To George Mitchell, Arriving on the Shores of Despair

Gershom Gorenberg

Following on my previous post on the appointment of George Mitchell as President Obama’s Mideast peace envoy, I’ve written an open letter to Mitchell. The full text is at The American Prospect. Here’s an excerpt:

…as I’m sure you know, in coming here from America now, the biggest difference you’ll experience is not the weather, language, or religion. You are coming from a land of new hope to the countries of despair. The collapse of the Oslo process and the playacting of the Bush administration’s Annapolis initiative have erased belief among Israelis, Palestinians, and our neighbors that negotiations can achieve anything. The al-Aqsa Intifada and Ehud Olmert’s inconclusive wars in Lebanon and Gaza proved that we will not moderate each other’s positions by blowing each other up. The mood, on both sides, is extraordinarily grim. If leaders don’t tell you that honestly, you should change into a cardigan, put a tourist’s day pack over your shoulder, and slip into a Tel Aviv or Ramallah café, where anyone sipping coffee will tell you the truth. Your task, Mr. Mitchell, includes changing the public mood and — even if you must avoid ever saying so publicly — encouraging a change in leadership.

You and your boss have little time to create a new dynamic. Five years ago, when Ehud Olmert announced his support for partial withdrawal from the West Bank, he warned that the two-state solution had a limited shelf life. “We are approaching a point where more and more Palestinians will say … ‘there is no place for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All we want is the right to vote,'” said Olmert, then vice prime minister. In other words, Palestinians would seek a single state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, and that would be the end of Israel….

Since then, confidence that a two-state solution is possible has indeed slipped precariously. Even before the Gaza war, a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that 70 percent of West Bank and Gaza residents regarded the chances of an independent Palestinian state in the next five years as “slim to nonexistent.”

Read the whole article at the American Prospect, and return to SoJo to comment.

14 thoughts on “To George Mitchell, Arriving on the Shores of Despair”

  1. Give Mitchell something new to work with. Find a way to actually act. Mitchell can do nothing to make you different than you already are. He might be able to lend a word, even silent hand, to real acts. What’s the point of waiting for violence to act (rockets into Israel, suicide bombers, economic seige, air raids/ground incurrsions), then attacking yet again in words the grand coalitions in your land?

    All of you, on all sides of the question, have analyzed yourselves into a stupor. Great understandings of Hamas, Abbas, Likud, Katima, etc., leaving everyone else on the sidelines of the Neverending Game, cheering one of the many sides, or at least hope one of these sides never gets anywhere.

    You want someone else to do the hard work of peace. That is not the way peace works.

    Not once in my readings at this blog have I seen a single suggestion as to how one of you could actually do something. Or, even less, what a local action might actually look like.

    Here’s a very tiny start, a blogger head start: are there blogs of Israeli Arabs? Can one cross with that, invite some to speak here, if out there? Maybe, if that works, actually meet with them in person. Talk to people who might want to find a way to agree with you, to think agreement actually matters. Do not relinquish hope to the great Parties of your land. Be better than your Parties. Be a person.

  2. The audacity of hope that Jeremiah speaks of is for all people. Obama speaks to it in his book and is trying to implement it by sending George Mitchell to an area most people think is hopeless. War is usually a result of a failure of diplomacy and imagination. It is not what separates us , it is what ties us together that should be the starting point. A good compromise is where neither party is entirely happy but there is enought to build upon. An advisary such as Israel or The Palestinian Authority are neither all good or all bad and insulting each other is a non-starter. A deterent to peace is illiteracy and the attitude that people are always defined by their religion or lack there of. I’m affraid that the U.S. may not heed the knowledge gleaned by Greg Mortinson in Afganistan (read Three Cups of Tea) that military power will not win over the people of Afganistan and Pakistan but education will especially of women . Educated women are reluctant to sacrifice their sons to military adventures or terrorist causes. Get everyone committed to education and the fervor of the Hamas radicals as well as Hezbolah will be undermined.Some will say thats too abstract a consept to present to two warring paries so it is up to Senator Mitchell to make it acceptable to Hamas et el. Israel being probably the most literate country in the world is in a wonderful position to teach and educate the populace of their advisaries using some form of exchange program or whatever.As a former instrutor at my law school and before that a high school teacher it gave me great joy to share knowledge with my students. To possess knowledge and not share it does a disservice to mankind.

