By Richard Sale, author of Clinton’s Secret Wars
There are people who have only one idea, and they never talk of anything else. The person of one idea is like a child with a string. The child can toy with it crumple it up, twist it, make it into strange shapes and even stamp on it in frustration, but it will remain the same, dreary old string. You may be bubbling over with a sense of events or your impressions of life but your attempt to introduce, discuss, or dilate about your enthusiasms will not get a fair hearing To a person of one idea, your concerns are nothing but a rude intrusion, an upstart interruption, of their own fascinated absorption in their one idea.
We have all had some experience with a person of one idea. “Save the Whales,” or “Free South Africa,” or “Abortion,” or “Women’s Rights,” “Gay Pride,” or “The Middle East Peace Process” – there are any number of examples of those who became captive of a single issue. We also know that the person comfortably enounced in a single idea has the advocate’s temperament, and everything they think provides a pretext for their recital of that one, singular interest. Advocates are, above all things, debaters. They are single-track embodiment of will. They don’t really talk, but rather, like Luther, put up a thesis. Any diversion from that and, like a restive animal, they will sniff and stomp until they return to what really matters.
The Middle East Peace Process
The history of the Middle East Peace Process appears to closely resemble in its working the Myth of Sisyphus. Each day in the Middle East, earnest, honest, clear-headed people straggle horribly to push, heft, lift or drag the enormous stone up to the summit only to find it in their laps the next morning. The disputing parties of the Arabs and Israelis, the Arabs and the Jews, appear to lack any sound knowledge of the other’s institutions, traditions, history, and their sacred principles. They appear to forget that, in every dispute, there as to be a system of conciliation. Fair-dealing and straight-talking has to occur or there will be no durable progress. Things cannot be one-sided or any movement will freeze like ice.
Historically, the cause of the dispute began in 1948 when Israel’s victory established Israel as a sovereign state. This resulted in the expulsions of many Palestinians from their Muslim homes. The loss of Muslim sacred lands rubbed the Palestinians where they were very raw, but for Israel, the heart of the dispute was centered, not on 1948, but on the war of 1967, Israel’s third war, when a victorious Israel acquired and occupied the West Bank of Jordan along with East Jerusalem and other territories. The final status of the West Bank became the chief issue and remains so today.
There was a tiny inkling of a solution back then. In 1967, Israeli legal officials took the view that Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank had been illegal.Yet they maintained that it was not illegal for Israel to settle its citizens there, and there was a further refinement. Israeli legal experts said that although Israel’s settlements were allowed in the West Bank, the claims of Jordan to the ownership of the land were valid. Then, after more discussion, Israeli legal specialists then went further, saying that settling by Israel of the occupied land was a violation of internal law, especially the Fourth Geneva Convention. Of course, over time, the occupation still stood, with Israel and America pretending that Israel had defined the borders of the West Bank when in fact nothing like that had occurred.
As the years passed, the respect for standards of negotiating that were impartial, permanent and universal, were swept away as both sides quarreled about the national character, traditions, and cultural requirements of each other, while underneath it all lay the unspoken conviction of both that the other was lacking in virtue.
Any worthwhile system of diplomacy rests on the belief that a compromise between two warring parties is by far better than the destruction of either. This was the position that President Ronald Reagan who became willing to work with Soviet leader Gorbachev to easing the arms race. For the Arabs and Israelis working to achieve peace, any compromise required initial concessions for any dialogue to produce any sort of a durable understanding. This required a high order of talent on both sides and all of us knew that a diplomat has to be skilled at using a series of consecutive questions that can slowly act to bring the antagonists into unexpected agreement with him. The diplomat is also required to be clear and distinct when he speaks – to possess great powers of exposition, a singular command of the most decisive and telling details of an issue under discussion. He has the gift of being able to look at a bewildering mass of data and pick out the details that would most help his argument. He needs other things too. He has to instantaneously read the vital elements of a situation, and by talking honestly, by dialogue, he is able to detect not only an identity of aims but is able to reach some identity of sentiment as well.
