It was through Donald Douglas, aka the Americaneocon, that I read the long article in Foreign Affairs by Walter Russell Mead, the Henry A Kissinger Senior Fellow for U S Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Dr Mead is a distinguished scholar and a man oft-listened-to — as is true of anyone Foreign Affairs would publish — and his writings always bear reading and close attention. His current article, Change They Can Believe In, is thorough, well reasoned — and almost wholly misses the point.
Dr Mead takes us through a brief history of the conflict in the Levant, from both the Jewish and Palestinian perspectives, and notes what neither side is always willing to admit: that both the Jews and the Palestinians have suffered through a hard past. Peace is not possible without that being addressed.
I have been reading articles in that august journal for many years now, from important people like Walid Khalidi to Henry Kissinger, and one common thread runs through all of them: the problems of the Levant are described in Western terms, addressed to a Western audience, with proposed solutions which work very well in a Western mindset, yet are just so much garbage to the people who must actually make peace and live together.
Once you convert the problem to one of Western definitions, it becomes very simple: everyone splits the difference, and agrees to give up part of what they’d like in order to secure what they want most. It is simply assumed that, in the end, everybody really wants peace.
Foreign Affairs position as the most prestigious scholarly journal on the subject naturally means that it draws the articles from the top names, the most influential people. They are willing, and eager, to put forth Their Solution, the one they have pondered carefully, and fine-tuned diligently, the one which just might succeed where all others have failed.
But it’s an illusion. The Western solutions have simply not been very different over the past 41 years. They all involve some form of Palestinian state, guarantees of security for Israel, mutual diplomatic recognition — albeit occasionally delayed — and one form or other of great power guarantees. Two decades ago, some expected the Soviet Union to have some major role in the pushing for and guaranteeing of peace. Now, with the USSR gone, we see proposals for the UN to take over, or US guarantees, or the so-called “Quartet,” but those are simply the minute details, the slightly different brush strokes on what is the same paint-by-numbers picture.
What we have missed is that the people and culture of the region are so foreign to our Western concepts and logic as to make Westernized solutions ridiculous.
Let’s specify one thing here, something that is never really considered by our learned Western scholars: right now, and for the foreseeable future, the Palestinians primarily, and some of the Israelis as well, are much more interested in victory than they are in peace, especially a split-the-differences negotiated peace.
What we have are two sides in a long, bitter, usually low-level war, one with an occasional flare-up, but a war that nobody has won — and nobody has lost. The great Israeli victories in 1967 and 1973 were not victorious wars, wars which actually defeated their enemies, but strong pushes that were ended not with defeat by anyone but simple agreements to stop fighting for a time. Why should the Arab irredentists surrender in the pursuit of their stated goal — the expulsion of Israel — when they have never truly been defeated?
Dr Mead never puts it that bluntly, but he does note that the Israel and Palestinian needs are mutually exclusive. The two-state solution that seems oh-so-logical to us in the liberal West is, in effect, a victory for the Israelis and a defeat for the Arabs. To agree to such means that the most important demand of the Palestinians, the one on which Yassir Arafat finally walked out of the Camp David talks at the end of the Clinton Administration, the so-called “right of return” of the Palestinians to property they lost in the various Israeli victories, must be abandoned. Dr Mead comes up with that most Western of solutions: he proposes buying them off.
The U.S. government should build on this historical reality to craft an international body that can assume all claims arising from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adjudicate them in accordance with existing international precedents and law, and pay appropriate compensation to the claimants. Claims would include the losses suffered by Palestinians as well as those sustained by Jews forced to flee their homes in the region, but the system should be set up so that Jewish and Palestinian claimants do not compete for limited funds. This entity should be funded by the international community, with Israel making a substantial payment as part of whatever negotiated legal agreement creates the new body.
The expense will be significant; according to the Aix Group, an economic forum comprising Israeli, Palestinian, and international economists and policymakers, the total potential costs of compensation to Palestinian refugees can be estimated at $55-$85 billion. The Obama administration should work with U.S. allies and partners to fund the claims authority. The United States’ contribution should be appropriately large, in order to demonstrate Washington’s renewed determination to lead the effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The exact U.S. contribution should be determined as part of Washington’s diplomatic effort to establish and fund the claims organization, but one possible model might look to a division of responsibilities in which the United States, Europe, Israel, member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the rest of the world (principally Japan, other East Asian countries, and other countries with strong interests in resolving the conflict, such as Australia, Canada, and Norway) would each assume a roughly equal share of the financial cost involved in funding a combination of compensation and humanitarian programs for the victims of the conflict. Under this program, the United States would make the largest contribution of any single country (with the possible exception of Israel), but the burden would also be widely shared among the many states that are concerned with stability and justice in this vital part of the world.
Although the certification and payment of claims will require complex procedures, and although the payment of compensation should be part of a multistage implementation of a final and comprehensive peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the claims entity should begin to review and certify claims while negotiations are still under way. As quickly as the legal and institutional frameworks can be agreed on and established, refugees ought to be able to submit their claims, and those claims should be assessed and certified in a timely fashion. This will help assure the refugees that justice will be done and that the conclusion and implementation of a comprehensive peace agreement would result in tangible benefits.
Setting aside the big question of where we get the money, given that were borrowing to bail out everybody else around, it assumes that the Palestinians can be bought off. He recognizes that some would not take the option of being paid off:
Palestinians who choose not to exercise their right of return or whose right is in some way restricted in the final Israeli-Palestinian agreement should be substantially compensated by the international community (including Israel) to acknowledge that the right to return is indeed a right and that its loss or restriction entitles the holder to just compensation.
Let’s be blunt here: “Palestinians . . . whose right (of return) is in some way restricted in the final Israeli-Palestinian agreement” means that they can take the money or leave it, but they are not going to get their land back. Dr Mead’s solution is that they’ll just have to be happy with the cash. But it does not mean that they will be happy with the cash.
Part of this stems from an underappreciated fact of the Middle East conflict. The Israelis inflicted serious beatings on the Palestinians, in 1948-9, in 1956, in 1967, in 1973 and in 1982. But for soldiers, seven years might as well be a generation: after seven years, the boys who were in adolescence and too young to fight — a bit of an amorphous distinction in the Middle East — have become young men, who are old enough to fight; the soldiers who fought in 1956 were, in large part, not the ones who were defeated in 1948, and the ones who fought in 1967 were not the ones beaten eleven years earlier.
If we manage to impose a solution that involves buying off the Palestinians who must surrender their right of return, just what will that mean in ten years, when the ten-year-old boys whose parents were bought off become young men of military age themselves? Will they remain bought off, as their parents (supposedly) were?
Dr Mead takes the position that the incoming Obama Administration needs to approach the whole problem from another perspective, sound advice at least when you consider that the approaches employed by every past Administration since President Truman’s have not led to a solution.
But it might be sounder advice to point out that Western ideas and Western solutions are not likely to provide any answers, because the people involved simply have a different language, a different culture and a different logic than those of the liberal West. It is entirely possible, and I would argue that it is very probable, that there is no Western solution to the problem. Dr Mead won’t like this idea, but it seems more likely to me that the Arabs and the Israelis will have to fight it out again and decide this on the battlefield, in a manner which leaves one side thoroughly defeated.
That isn’t a Western notion, isn’t one with which we are in the least bit comfortable, but it may well be the only possible outcome.