    I return to the audacity of hope it is always there and needs to be acted upon by all parties right now.

  3. Mr. Gorenberg,

    You have written an excellent letter, the main messages of which I hope wind their way to Obama’s ears through one channel or another.

    My comment focuses on just one portion of that letter, which I believe damages that most precious Middle Eastern contraband to which you allude. I refer to your statement about the violence likely to be associated with a future secular, democratic state because, you point out, Palestinians do not have an ANC-style Freedom Charter.

    As a believer in the inherent justice and pragmatism of a secular, democratic state (or possible confederation) for all Israelis and Palestinians, I was disappointed to read your flippant remarks that dismiss the notion out of hand. I was particularly piqued, though, by your not-so-implicit belief that Palestinian violence bears particular mention, as if Israel’s self-conception of statehood was somehow compatible with the idea were only Palestinians to accept it.

    Surely, secular democracy for all peoples of our conflicted land would require both the eschewing of violence by all parties as well as massive psychosocial healing. It would furthermore require a reconceptualization of national identity by a significant proportion of the total prospective population.

    But let us not sell the idea short for the wrong reasons. That the Palestinian resistance has not adopted a form of Freedom Charter says as much about us as about them. I have long argued to anyone that would listen that a large number of the strategies and tactics of the Palestinian resistance have been not only unsuccessful but also unethical. Of course, many Israeli strategies and tactics, I would argue, fall into the same categories. Moreover, it is cynical to talk about the absence of a Palestinian Freedom Charter when we as Israelis (and Americans) have done so much to undermine the emergence of something like an ANC-style Palestinian movement. To cite just one example, I note the continued imprisonment of Marwan Barghouti; there are many more examples, which I am sure you and your readers can produce on your own.

    The Freedom Charter is not only about equal rights and visions of justice. The last line of the Freedom Charter practically erupts from the page in bold, all capitalized, red ink:

    “These freedoms we will fight for, side by side, throughout our lives, until we have won our liberty.”

    It is difficult to imagine Israelis being able to identify with this sentiment in the context of Palestinian resistance. There is much the Palestinians can do to overcome that paralyzing blindness. But as Israelis and Americans, there is much we can do to encourage a liberation movement like the ANC in occupied Palestine.

    The first step would surely not be highlighting to the new US administration Palestinian violence as an argument against what I argue is the most fair and reasonable peace concept of all: secular democracy for all peoples who now live in Israel/Palestine.

  4. George,

    An interesting idea. It is relatively cost free on the big ideological divide, but, if somehow implemented, creates new ties and therefore the possibility of unforseen new action. It would be realatively cheap, in this giant world. But how to implement without having Israel look like a patrilineal patron? Would third parties have to do the teaching, free to students? It would also mean having to open Gaza to educators (some Israelis and Gazans would not like this). If education was tied to job development, needed skills, often of a manufacturing bent, Hamas, some of Hamas, might be willing to try.

    It is not my country. Sometimes I feel like a condescending busybody. Maybe I should feel that way more often. I do know I have, for some reason, cared about Israel since my teens. And, also for some unknown reason, I feel local ties are as important as big decisions. Maybe because I will never be part of big decisions.

  5. Going with Yaniv here, and kudos to Gershom for beating me to the punch so articulately. I’ve been meaning to write to Senator Mitchell myself for a few days now, and include in my plea a link to my blog post regarding Israelis visiting Northern Ireland to see for themselves the fruits of peace: I’m also one of the few who still believe there might be something to the single-state solution, the strongest advantage to which is that no one has to leave their homes, forcibly or otherwise, since we saw the fallout therefrom:

    Regarding a Freedom Charter and its possible relationship to the freeing of Marwan Barghouti, I’m all there, in addition to which I still say half-jokingly that there’s still one element still missing from the Palestinian liberation movement: Unlike the struggle against apartheid helped along by Reggae and African music, they still haven’t given us a HIT SONG!