The Illustrious Career
When Gen. Grant was asked about his tastes in music, he replied that there were only two tunes –Yankee Doodle was one and the other wasn’t. Dennis Ross, Obama’s chief man in the Middle East, has had an illustrious career, but at bottom, he is a bit like Gen. Grant. Grant was deaf and so is Dennis Ross. For 30 years, Ross has strolled leisurely though the toils of the Middle East Peace Process as a walking commonplace, brimming with sterile observations which, when they are all boiled down, have signified nothing more than a huge embellishment of one theme – a theme which Ross’s hearers are condemned to listen to in perpetuity -- that the interests and claims of Israel are right, and those of the Palestinian Arabs are wrong.
It was Hazlitt who was astute enough to discover that the root of the malady that compels someone to endlessly do the same thing has its origin in the human being’s love of distinction. A love of distinction is, of course, ambition’s child, and it follows that the one topic that endlessly preoccupies human beings, above all others, is themselves. That is Dennis Ross. He is a charming man, an intelligent man, a plausible man, but he is also a complacent man. His mind is not restless, perturbed, inquiring, tortured, or full of anguish. No, he is a man of calm, of validated worth and overpowering pride. Criticism of him he regards an unjust slander, and the perceptions of his enemies are impatiently frightened away like a horde of so many insignificant flies. No, Dennis is lord. He can recognize no merit superior to his own. He can strut while sitting down.
When Ross went into the field of foreign policy, he was clad in the convection that he could do the work of peace maker better than anyone else. Like Dickens, he had great expectations. He was AIPAC’s man in Washington, former chief of AIPAC's think-tank in Washington, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Yet for all his gifts, Ross exhibited one grave defect: everything he thought or wrote lacked the excitement of origination. Israel, like any sovereign state, was in the grip of leaders. From the outset, one had to pick a party and fall into step if one was to have any influence. That was Ross. Ross is like the classic Catholic churchman of the Middle Ages who said, “I believe what the Church believes and the church believes what I believe.” Ross was the captive of Likud and held positions that were “inalterable” for 30 years.
Ross, a man of ideals but no principles, has never allowed scruples to impede his self interest and many viewed his rise with disquiet. Ross apparently felt that to negotiate successfully the field had first to be cleared of rivals. One major casualty in recent years was then U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer. “He sat there and sat there and the phone never rang,” said Middle East expert Judith Yaphe. The result was Kurtzer resigned.
Next to be toppled was George Mitchell who had secured peace in Northern Ireland during the few years that he was President Clinton’s chief envoy to the war zone. Given that success, it was the hope of many that as President Obama’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, Mitchell would get peace talks back on track and coax dramatic results from them. With a cool adroitness, Ross eventually squeezed out Mitchell after the latter had served only two years. And while Ross was triumphant once again, and Ross could look back on years and could take pride in what? Absolutely nothing.
“Ross is totally ineffective” says former CIA official Vince Cannistraro. “Israel has hit a dead end,” explaining that the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “are ensuring that Israel will not continue as a Zionist state.”
To Cannistraro, Netanyahu is the prince of numbskulls.
Protests just last week swept through Israel’s middle class, angry at the cost of living and the cost of housing, and Cannistraro noted that for a long time Israel had “a vibrant economy,” but the moneys that could have been used to ease the lot of the average Israeli “went instead to the settlements.” Cannistraro adds, “The result is that you have a large number of citizens who have felt themselves to be third class.”
The Peace Process
So what was the question that had to be answered to have peace between the Arabs and the Israelis? What was to be the primary task of any peace talks? According to Tzipi Livni, the leader of the largest opposition in the Knesset and a most eloquent advocate of the two-state plan, the dispute required that Israel make decisions to divide land with the Palestinians.
“Something happened to the State of Israel,” said Livni. “What was obvious in 1948 is not so obvious anymore.” She adds that Israel’s story today is the reverse version of the story of David and Goliath. “We were the just cause. We were small but we were the good guys in the world.” No more. In Israel, she said, “...we have different trends…Israel didn’t make the decisions necessary to divide the land with the Palestinians. We didn’t talk about two states for two peoples. Our leaders are fighting for the right for Israel to build and expand settlements. ”
This is a bit shocking. In other words, Israel’s necessity for a decision to divide land with the Palestinians was as close to Dennis Ross as his coat. Cicero said once said that when he had an idea, it followed him into the country, it stayed with him at home, it sits with him at breakfast and goes out with him to dinner. Yet for 30 years, the views of Ross were inalterable. He never developed or refined or perfected his views. In the end, he was rendered null and void by time and events. Redouble your effort when you have lost sight of the aim, said the philosopher.
