THE POLITICS OF ILLUSIONS
Alon Ben-Meir - February 5, 2008
Dr. ALON BEN-MEIR – His exceptional knowledge and insight gained by more than 25 years of direct involvement with foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, have allowed Dr. Alon Ben-Meir to offer a unique and invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international negotiations.
A noted journalist and author, Dr. Ben-Meir is the Middle East Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research, and a professor of International Relations and Middle-Eastern studies at the Center for Global Studies at NYU and at the New School. Born in Baghdad and currently residing in New York City, he holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University.
In addition to his essays on contemporary global conflict oriented issues, Dr. Ben-Meir writes a weekly syndicated column about current international policies and events, which is published by United Press International.
Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Dr. Ben-Meir began his career as a journalist. His frequent travels to the Mid-East and conversations with highly placed sources in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, and Palestine provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness of and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news.
Dr. Ben-Meir is the author of numerous books, including: The Middle East: Imperative and Choices, Israel: The Challenge of the Fourth Decade, In Defiance of Time, Framework for Arab-Israeli Peace, The Last Option, and A War We Must Win. He expects to publish his latest book Defeating Terrorism in the summer of 2006.
Dr. Ben-Meir's views on contemporary international affairs are often sought out by major television and radio networks, and he is a frequent speaker before groups and organizations at venues as varied as world affairs councils and town hall meetings. He is a popular lecturer on international relations at a variety of universities besides the New York University and the New School.
I have just returned from an extended trip to the Middle East, hoping that I
would come back feeling recharged by the progress made in the
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, especially in the wake of the Annapolis peace
conference. To my dismay, not in Israel or in Jordan or in talking to
Palestinian and Egyptian officials, have I felt or seen much optimism. Those who
still believe that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is possible by the end
of 2008--President Bush’s stated desire--are few and far between.
The pervasive sense of resignation does not stem from a lack of strong yearning
for peace by either side. It mostly seems to come from the recognition that
political conditions in Israel and in the Palestinian territories are not ripe
for the transformative concessions needed to make a peace agreement possible.
And the lamentable fact, as many throughout the political spectrum repeat, is
that there is no decisive, visionary leadership that could change the political
dynamic to engender public support for a new and credible narrative for peace.
In Israel, although the final Winograd report does not appear to be as damning
to Prime Minister Olmert as feared, and thus he may hold on to power, he remains
handcuffed by his coalition partners who do not see eye-to-eye with him on how
to further the peace process. The ultra orthodox Shas party has threatened to
leave the government if Jerusalem is put on the negotiating table, and Olmert
has already conceded on this issue. The Labor party, led by Defense Minister
Ehud Barak, still hopes for early elections, but at a time of his choosing, to
unseat Mr. Olmert; in the interim Barak pursues defense policies that often are
at odds with those of his prime minister. And Tzipi Livni, Israel’s
Foreign Minister, is marking time. Although she called for Olmert to resign
after the publication of the initial Winograd’s report, she currently
supports him. Convinced that she alone carries the mantra of Prime Minster
Ariel Sharon she will miss no opportunity to assume the leadership of Kadima.
The Israeli public is as divided as its government. The people charge their
leaders with being self-absorbed, concerned more with their personal interest
than with the affairs of the state. The opposition party, led by Natanyahu, who
is leading in the national polls, accuses the government of selling
Israel’s national security down the river and is lying in wait to capture
the premiership once new elections are held. To be sure, although a consistent
majority of Israelis (nearly 70 percent) accept the idea of a two-state
solution, there is no national consensus on to how to proceed and what
concessions must be made to achieve this goal.
The Palestinian side is not faring much better. Mahmoud Abbas appears weak not
only in the eyes of Israelis but to most Palestinians, regardless of their
political leanings. The continuing violent conflict between the Fatah faction,
which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, does not seem
likely to abate any time soon. While Fatah seeks quick progress in the
negotiations with Israel to demonstrate that moderation pays, the Kassam rockets
launched against Israel from Gaza under the watchful eyes of Hamas are designed
not simply to demoralize the Israelis, but specifically to undermine any
progress in the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas. And while Hamas and Fatah
are fighting, ordinary Palestinians, especially in Gaza, continue to bear the
brunt of Israel’s closure of the border crossing in retaliation for the
Kassam attacks. Out of desperation and partly orchestrated by Hamas, Gazans
blasted the Rafah border crossing with Egypt to demonstrate their plight, and
hundreds of thousands of Palestinians marched into Egyptian territories to buy
basic necessities, to the chagrin of the Egyptian authorities. Most Israelis do
not believe that the Palestinian Authority, as led by Abbas, is capable of
delivering on promises made. They cite the intense and often violent conflict
between Hamas and Fatah that makes it nearly impossible to reach a workable
agreement with Fatah if Hamas does not accept or at a minimum acquiesce to it.
Egypt, which has been serving as a go-between for Israel and Hamas, has found
itself caught between the rock and the hard place. Egyptian authorities have
been struggling to find a peaceful solution to the border crisis without
violence that could, if left unchecked, result in the death of many
Palestinians—an outcome that would play into the hands of the Muslim
Brotherhood, which is closely affiliated with Hamas--and potentially ignite
tremendous unrest in Egypt. As one high Egyptian official explained to me:
“We are not looking to please either the Israelis or Hamas or the
Palestinian authority . . . we do not want the Palestinian people to suffer but
at the same token we will not allow our territory to be violated by
anyone.” As, however, the search for a permanent solution to the border
crisis between Egypt and Gaza continues, it appears that Egypt is, against its
intentions, being drawn ever closer into the internal and external affairs of
Gaza. For reasons of their own, both Israel and Hamas seem to favor such a
development. Although the Egyptian authorities reject, on the face of it, deeper
involvement in Gaza, they also know the importance of controlling Hamas and of
preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from sowing the seeds of political instability
via Hamas throughout Egypt.
Finally, the Bush administration, which is pressed for time to show some
progress, continues to exert pressure on Olmert and Abbas to make meaningful
concessions. But while they are paying some lip service to Washington, both
Israelis and Palestinians are looking to 2009, when a new American
administration takes over, to reassess their situations. The sad thing is that
every one talks about peace but then everyone sees peace from their narrow and
often lost perspective.