  6. The key idea is “You and your boss have little time to create a new dynamic.” First, time is short. Second, the job is to work a change (as one works iron to make wrought-iron).

    The central impediment to creating a viable Palestinian state is the so-called “facts on the ground” which Israeli hard-liners present as non-negotiable. these are the wall, the settlers, and the taking of water.

    If Sen. Mitchell can take steps to DEMONSTRATE that these “facts” are reversible — by reversing them — then life will be breathed into the search for the two states. And not otherwise.

    How can Mr. Mitchell do this? By returning the US to a long-abandoned way of thinking, namely, that the Rule of Law is serviceable and can be (and here should be) made to work.

    The wall and the settlers are present illegally and the taking of Palestinian water is arguably illegal as well. The US can, in principle, demand, today, that Israel remove the wall and the settlers and stop taking the water. He could find a large American support for such a change in US policy.

    He would explain that international law does not permit an occupier to build this wall and move these settlers into occupied territory, nor to take the water of the people living under occupation, when neither the wall nor the settlers nor the water-taking are militarily necessary [the wall can be rebuilt behind the green-line].

    He would explain that in building the wall and settling the settlers, Israel has (illegally) been taking what would legally be available ONLY after a peace was signed. Having taken what it wanted, Israel had no reason to negotiate for peace. And didn’t.

    This would be costly to Israel but in no way unfair, since the international law has been well understood, especially as to settlers, since 1967. If the US has given Israel a “green light” on the settlements, then (and only then) it should, perhaps, help defray the costs of resettlement of the settlers behind the green-line.

    Until today, the US has been unwilling to involve itself, to use its own muscle, to help resolve this long-standing conflict. “Let them beat themselves to death” is the US’s apparent guidance, under presidents of both parties.

    If the US is willing to use its muscle for the very slightly interfering purpose of enforcing the law of belligerent occupation, it may then safely leave the business of negotiation to the parties.

    If the US is not willing to involve itself, then war-without-end and oppression-without-end seem inevitable, for both Israel and Hamas (and perhaps even the PLO or Fateh) will find that Quaker-like or Gandhi-like pacifism will not avail against an opponent like Israel which has lusted for the land of Palestine without its people since before the Balfour declaration and has shown neither inclination nor the political power to adopt any other policy,

  7. I know much of the so-called “peace camp” is in despair, people like Yossi Sarid are writing that “Obama is the last chance to get us out of this mess”, etc, etc, but people who don’t look beyond the immediate headlines don’t really see what is going on. For Sarid and others, the “solution” to the Arab-Israel conflict is a signed agreement that would presumably “end the conflict” and would end the demands of one side on the other. The problem is that such an agreement is not achievable. The Arabs will never agree to a peace agreement on those lines because the do not accept Israel’s right to exist within ANY borders. Thus, the problem is not “ending the occupation (of Judea/Samaria)” because that would not end the conflict, it would only exascerbate it. Withdrawals, as we saw with the implementation of Oslo in the 1990’s and the destruction of Gush Katif in 2005 merely INCREASED the violence and hatred.

    It is time to step back and see the whole picture. The Arabs are fighting a long-term war of attrition against Israel which they WRONGLY think they are winning. That is how HAMAS is able to subject their own population to seemingly endless hardship….they say “we suffer today, but tomorrow (actually, they say within 20 years) we will win and not only will the blockade on Gaza end, but you refugees will return to Haifa, Jaffa, Beersheva, Ashqelon, Ashdod, etc.—see how big Israeli ‘heroes’ like Ariel Sharon and Barak simply run away from us-they fear us”. Again, this is what they say, but it is not the true reality. The reality is that Israel is constantly getting stronger and more powerful compared to the Arab countries. Israel is developing economically and socially, whereas the Arabs are stuck in stagnation and going backwards in many respects as a repressive Islamist social agenda is slowly being imposed throughout the Arab world, even in nominally “secular” countries like Egypt and Syria.

