further Israeli colonization of the West Bank. The numbers are shifting, and more Palestinians are gravitating toward a single state founded on equal rights. But Erekat’s numbers sound about right -- roughly two-thirds in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip still support two states, and one-third support one state.

Palestinian citizens of Israel are also despairing of the chances of ever achieving equality within a Jewish state, and thus are also turning to the one-state solution -- even though it is extremely risky for them to say so openly. After all, legislation was recently proposed in the Knesset that threatened de-nationalization of anyone who advocated against a “Jewish democratic state.”

Palestinian refugees are seldom polled about anything. But since they would effectively be cut out of a two-state deal, it is logical to assume that many of them would also support a single state because it offers them hope of return and genuine redress for the injustices they have suffered.

I’m sorry this can’t be more precise, but the uncertainty is a function of the fragmentation, dispersal and repression of Palestinians that makes polling them a major challenge.

I’m happy to answer any question that occurs to you, Judea, including whether I would support a Jewish state of any size. The answer is yes, I could support a Jewish state if it were located in a place inhabited only by Jews. I might not admire the ethos of such a state, but I wouldn’t much care if there were no real victims of its chauvinism.

But Israel and Palestine, where Palestinians and Jews are inseparably mixed, is not that place. Indeed, there are few, if any, places on Earth that are ethnically pure. Ethnic states are, in the real, diverse, multicultural world in which we actually live, inherently discriminatory and a bad idea -- all of them.

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