And the Peace Process?
More and more it appears that the Peace Process is like the sow that eats its farrow. The whole imprisoning apparatus reminds one of Dicken’s Circumlocution Office. In one of his best books, Dickens asserts that under the free British Government, “no public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office.” When Englishmen had perceived the “sublime principle” of self-government, Dickens says, “It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with the public departments in the art of perceiving HOW NOT TO DO IT.” (sic.)
Dickens adds that “How Not To Do It…was the great study and object of all public departments all round the Circumlocution Office...because they had upheld a certain thing was necessary to be done, then they applied their utmost faculties to discovering it could not be done.”
Does this not resemble the incessant initiatives, the proposals, the back and fill, the endless deliberations of the Peace Process? The negotiations would at one time be reported as being on the move, but then suddenly they halted. Time passed. Then suddenly, new drafts of new positions were submitted, excitement arose, progress was expected, but then nothing happened. The thing lay fallow. It lay still as a mirror. Then new and fresh solutions, proposals, prescriptions, original conditions, modified conditions, old conditions dressed to appear like new ones – all these were introduced. Once again, progress was in the air. But then there was no word. It’s as if the whole matter of the Mideast Peace Process has always been in a state of perpetual adjournment -- it is always pending, pending, pending, but the ripe fruit never falls. And never has such a vast, bottomless ocean deep of words been expended without once giving off a single glint of solid success. (The exception being the truly admirable efforts of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Clinton to come to an agreement.)
But today, even the newer Israeli hawks are dismissing Ross as a failure. Akiva Eldar, an Israeli columnist, mocks Ross and President Obama for “prolonging the death throes of the terminally ill patient known as the peace process.” Since the Oslo Accords, agreed on during the Clinton administration, Ross, says Eldar “is still trying to peddle the illusion that the most right-wing governments that Israel has ever seen will abandon the strategy of eradicating the Oslo approach in favor of fulfilling the hated agreement.”
Eldar is a fierce animal. Netanyahu, at the mention of settlements, glowers and shows his gums and Eldar is the same. Eldar asserts that everyone knows that the moment for Oslo had passed a long time ago, and maintains that if “Obama really intended to justify his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize he should not have left the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hands of this whiz of the never-ending management of the conflict.”
And if Ross has ended up in the wilderness saying the same old things that he has always said and which now few believe, the Netanyahu far-right still persists in humming the outdated Ross melody, thinking that any deviation of it is a still species of sabotage.
Eldar croons his own poisonous tune of exasperation, “You don’t want Oslo? Fine, we don’t need it,” he says. “No more ‘Palestinian Authority,’ no more Area A, B, C ( a division that has in effect created a ‘Land of Settlers,’ no more peace process…Restore military rule in the West Bank and at the same time, reoccupy Gaza and go back to the Gush Katif.”
He warns further, “On September 13, the accords themselves will be turning 18, the number signifying life in the Jewish mystical tradition. The time has come to put the Oslo Accords out of their misery.”
Like a donkey whose back has broken so many sticks, Netanyahu, resolutely plows on, Ross at his heels. The Israeli government recently assassinated another Iranian nuclear scientist, its population has been sending up frenzied cries demanding a Welfare State and to be delivered from “piggish capitalism,” while the relation with America Jews is increasingly under stress.
And over all of this, like a suspended boulder, is the UN vote conferring statehood on Palestine. Surely there must be some way out, and suddenly there is. Feeling the urgency of action, The New York Times, aware that the United States will veto the UN General Assembly vote for a Palestinian state, holds out a straw for us to grasp: the Times urges that to head off “debacle” there must be “the state of serious negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”
What a relief. So what song should we sing, what anxious topic should occupy us now that The Times has spoken?
Please address your correspondence, your e-mails and twitters to the Circumlocution Office.
And learn to wait.