    Thus, the key to overcoming the current conflict is Jewish “tsumud” (an Arabic word meaning something like “persistence”)….that is, Israel much STOP offering territorial concessions while offering economic advantages when and if the security situation improves. This will take years, but once the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians see that radical Islam is a dead-end socially and politically (and this has not happened yet, but definitely will occur, just as Nasserist pan-Arabism also collapsed in spite of being popular for a time), then the Arabs will realize the “long-term war of attrition” I described above is hurting them much more than Israel. This will lead to an improvement in the security situation which will lead to relaxation in things like roadblocks and freedom of movement to a situation like there was before the Oslo disaster was imposed here by the Israeli Left (Peres, Rabin, Beilin and the rest) in which Palestinians moved freely around Judea/Samaria and Gaza. Of course, this will be an INFORMAL modus-vivendi, the Arabs can not de-jure recognize Israel’s right to exist but it is inevitable. It is time the Arabs stop being pressed to do what they can’t do…sign phony “peace agreements” with Israel that everyone knows can not be honored (e.g. Egypt).

    When Israel was created in 1948, it was clear there would be war, but this did not deter Ben-Gurion and the others of that generation…there was a war and yet Israel held on an in fact absorbed millions of olim, many of whom were practically penniless, all in spite of the ongoing tension with Israel’s Arab neighbors. The same is happening today…Israel will continue to grow and prosper, even without formal peace agreements. It is all a matter of faith.

  8. President Truman’s Secretary fo State, Marshall (whose name is attached to the rather US economy friendly Marshal Plan for rebuilding Germany and Europe) was against the creation of Israel, saying that support for the new State would lead to unending war with the Arabs, ultimately embedding the US in that war. Truman overroad the advice; Nazi documentation of the Holocaust is said to have influenced his decision.

    Y. Ben-David above sounds much as his Hamas enemy: it will take some time, but the others shall be vanquished.

    Choose your enemies wisely–for you shall become them.

  9. The three state solution is beginning to attain prominence-Jordan rules over the populated areas of the W Bank (as it did before 1967) and Egypt rules over Gaza (as it did before 1967). One will argue that these nations will not agree to this, but one can also argue that Israel will not give citizenship to those intent on her elimination. The two state solution never caught on because it lacked economic viability-even if Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders.

  10. Scott-
    Egypt is playing a double game with HAMAS, they oppose them and support them at the same time. They never could have come to power without Egypt’s help, yet Egypt fears them influencing the Muslim Brotherhood at home (for those who don’t understand why Egypt would carry out contradictory policies, I suggest you look at the Pakistan-Taliban-anti India terror relationship which works the same way).
    Numerous commentators have pointed out that Egypt totally opposes Israeli-Palestinian peace because they believe it would weaken Egypt, in other words, Israel would become even stronger, damaging Egyptian interests. Thus it serves Egyptian interests that there be an on-going, low-level war of attrition between Gaza and Israel. Egypt will not take any action to end this war of attrition, but on the other hand they don’t want it to get out of control.
    Thus, they have no interest whatsoever to take control of Gaza, because they have no desire to help Israel with this problem.

    The Jordanians, on the other hand, have maintained a quiet border with Israel for many years. Their problem is that they simply are too weak, they have a small population, they are dependent on international handouts and they have their own internal Palestinian problem that would only be exacerbated if they took control of Judea/Samaria. Since you are correct that the “2-state solution” was still born, for the reasons you give, (in addition to the fact that the Palestinians are not a coherent national grouping in any event) and I have shown that the “3-state” solution is also a non-starter, the only solution is for Israel to control Judea/Samaria AND Gaza. This is what will come to be, no matter how much the Israeli gov’t doesn’t want it.

  11. You seem to be saying, Benson and Ben-David, that the riffraff must be endured by somebody. Benson prefers that Egypt and Jordon must hold their noses and walk among them; Ben-David, unending occupation by Israel. I venture that riffraff is no longer an option. Turn your disgust inward: where does it alight amongst yourselves?

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