By CLIFFORD D. MAY, Scripps Howard News Service
Because the Obama administration is keen to restart negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered a 10-month freeze on West Bank settlements. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has responded by demanding more — as a pre-condition, before he will talk. Just a guess: Netanyahu is not surprised.
Nor should anyone else be. It doesn’t require Donald Trump to know that the art of the deal starts with an understanding of what each side wants. Yet for more than half a century, Western politicians and diplomats have built upon a mirage: the belief that because we see peace as a benefit, everyone in the Middle East must see it that way, too.
This assumption is most obviously false in regard to Hamas, which has ruled Gaza with an iron fist since Israel withdrew from that territory in 2005. Hamas’ leaders have been candid: Their goal is the annihilation of Israel, an “infidel” nation occupying land Allah has endowed to the Muslims. A “two-state solution” or any other compromise is out of the question.
Of course, serious people do not envision Israeli-Hamas negotiations. It is rather talks between Israel and Abbas, who maintains tentative control of the West Bank, which President Barack Obama would like to get under way again.
But any agreement Abbas might strike with Israel, no matter how advantageous for average Palestinians, would be denounced by Hamas as an act of treachery and apostasy. Abbas’ life would be in danger. If you were advising Abbas, what would you tell him? Probably, to do exactly what he is doing: Pocket any Israeli concessions the Americans can wring out of the Israelis while dismissing them as woefully insufficient; refuse to negotiate; but behind the scenes work with the Israelis on security — not least your own — and economic development. If nothing else, that may prevent Hamas from gaining additional ground.
As for Israel’s neighbors, they are undemocratic regimes so, for them, allies are nice, but enemies are essential. Where else can popular dissatisfaction be deflected? Take Saudi Arabia: Israel long ago proved itself to be the Saudis’ best enemy. The Saudis know they face no actual threat from Israel, but hatred of Israel is something Wahhabi clerics — whose theological support the House of Saud requires — can sink their teeth into during Friday night sermons. Why would a Saudi prince trade that for an invitation to dine in Jerusalem?
There’s also this: Tension in the Middle East keeps the price of oil higher than it would be were a durable peace ever to break out. Any country that depends on oil sales — Russia, for example — benefits so long as the conflict stays at least on low simmer. Higher oil prices on the one hand, peace for Israelis and Palestinians on the other: You think it takes Vladimir Putin long to make up his mind?
As for Iran’s Shia Islamist rulers, the vehemence of their jihad against Israel buys them legitimacy within the Sunni world. Like Hamas and Hezbollah, two terrorists groups they finance (the first Sunni, the second Shia), Iran’s rulers have not the slightest interest in such Western diplomatic constructs as a “final-status plan for a two-state solution.”
With so many key actors opposed to peace, there is no way for Israel, even with energetic American help, to reach a lasting settlement with its Muslim neighbors any time soon. But Abbas’ Palestinian Authority does appear to be cooperating closely with the Israeli Defense Forces to crack down on both terrorists and criminals. And an improved security situation is among the factors contributing to a remarkable new economic vitality on the West Bank.
Netanyahu calls this the pursuit of “economic peace.” Could it pay off over time by persuading more Palestinians — and more powerful Palestinians — to embrace peace as their goal and effectively challenge peace’s opponents? Yes to the first, doubtful but not impossible to the second. But why not achieve now what can be achieved now? Surely, cultivating a small oasis is preferable to pursuing a great mirage.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org